The Volta Basin: From friction to cooperation

By Hamidou Traore

8 Sep 2022 by The Water Diplomat
The Hague

In view of the strategic challenges concentrated in the Volta basin, particularly for Burkina Faso and Ghana, this transboundary river is currently the subject of intense cooperation between the two countries, which, in the past, were at loggerheads. However, in the face of the global climate crisis leading to the reduction of the quantity of water in the Volta River Basin, with a series of attacks and a rapidly growing population on both sides, can we remain optimistic a conflict is no longer possible between two neighboring countries which intend to boost their socio-economic development?


The Volta Basin is one of the most important transboundary river basins in West Africa, if not on the African continent. It is the ninth largest African river by length but ranks second in volume at the continental level, with an average flow estimated at 390 billion m3 per year, just after the Congo River (or Zaire). Covering an area of ​​400,000 km², the Volta Basin is divided between six West African states: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali and Togo. Its catchment area is very unevenly distributed among these states: Burkina Faso occupies 42.65% of its area, Ghana 40.18%, Togo 6.40%, Benin 4.10%, Mali 3.69% and Ivory Coast 2.99%. Thus, Burkina Faso and Ghana are therefore the two States which command the largest shares of the Volta Basin.


Strategic issues in Burkina and Ghana, sources of conflict

This imposing river is steeped in strategic issues for Burkina Faso and Ghana. Since the beginning of the 1990s, these two countries have been engaged in a competition which has repeatedly taken the form of latent conflicts, which even at times threatened to degenerate into armed conflict. What were the reasons for this? The two countries have constructed important aspects of their development strategy on this river. One the one hand, Ghana has built its entire hydroelectric strategy there. After gaining independence, Ghana opted for a development process based on the mining and industrial sector, which heavily involved the Volta Basin. To ensure the country's supply of hydroelectric energy, Ghana constructed the Akosombo dam (from 1961 to 1964), one of the largest artificial lakes in the world-, covering an area of ​​8,500 km², with a volume of 148 km3 when its reservoir is at its maximum level.


On the other hand, Burkina Faso has based not only its entire agricultural strategy on the waters of the Volta, but also relies on it as a source for much of its drinking water, encompassing the country’s most important towns and cities, i.e. Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, Dédougou, Gaoua, Kaya, Koudougou , Ouahigouya, Tenkodogo and Yako. A total of 600 water reservoirs have been built in the Volta Basin, with some large dams such as Kompienga (2050.106m3), Bagré 1700.106m3) and Ziga (200.106m). In view of these strategic issues for these two countries, Professor of Environmental Law at Thomas Sankara University, Amidou Garané, points out that the Volta Basin is "marked by numerous conflicts related to shared water resources".


The Volta Basin, a textbook case in hydro-diplomacy

Alongside the existence of a consultation framework, a Volta management charter involving the six riparian countries, Burkina Faso and Ghana are organizing another bilateral framework to better iron out their differences. This is how they adopt various bilateral regulations, such as the Code of Conduct (Burkina Faso/Ghana) for the sustainable and equitable management of shared water resources in the Volta Basin; the Joint Ghana/Burkina Faso Ministerial Declaration on the development of the natural resources of the Volta Basin signed in Accra on April 13, 2004 and the Agreement on the establishment of a Joint Technical Committee on Integrated Water Resources Management (CTC-GIRE) adopted on December 6, 2005. According to Firmin Ouedraogo, expert in environmental governance legislation at the Permanent Secretariat for Integrated Water Resources Management (SP/GIRE), these agreements materialize a proven desire on the part of these two States, "pacify" their relationship after several "tensions arising from the exploitation of the Volta Basin".


The dynamic of cooperation involving the six riparian countries has been set in motion since January 19, 2007, with the signature of the Heads of State of the riparian States concerned of the Convention on the Status of the Volta River and the Establishment of Volta Basin Authority of the Volta (VBA). This Authority, whose head office is located in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, is responsible for ensuring the rational and integrated management of the resources of the basin, the safeguarding of its ecosystem and the environment. It is guided in this task by the Volta Basin Charter , which sets the principles and modalities for reasonable, equitable and sustainable use of the shared water resources of the Volta Basin. Concerning the settlement of disputes, its article 151 provides that "The States Parties agree to settle peacefully any dispute arising from the application or interpretation of the Water Charter of the Volta Basin, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the Constitutive Act of the African Union and the United Nations Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States”.