Bongo River Trees Restoration Project (TREE AID-RPS)
February 2012 to February 2017
As riverbanks in the Bongo District of Upper East Ghana have become eroded, there has been a reduction in the quality of land, the availability of water resources and a silting up of rivers. The environment is increasingly challenging for subsistence farmers because of the increased incidence of flooding, mostly in the rainy season, and the lengthening dry seasons with very occasional flash floods. This has further degraded the soil, and the loss of tree cover has made savanna forest resources scarcer. Rivers, vital to sustaining life in the area, have gradually become choked. The silt from eroded riverbanks is washing downstream into the main Vea Dam, which provides water for Bolgatanga, the regional capital of Upper East Ghana. This is drastically reducing the quality of the water across a wide area defined as part of the greater White Volta river system.
The Bongo River Trees Restoration Project, launched in January 2012, is working with 15 village communities in a 72km² project zone of Bongo District, currently home to 18,000 people. It will restore riparian tree cover along 30km of riverbank along the Agansy and the Nabakulga rivers to reduce flooding and reverse soil erosion. These trees will also improve water quality, land quality and biodiversity along the rivers, and provide income generation opportunities for local farmers. Riverbank restoration is done by creating ‘buffer zones’ on either side of the river, where land is carefully managed. These are divided into three distinct belts, with the area closest to the river becoming a protected site for enrichment planting. Beyond this is a belt to be used for controlled farming, assisted agroforestry and tree orchards. Further still will be an agricultural belt, where farmers will receive training and support in sustainable agricultural practices that conserve soil moisture and improve fertility. They will be supported to establish private woodlots and to produce fodder for their animals. Large-scale tree planting is only possible in this dry climate because of the weirs built through the project.
In 2013 and 2014, studies were carried out to identify optimal locations for the construction of weirs. In the spring and early summer of 2015, three weirs were constructed and by mid-March 2016 the fourth weirs was completed.
Project success has been dependent upon the participation, understanding and engagement of the communities and farmers involved, who are agreeing to give up scarce agricultural land at the edge of the riverbank. New income generation opportunities from nurseries, woodlots and tree products; training in improved agricultural and agroforestry techniques; and the future environmental and agricultural benefits that a restored river brings, have encouraged farmers to participate. The project will plant a total of 40,000 trees of 16 species. A further 45,000 shrubs will be planted in the buffer zone. A non-seeding vetiver grass species is also being propagated and planted out to anchor soil and prevent erosion in high risk areas.
This project is generously supported financially and technically by RPS, who, as well as funding TREE AID, are providing technical expertise to assist with erosion risk mapping, land surveying, dam engineering and biodiversity assessment.
See also: www.treeaid.org.uk
The construction process was challenging. In 40˚C heat hand-made bricks were dried in the sun. The dusty work of excavating the immense foundations for the three dams was partially begun using a mechanical digger but was substantially completed by hand using spades and shovels. Thousands of reinforcing steel rods were cut to size by hand using hacksaws. Metal bowls used to convey rocks and mixed concrete were carried back and forth balanced on their heads of countless volunteers, many of them women, and everyone worked from dawn till dusk to get the structures built before the destructive power of the rains could strike.
Despite the immense task, the three dams and associated erosion protection works were completed only just in time. The dams filled to overflowing virtually overnight when the rainy season finally broke. The La Niña weather system this year has resulted in unusually heavy rainfall in the region. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes in neighbouring Burkina Faso due to localised flooding. Yet the hand built dams downstream in Ghana held strong with only minimal damage to the aprons caused by the strong water flow. The dams have been gifted to the communities by RPS and their ongoing maintenance will pass to the local Water Resources Commission.
TREE AID’s Ghana Country Manager Andrew Dokurugu says: “The support from RPS is transformational for the landscape and the communities here. Everyone is so proud of all they have achieved, and seeing so much water held in the dams means these extremely poor families can feel more secure about the future for their children.” For local people in the Bongo region, the success of their hard work is life changing. Each dam is holding large quantities of water. The tree planting along the river banks can flourish. Crops are being irrigated and harvests look promising. The daily struggle with hunger and poverty is reduced, thanks to a more reliable source of water.
Support for the project is high, not least from the Chief of Bongo. He says: "When I was a teenager the rivers in this area were filled with water throughout the seasons. Many trees grew along the river’s edge. But the climate is changing so everything is different now. I knew the problems but I didn't know how to tackle them." Thanks to the collaboration between RPS, TREE AID and local communities the future is looking more resilient.
The RPS TREE AID project at Bongo is now approaching its final year. The funding and technical support entirely provided by RPS means the range of project activities are all set to succeed. Vetiver grass is also being raised in local nurseries and will be planted to secure the more vulnerable stretches of river banks. Trees with economic value, like teak, mahogany and tamarind, continued to be planted by villagers to further secure the soil and provide extra ways to earn income. And training in climate smart agriculture techniques will help villagers diversify and manage their crops to make best use of water and improve resilience to the impacts of climate change locally.