Govt proposal to build a sixth power dam on the Nile kicks up storm
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Murchison Falls, one of River Nile’s remaining spectacular waterfalls tops the “bucket list” of iconic sceneries in Uganda that hundreds of thousands of tourists covet when they visit the country.
At Murchison Falls, the Nile explodes through a narrow gorge and pours billions of cubic metres of water downstream turning the white pristine water into an expansive placid river course as it flows on its journey to Sudan and farther afield to Egypt.
Unlike the furious and fast moving sections upstream the Nile, for several kilometres after the Murchison Falls, boatfuls of tourists can cruise up the Delta to see the waterfalls up close but also view hundreds of hippos, crocodiles and thousands of birds on the river’s banks.
Simply put, to local tourism operators, Murchison Falls is the sacred cow that cannot be touched.
So, it was not surprising that a notice published on June 07 by the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) about an April 25 application for a feasibility study for a 360MW hydro power plant riled the tourism operators and environmentalists. The prospective builder of the dam is South African firm, Bonang Power and Energy (Pty) Limited.
Days after the social media storm that also attracted an online petition signed by thousands of Ugandans, ERA said in a statement issued on June 12 that “it is yet to issue any licence (to Bonang Power and Energy Ltd and encourages all stakeholders to submit their comments and/or objections in writing to the Secretary to ERA within 30 days.”
“Only formal submissions are considered by the Electricity Regulatory Authority while undertaking a decision on applications for licences.”
Diana Nambi the ERA publicist added that ERA’s notice only served to inform Ugandans about Bonang’s intention to develop a hydro power project at Murchison Falls.
She said, under the Electricity Act, 1999; ERA is mandated to receive proposals from investors like Bonang Energy and Power. However, ERA can only issue a licence to a prospective firm after receiving and reviewing views from agencies such as the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the Directorate of Water Resources Management, in addition to views from the general public.
“In line with Section 31 of the Act, ERA may or may not, after the receipt of the comments under Section 30 issue a permit to the intended applicant.”
But Lilly Ajarova, the executive director of the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) called the move “madness” while Amos Wekesa, one of Uganda’s top tour operators called the proposal “nonsense.”
“First was Bujagali, then Karuma. You cannot destroy everything in one generation,” Wekesa said in reference to several water falls on River Nile that have been given to hydro electricity power developers over the last 20 years in an attempt to cure the country’s electricity deficit.
Even Evelyn Anite, the State Minister of Privatization and Investment said June 15 that the issue of Murchison Falls Dam is “very wrong.” Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga too added her voice on June 19 demanding an assurance from the government that plans of constructing the dam be halted.
The Murchison Falls or Kabalega Falls are found in the northwest of the country on the course of the River Nile and are within Uganda’s largest conservation area—the 3,893 sq km Murchison Falls National Park.
Named after Sir Roderick Murchison, the then president of the Royal Geographical Society (18511853), the park is not only famous for these stunning waterfalls but is also renowned for nurturing a diversity of rare wildlife including lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, hartebeests, the Uganda Kobs, chimpanzees, and several bird species.
The tourism sector remains one of Uganda’s leading foreign exchange earners and tourism promoters say Murchison Falls in addition to Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP) are some of the major tourist attractions in the country contributing to the high earnings.
“One of the scenic beauties that attract tourists to Uganda is the Murchison Falls,” Evarest Kayondo, the chairman of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) told journalists in a hastily arranged press conference following the ERA notice.
But the government’s unwavering need to develop all its known energy resources continues apace.
According to Uganda’s development blue print, Vision 2040, besides looking at other energy sources like geothermal with the potential to produce 1,500MW, nuclear (2,400MW) and solar (5,000MW), biomass (1,700MW) and thermal (4,300MW), the government intends to exploit the country’s hydropower potential which is estimated at 4,500MW along several rivers including the Nile.
In the June 13 budget reading for the 2019/20 financial year, Matia Kasaija said total installed generation capacity now stands at 1,200MW following the completion of several hydropower generation projects including Isimba Hydropower dam.
Going forward, Kasaija said the government will in partnership with the private sector develop in the medium to long term hydro power stations at Ayago (840MW), Oriang (392MW), Kiba (330MW) and the Uhuru (600MW) hydro power projects.
“With the rate at which we are industrializing including the increase in demand for power by the population for various uses, we plan to have more power production to avoid falling into a shortage.”
But not everyone is convinced.
Ugandans rose up in arms; especially on several social media platforms following ERA’s publication of the feasibility study notice in the government’s New Vision newspaper saying Murchison Falls cannot be left to disappear like other spectacular waterfalls did.
In the 1950s, the Rippon Falls were submerged and disappeared forever after construction of the Owen Falls Dam near the Source of the Nile was favoured by the British government.
Just 10km from the Source of the Nile in Jinja, the Bujagali Falls were suddenly flooded when the 250MW Bujagali hydro electricity power station was built in the late 1990s, killing off a water rafting industry that tourist operators say used to attract water sports enthusiasts like kayakers and rafters.
Farther upstream, still in Jinja district, another dam, the 183MW power Isimba dam was built and launched early this year. Another hydro electricity power station, the 600MW dam at Karuma, still on the Nile, is in its final stages and should be switched on later on this year.
Construction of each of these projects has been met with public outcry citing loss of tourism revenue and cultural sentiment but the government has always pressed on arguing that the country needs to have enough electricity in order to attract industrialists.