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The politics of hydro-power stations

By Akena P’Ojok

Why Uganda should not be short of electricity

It should be a blessing for a country to have natural energy resources such as petroleum, gas, coal, water with fast running rivers and falls.

But this is not always the case; in fact the contrary may occur. This is because the discoveries of such resources attract gamblers, crooks, opportunists and hardcore killers. Where one vulture has perched the others will dive. It is not through such people that great developments and peoples governments are made. Besides, the availability of natural resources alone still leaves various complex imponderables, such as the politics in that country and region, and the politics of capital funding, to be resolved. Uganda is a case in point.

Uganda is richly endowed with water resources. With its plentiful rainfall of some 1,100mm per year, 60,000 sq. km of its total 240,000 sq. km area (25%) is open water surface. The great River Nile runs its length as it drains this tropical plateau, and in a short distance of 1,000 km it drops through 600 metres from an altitude of 1,200 metres at Lake Victoria down to 600 metres as it leaves Uganda and enters Sudan at Atiak. It discharges an enormous amount of fresh water at 125 million cubic meters per day (measured at Ripon Falls in Jinja) and that peaks at a much higher figure when it has been fed by the several tributaries and is replenished by the snow waters of Mt. Ruwenzori in Lake Albert, which occurs in about October/November, putting Uganda among one of the riches in this regard in the world. On its relentless 7,000 km. journey down north to the Sudan and Egypt to its resting place in the Mediterranean Sea, the (white) Nile provides a life-line to millions of Africans (Nilotics) who live along it.

Such plentiful water resource may be exploited for fish industry, transport and irrigation and for electricity. The potential for electricity harnessed by water-turbines and electric generators is huge.

The electricity can then be led by hefty cables and wires to long distances. Hydro-electricity, as it is sometimes called, is not only advanced, clean and environmentally friendly, but it is also more permanent, renewable and cheap; it is cheaper per unit to produce than any other form of electricity in use today. It is a secure long term investment with very high returns. It makes economic sense, if a country has the potential of hydro electricity as well as petroleum, to develop the hydro-power and use it, and sell the petroleum. But, alas, Uganda today is terribly short of electricity, which adversely affects every facet of life including the much talked about investors.

Colonial Britain developed Owen Falls Hydro Power Station (OFPS) at Jinja for its purposes; to supply electricity to an eagerly anticipated gold finds in the Busia hills, and to provide cheap electricity to the white settlers in the highlands in Uganda and the Colony of Kenya. The overall scheme consisted of the concrete dam across the Nile, the road bridge which sits on top of the dam and the power station down stream. The maximum capacity of 150 MW was to be produced by 10 generators of 15MW each and the installations were staggered to meet progressive development and demand. The first three generators came on stream in 1955 and the tenth and last in 1969.

OFPS was already steeped in various complex national and international agreements. First, the unfair, unalterable and non-negotiable Uganda/Kenya agreement in which Uganda had to supply Kenya 30 MW (20%) of its electricity at the production cost of 4 cents per unit for 50 years.

Uganda could not abrogate or even adjust the agreement and yet Uganda would be penalised on failure to supply. In other words Uganda was compensating Kenya’s energy requirements at its own detriment. Uganda had sunk in a large amount of its savings in cotton funds in this project from which it could not make any profits. There were also several very intricate financial arrangements with local and international shareholders/investors. As a result Uganda Electricity Board had to supply its own citizens at a much higher tariff than necessary; all profits went to pay dividends. Uganda had to borrow more and more money from abroad to carry out repairs and its programs of rural electrification. Despite its fortune in abundant electricity potential, Uganda has remained poorly electrified.

International Agreements with Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia and other users and interested parties in the Nile River, put Uganda under obligation to regulate the flow of the Nile such that at no time must the flow through the six sluice gates in the Dam in addition to the water that passes through the turbines be less than a certain minimum amount. (There were Egyptian hydrologists stationed at Jinja who monitored the Nile level everyday come rain or war, since the 1930s). Egypt paid for the last one metre of the dam in order that it may continue to have a say in the efficient regulation of the river flow. To avoid the encumbrances of the Buganda Agreement 1900 on land, the British ensured that the Buganda/Busoga border run on the Buganda side, so that the Nile between Victoria and Kioga lay in Busoga.

Nevertheless, Uganda’s economic development forecast was extremely hopeful and it was already foreseen (calculated) in 1965 (44 years ago) that at the rate of development at the time, East Africa and Uganda in particular would have shortage of electricity as early as 1975.

Prime Minister Dr. A. M. Obote ordered work to commence immediately to find suitable sites to build more power stations. Despite the distractions of negative colonial and local politics of the time some result was achieved.

The following sites were considered for hydro-power station development, to eventually form a cascade along the Nile; Kabalega Falls (Murchison) with an optimum capacity of 600 MW, Nile/Ayago Confluence 480MW, Karuma Falls 380 MW, Kamdini 180 MW and Bujagali 180 MW. (There was of course my own grandiose idiosyncrasy, the Kafu ‘Kafafu’ 1,200 MW. This was possible if half the Nile water was diverted to flow in and through River Kafu and let it tumble through 600 metres down the rift valley precipice to Lake Albert below). Uganda has therefore developed hardly 10% of its hydro power potential of a possible 1,600 MW on the Nile alone. A project here should be able to attract real serious and honest financiers/investors.

By far the most advanced in technology, cheap and quick to develop was the Kabalega Falls Power Station or alternately, the Nile/Ayago Confluence Power Station site. Both sites required only minimum civil engineering works without the need of a large ugly concrete dam. They were to be constructed underground so as not to interfere with the beauty and splendor of the magnificent Kabalega Falls and the fauna and flora of the Park. It would need only an invisible under water weir 5 km before the falls to divert up to 50% of the river water into four huge drilled tunnels to 4×150 MW hydro turbines. The tailraces would then deliver the used water back to the bottom of the falls. The main Kabalega Falls with its beauty and splendor would remain only slightly undisturbed. After completion of construction work, a sense of peace and security would return to the gentle elephants once more able to walk with dignity while quite oblivious to the presence of the tremendous power below their feet. The power pylons and the hefty transmission cables would obviously be visible but with disguises. Nordic consultants NorConsult completed all the feasibility preliminary designs and Yugoslav Energo-Project successfully completed geological and seismological tests of the area, and were found to be satisfactory.

On completion of the project Uganda would have been able to supply electricity to the cities of Juba, Kisangani and the mineral-rich Eastern DR Congo, Kigali, Bujumbura, and several Northern towns in Tanzania in addition to the already large demands in Kenya and Uganda itself.

Kabalega or Ayago Power Station, which could have come on stream by 1976, would have completely and fundamentally changed the political and economic map of Uganda. First of all the construction of the project would have drawn a work force of upwards of 50,000 persons, engineers, technicians, skilled and unskilled labour from all over Uganda alone who had to be accommodated outside the park, housed, fed and educated. Tertiary and auxiliary service providers of an equal number would have developed around the satellite town. Wangkwar/Olwiyo, the 4 area chosen for this purpose, which the Acoli and Banyoro would have gladly given away, would have been an instant rapidly expanding township the size of Gulu with new buildings, roads, busy and brisk business contacts round the clock. Modern houses of varying grades and hospitals would have to be built and existing ones at Anaka, Gulu, Lira and Apac and Kiryandongo, Masindi would have to be expanded three/fourfold and new ones built in Pakwach, Kamdini and Hoima. Primary Schools would mushroom up. Secondary schools and tertiary colleges would be on demand. Proper and efficient Police force and motorised and armed Game Guards to keep newly arrived poachers away would be put in place. The dying town of Masindi would spring to life. The north would be awash with professional engineers, doctors and foreign traders with lots of money to spend. It would place great demand on supply.

Commercial farmers would spring up to supply the beans, kal, sweet potatoes, fresh vegetables, chicken and eggs and meat. Businessmen in the goods trade and supply of stone aggregates and timber would have to work round the clock. The cattle in Karomoja and Teso would find a near and well paying market. The necessary infrastructures like the road Tororo-Soroti-Lira-Kamdini would have to be upgraded and tarmac-surfaced.

The Kampala/Gulu highway would have to be a dual carriageway and the Tororo-Gulu-Pakwach Railway and Railway engines would have to be upgraded to Class A to carry very heavy machinery to site.

The Ugandan Economic axis would no longer be only Tororo-Jinja-Kampala-Kasese but also a northerly Kla-Gulu-Juba and Tororo-Soroti-Lira-Gulu, making a firm and balanced industrial triangle. An enormous amount of cash, unprecedented in the history of Northern Uganda, would be in concentrated circulation and in a very short time, and this would impact on local culture and wealth, and would attract all sorts of people and economic activities.


Akena P’Ojok was minister for Power, Posts and Telecommunications in the Obote II government

Next week, in the second and last part of this article, the author describes how the World Bank and ‘cold war’ politics frustrated the initial hydro-power plans and how President Yoweri Museveni’s government has followed the same pattern.

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