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DEVELOPMENT-UGANDA: A Dam That Activists Simply Can’t Make Peace With

Peter Wamboga Mugirya* - IPS/IFEJ

KAMPALA, Jul 31 2007 (IPS) - As preparations for construction of the Bujagali dam on the Nile River in Uganda gain momentum, a local civil society coalition is calling on the World Bank and the African Development Bank (AfDB) to reconsider their decision to release funds for this hydro-electric project – which the World Bank estimates will cost 799 million dollars.

Lake Victoria, which environmentalists fear may be harmed by hydro-power plans. Credit: NASA

Lake Victoria, which environmentalists fear may be harmed by hydro-power plans. Credit: NASA

While the World Bank and AfDB are the main financiers of the dam, the German Bank for Development and the European Investment bank are also helping to fund the initiative.

The Uganda Dams Development Forum, which groups ten organisations, is in part concerned that studies done by the contractor, Bujagali Energy Limited (BEL), do not give a full picture of the environmental and social consequences of construction – and that these may be negative for Lake Victoria.

Bujagali is to be located at a waterfall of the same name, downstream of two existing dams, Nalubaale and Kiira. As IPS has reported previously, these two dams are known to bear partial responsibility for the declining water levels in Victoria – the largest tropical lake in the world. The last three to five years have seen these levels drop to their lowest in decades (See: ‘FINANCE: Activists Decry Bank’s Loan Approval for Uganda Dam’).

“BEL’s assessment does not address the overall issue of Lake Victoria’s long-term health. The issue of cumulative impacts by building a cascade of dams along the River Nile, an issue highlighted as significant, deserves greater attention…” said Frank Muramuzi, leader of the Uganda Dams Development Forum, and also executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists.

“We’re citing the hydrological concerns, economic viability of such a high-cost project and its social-environmental issues that have been ignored, while the dam construction preparations are in high gear.”

Muramuzi said claims about the potentially negative effects of the dam had been forwarded to the World Bank and AfDB. Both institutions had sent inspection missions to Uganda to look into activists’ concerns, he noted.

Fears have been expressed that the high cost of Bujagali will be passed on to the consumer, making the electricity that the dam generates unaffordable for most Ugandans. According to World Bank and finance ministry figures, over 70 percent of Ugandans live on less than a dollar day.

Just one percent of people in rural areas have access to electricity, according to the Rural Electrification Agency in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development – even though these regions are home to about 85 percent of Ugandans. A rural electrification project is underway countrywide, however.

Activists further claim that the cost of the project has jumped to 860 million dollars. While this alleged increase could not be verified with government or BEL, certain sources in the energy ministry said recent hikes in world market prices of oil, cement, steel and iron products, lime and consultancy services had led a higher cost for the project.

In addition, civil society groups say the rate of forest depletion in Uganda threatens the viability of hydro-electric dams, on which the country heavily relies for electricity. In addition to Bujagali, government plans to build another three dams.

The Kiira and Nalubaale are already performing poorly, in part because of low water levels that are inadequate for power generation. This has brought about a severe electricity crunch in the East African nation.

Muramuzi told IPS that civil society’s success in lobbying government to abandon plans for opening part of Mabira – one of the country’s largest rainforests – to sugarcane cultivation had emboldened conservation activists in other endeavours. These include the campaign against Bujagali.

The drive against degazettement of 7,100 hectares in this protected area took place earlier in the year, with civic groups arguing that cultivation would have a negative effect on water levels in the Nile and Lake Victoria. The 30,000 hectare forest is situated next to the lake.

This was despite Water and Environment Minister Maria Mutagamba saying that the Mehta Group, which hoped to cultivate the sugarcane, would refrain from developing areas especially near the Nile or Lake Victoria in a bid to preserve them – and also plant trees in parts of the land that were not suitable for sugarcane farming.

The state-run National Environment Management Authority and the National Forestry Authority had also vetoed the degazettement of land in Mabira, arguing that the forest was home to many species of plants and animals that would be threatened by rezoning.

On Apr. 12, five people died in Uganda’s capital – Kampala – when a demonstration against the proposed change turned violent.

“(The) Mabira campaign is an eye-opener to the investors and the government that the environment is dear to the people of Uganda and they can only want green investments,” noted Achilles Byaruhanga of NatureUganda – a non-governmental group – in the group’s official publication, ‘The Naturalist’.

However, he also fears that government’s retreat over Mabira might have been prompted by a desire to avoid adverse publicity ahead of the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala – and that the matter may be raised again in future.

“I believe after CHOGM (ends) in November, 2007, the matter of (the) Mabira giveaway may be revisited, this time with more severe vengeance than it was in April,” warned Byaruhanga, who argues that Uganda should exploit alternative energy sources such as solar, geo-thermal and wind power to reduce dependence on hydro-power.

* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service – and IFEJ, the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.

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