Uganda's thirst for hydropower raises fears for environment

Published : 12 Jan 2020 08:33 PM | Updated : 05 Sep 2020 11:54 AM

Along the road that takes you into Murchison Falls national park, animals once roamed freely. Narrow roads provided the perfect environment for them, so “they [didn’t] feel like they are in a foreign land”, says tour operator Everest Kayondo, report agencies. But not any more. The park’s lush forest is being uprooted and red trucks and yellow diggers stand ready to pave the road – and the way for new energy projects.

 “We used to see animals like baboons, buffaloes and even giraffes along this road, but we’ve lost them now,” says Kayondo, chairperson of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (Auto), which represents more than 250 tourism businesses in Uganda. 

The park, Uganda’s largest and most visited, is home to two waterfalls – Murchison Falls, one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world, and Uhuru (meaning freedom in Swahili) Falls, which was created by floods in 1962, the year of Uganda’s independence from British colonial rule. The area is on Unesco’s list of wetlands of international importance.

But last June, Bonang Power and Energy, a South African company, announced it had applied for a licence to build a 360MW hydro plant at Uhuru Falls – which is adjacent to Murchison Falls. It was a further blow to conservationists, already reeling from news that energy company Total E&P Uganda had been given approval to develop six oilfields in the park, to the north of Lake Albert.

Despite government assurances that the dam would not go ahead, last month the then minister of energy and mineral development, Irene Muloni, backtracked, saying the cabinet had ordered a feasibility study “in order to make a scientifically informed decision” on the impact of the proposal.

The government has ambitions to boost the country’s electricity supply over the next 20 years. It says that in order for Uganda to achieve the “desired socioeconomic transformation”, it wants to increase access to the national grid from 26% to 80%. A statement added that demand for power was growing at about 10% per year, demanding the development of renewable energy sources, including hydropower, “one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy”.

Last year the Isimba hydropower plant, 4km downstream of Simba Falls on the Nile, was commissioned, and the Karuma plant, also along the Nile, is expected to be commissioned this year. News of the proposed Uhuru dam has led to an outcry from the tourism industry, environmental groups and the public. A petition supporting the #savemurchisonfalls social media campaign has received more than 21,000 signatures.

 “The government is telling us that once they construct a dam on Uhuru Falls, Murchison Falls will not be affected,” says Benedict Ntale, a tour operator and vice-chairman of Auto. “But given the short distance between the two falls, touching either will affect the other. The source of water is the same.”

Ntale added that building a dam at Uhuru made little sense because it is a seasonal waterfall, which is mostly dry outside of the rainy seasons. The energy ministry declined the Guardian’s request for further comment on the dam proposals.

Standing in front of the picture-postcard backdrop of the falls, Akello Harriet Hope, from Climate Action Uganda, says she is concerned about the damage a dam would do to the surrounding ecosystem. “We’re asking the government to invest in other forms of energy like biogas and solar power instead,” she says.

Activists hope to persuade the government to halt the project for economic as well as environmental reasons – tourism is Uganda’s leading export earner.  “At least a third of tourists who come to Uganda visit Murchison, and the entire value chain of tourism gets something to take home – drivers, hoteliers, craftmakers,” says Kayondo.

He says that road construction close to the falls – which is on the other side of the park from the oil project – suggest that the decision to build the dam has already been made, irrespective of the feasibility study. “If these roads are purely for oil, why is there that section which branches up to the top of the falls?”