Emily Kennedy, whitewater rafting on Nile in Uganda

Emily Kennedy: An illegal dam may kill tourism in Jinja, Uganda

Tucked away on the outskirts of Jinja, Uganda is Itanda Falls. This section of the River Nile is home to a Category 6 rapid so energetic, local rafting companies have to walk clients around it, to ensure their safety. The flow of water is already controlled by two hydroelectric dams – one found in Jinja town known as Owen Falls Dam, or more recently Nalubaale Dam, the other upstream in the former home of Bujagali Falls. That it is ‘former’ is in itself quite impressive – that aside from the natural flows of the river and rainfall, human action directly impacts the strength of the river in a way that can actually be observed. But this isn’t the only impact of note of late.

The government of Uganda has signed a contract to build a third hydro-dam, that would not only cease the flow of Itanda Falls, but put an end to one of the country’s biggest tourism draws – whitewater rafting along the Nile. The argument for the Isimba Dam project is underscored by buzz suggesting the new station will lead to higher energy generation, which should reduce costs of electricity and instances of blackout periods. But the truth is, Uganda already produces enough energy to cover its needs. Most of the power generated from these large-scale projects is sold to neighbouring countries.

Perhaps a bit of background is in order. In 2007, approximately 44km upstream from the site of Isimba Dam, construction began on what is now known as Bujagali Dam. Prior to construction, the site was home to Bujagali Falls. This is also the area many of the local rafting trips used to start from. But this is no longer the case. While the camps are still operational, the thirst for business from anyone outside of the confines of these camps can be felt on arrival. Perhaps equally disheartening is seeing the physical transformation that has resulted from this project. What used to be a flowing river, with powerful rapids and an impressive waterfall, is now the calm, picturesque area known as Lake Bujagali. While the tranquility of the scenery may not seem so bad, what was lost in exchange simply does not balance.

One of the conditions for the construction of Bujagali Dam was the Bujagali Indemnity Agreement – a legal document signed by the Ugandan government, the World Bank and the International Development Association. The agreement was also signed in 2007. It was created as a means of assuring locals that certain standards would be upheld. These standards included environmental and cultural protections, and concern for tourism and the rafting industry, amongst others. Most noteworthy, however, is Article 3, Section 6 of the Agreement, which states that Kalagala Falls – also known as Itanda Falls, and the site of the Isimba Dam – was to become a protected area. This was intended to ensure environmental preservation – protecting not only the tourism sector, but the area’s cultural lands as well.

This document is legally binding. Yet multiple attempts to get the World Bank to uphold the terms of Article 3 have been unsuccessful. Arthur Wasswa, an active voice for the fight against the project, and Sales and Marketing Manager at Nalubale Rafting Company shared the frustration of this process by stating, “The authorities in charge of making a difference won’t talk to us; the government won’t release the size of the reservoir yet. No one knows what’s going on, whether we are going to lose the rapids or if they will stay. All this is happening after the World Bank and the Ugandan government agreed that the remaining rapids will be conserved under the Kalagala Offset Agreement.”

There are mixed opinions as to the dam’s potential impact. While the government is arguing it will lead to improved energy generation and job creation, those in the affected areas are not so certain. For starters, the majority of residents affected (smallholder, or subsistence farmers) are living on what is known as customary land. This is basically land that has been passed down from generation to generation, that does not hold an official deed. Traditionally, this type of land was public, and ownership was handled at the local level – a verbal contract, if you will. Now that this project is underway, those claiming to hold customary land are excluded from all forms of compensation, as they are unable to produce the land title required. And this is not a small population. Over 2,000 farms are estimated to be directly impacted.

Additionally, the work is being done through a Chinese contract, which has been riddled with allegations of substandard construction efforts. It is one of many newly forming contracts between Uganda and China – deals that are often without substantial cost to the latter. What’s more, rumours are circulating that, in exchange for the dam contract, the Chinese have obtained the rights to fisheries and water. Although nothing official has been released, evidence of these rumours can already be seen along the Nile. Yet, once again, it is the tourism industry that is losing out. While theoretically the farmers can find land elsewhere and start over – a challenge that for many would be impossible – once the dam is constructed, rafting on the White Nile will likely cease. It will no longer be viable. This means an entire industry is wiped out, and with it the countless accommodations, food providers and secondary tourist draws – hugely impacting an area that is currently thriving, and adding to the country’s economy.

In 2014, the direct contributions from tourism were UGX 2,762.5 billion (USD $800,000), but taking into account indirect contributions, it is more like USD $1.8 million. Wasswa notes that, “When tourists come to Uganda they think of two things first; whitewater rafting on the Nile and mountain gorillas. Uganda is known for its rich heritage and most of that comes from the mighty River Nile. Nalubale Rafting has been a top player for the past 11 years now in whitewater rafting, given jobs to lots of locals and also along with other rafting companies contributed to making tourism Uganda’s biggest foreign exchange earner.” The industry is also slated to grow by nearly 10% if current offerings remain. That’s a substantial chunk of change!

The Isimba project will employ approximately 1,000 people for no more than 5 years – while threatening to end a tourism sector that has been continuously growing over the last decade, and destroying an area that is supposed to be environmentally protected. While the short-term gains sound good in theory, the long-term loss just doesn’t balance out. To put this in perspective, the Isimba Dam will be the third large-scale project in this section of the Nile. While there has been no definitive assessment of the scale of the reservoir or energy generation, the potential output from this dam is rumoured to be 180 megawatts, from an area of approximately 28km. Just upstream from this new project sits an 8km reservoir, which produces 250 megawatts. Owen Falls Dam is the original dam project on the river, and provides 350 megawatts from a mere 2km reservoir. Isimba threatens countless livelihoods and severe environmental degradation, all for what? Half of the output of a reservoir 14 times smaller, and creating a fraction of the employment opportunities. Hardly seems worth it to me.

Emily Kennedy is a writer and international development worker from Nova Scotia, Canada. Read more by Emily at The Orange Canadian.