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Harnessing the power of the Nile Part II

[Uganda] The Owen Falls Dam is the world's largest storage dam.
The Owen Falls Dam is the world's largest storage dam (T. de Salis/UNEP)

Power for the people?

A controversial dam project on the Nile in Uganda is an example of a proposal where civil society could have, and probably should have, played a more substantive role in discussions over water resource use, Geoffrey Howard, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told IRIN recently.

Planning for the Bujagali dam project, which has been dogged by controversy over environmental issues and allegations of corruption, should have included civil society at an early stage, Howard says. "Bujagali is a classic example of a consultation not having been done early enough," Howard said.

The proposed dam at the Bujagali falls, Jinja, has been the subject of much international attention in recent months, with local and international environmental campaign groups questioning both the environmental and the economic viability of the project.

Environmentalists who took the Ugandan government to court to revoke the deals it signed with the AES Corporation, an American electricity generation company awarded the contract for the project, have argued that the dam, which was expected to produce 250 Megawatts of electricity, was not only environmentally unfriendly, but also uneconomical.

They argued that electricity produced from it would be too expensive for ordinary Ugandans, the majority of whom could not afford to pay for electricity, even at current rates. According to figures from the lobby group, the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), the power tariff rate proposed by AES under the Power Purchasing Agreement (PPA) which it signed with the government, was US $10.5 cents per kilowatt hour, as opposed to the current US $ 6.5 cents, and this figure would still be subject to a possible increase dependent on inflation.

There were also fears that the proposed dam would submerge the Bujagali falls which attracted tourists, white-water rafting enthusiasts, and also had potential for wildlife tourism.

Frank Muramuzi, a leading anti-Bujagali dam campaigner, told IRIN from Kampala the contract between the Ugandan government and the AES corporation, which outlines the government's commitments under the project, had been drawn up long before any viability assessment had been carried out.

Furthermore, the assessment, when it was finally carried out by a private company, lacked both a comprehensive economic component and a social development plan, Muramuzi told IRIN. "No one knew how much was going to be spent to resettle the people, and where," he added.

The assessment also failed to include the potential impact of the project on fisheries and tourism, Muramuzi added. "As if that was not enough, the impact assessment did not show how the new electricity plant would affect the already existing power distribution mechanism," he added.

According to Muramuzi, the two existing dams at the Owen falls electricity generation plant, situated a few kilometres upstream of the Bujagali site, had not undergone any environmental impact assessments, and so there was a need to conduct a study on the cumulative effect of the three dams.

Ancient culture under threat

Bujagali is an important cultural and spiritual site for the Basoga people, thought by many to be one of the most ancient communites in the region.

Many of the local Basoga community have had to move from their homes in order to allow the Bujagali project to progress. They have complained that their land, houses, crops and trees have been under-compensated and that they have had to resettle on sites which are much smaller and less fertile than their original lands.

Naphtali Isabiriye, one of 200,000 people that NAPE estimates have moved as a result of the Bujagali project, says he received an equivalent of US $700 from AES for his two-acre plot. He also received less money than he expected for his huts, trees, and the four-month old crops he was cultivating when he moved.

"They cheated us. They themselves determined the price of our land and property. At first we thought we got a good deal. Then they told us to sign the papers. But when the money came, it was only half. But I am one of the lucky ones. Some people didn't get anything," he told IRIN in December.

The 76-year old says the parcel of land he was able to buy using the cash he received is too small to accommodate him and his eight sons, and that there is very little land on which to grow crops. He claims his petitions to the company to pay up the rest of the agreed sum had only been met with hostility. "There is nothing else I can do now. We are very angry and unhappy. They were very good to us before, but once we signed the deal, the friendship ended."

Oweyegha Afunadula, a lecturer at Makerere university, Kampala, and a member of one of the more than 100 Basoga clans, says Bujagali has been the spiritual centre of his people, and attempts to move their sacred site could destroy the culture of his people. "There people have been united spiritually by the religious site in Bujagali. Every clan has a chief spirit which lives in the shrine. Ceremonies take place there," he told IRIN.

"They are telling us that you can command spirits to move to another site. If that happens it will no longer be a shrine. It is nonsense to say that you can move a shrine. Spirits command men, not the other way round," Afunadula said.

"It has not been an easy fight, because we are fighting international capital, which has a strange relationship with the political powers that be. And they were protecting each other," Afunadula said.

According to Len Abrams, a water expert with Water Policy International, an independent consultancy firm based in the British Virgin Islands, the Bujagali conflict presents a complex challenge of finding the balance between effective and sustainable poverty alleviation on the one hand, and conservation on the other. "I think that the issue has been clouded by the agendas of people on both sides of the discussion who are seeking to meet their own financial or ideological objectives," Abrams told IRIN.

"Poverty in Africa is the greatest threat to the environment, whilst greed and consumerism are the greatest threats to the environment in the North. The problem is often that these threats get confused when well-meaning 'northerners' advocate restricting development in Africa for reasons which make sense in the North but not in the South," he said.

The future of the Bujagali project remains unclear, following the World Bank's withdrawal and a financial crisis facing the AES corporation.

However, Sayda Bumba, Uganda's minister for energy and mineral development, told IRIN the Ugandan government was planning to continue with the Bujagali project because it had passed and been approved by environmental assessments.

"As far as the Bujagali issue is concerned, the project has been certified as environmentally acceptable. The people at the Nile Basin have not raised any objections. Neighbouring countries have not objected," Bumba told IRIN.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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