by Stu Lucy
For the best part of the tail end of the twentieth century, rich countries in various guises have lent considerable sums to leaders of African countries, elected or otherwise, in order that they ‘develop their infrastructure’. Over the years numerous heads of state have accepted these tempting offers, skimming a little off the top for themselves and their cronies, leaving the rest to fulfil some grand construction touted by politicians as intrinsic to ensuring the economic success and prosperity of their beloved country.
Home to the source of the river Nile, Uganda has had its fair share of such development projects, most commonly in the form of hydroelectric dams. Since construction of the Owen Falls dam, the first to harness the power of the mighty river built under colonial rule in 1954, numerous other power stations have been constructed with help from international lenders such as The World Bank, alongside numerous import-export banks of countries set to profit from the dam’s construction.
The remaining wildlife inhabitants will be left to fend for themselves, either drowning while attempting to make it to the riverside, with survivors then either killed by local farmers, or hunted for bushmeat.
One of these more recent hydroelectricity projects was the Bujagali dam. Built in 2011, this dam was agreed upon by the government at the time to be the last to tap into the mighty flow that travels from Lake Victoria all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Originally estimated to cost $800 million, the project skyrocketed to over $1.3 billion. The dam was a public private partnership with The Bank assisting the government of Uganda with their contribution, and the privately owned Bujagali Energy Limited, comprised of the Aga Khan fund for Economic Development and US investment firm The Blackstone Group, footing the remainder of the bill. Crucially, a key conditionality of The Bank loan was to ensure a stretch of river in the Kalagala region remained untouched, and its wildlife preserved and protected. The Ugandan government agreed, and the dam completed, boosting Uganda’s annual energy production level by 250MW.
All seemed well following the completion of the dam and accompanying power station, assuming, that is, you exclude the accusations of corruption, bribery, inhumane working conditions, forced displacement of people and destruction of a wide array of flora and fauna that are mandatory accompaniments to such projects in this part of the world. This all changed, however, in 2015 when the government announced that two new dams would be built in Uganda with one, the Isimba dam, not far from the recently completed Bujagali dam. Financed by the Chinese import-export bank and completed by Chinese state-owned construction companies, this new dam threatens to trample all over any previous arrangement agreed by The World Bank and the Ugandan government, and is set to intensify the environmental destruction caused by these vast development initiatives.
Now, Uganda’s electricity consumption stands at around 600MW per year. Before the Isimba dam is completed the country will have a supply well in excess of this figure; 927MW to be precise. Evidently there is no need for this dam, and in fact the Ugandan government has recently secured an additional loan of $212 million to increase the development of the national grid system in order that more of the rurally dwelling population (the majority of the country) can gain access to the abundance of energy these dams provide. In 2012 the government decided that the $200 million used to subsidise energy tariffs in the country, making energy more affordable for the impoverished population, would be better spent on constructing the Isimba dam making it even more difficult for the average Ugandan to gain access to a regular energy supply.
It gets worse. Kalagala, the protected area agreed upon in the financing of the Bujagali dam is set to be submerged by the flooding caused by the construction of the new project. As we speak, the Hairy Lemon, an island retreat frequented by thrill seeking kayakers and nature lovers alike, is being deforested by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority and private contracting firms. The remaining wildlife inhabitants will be left to fend for themselves, either drowning while attempting to make it to the riverside, with survivors then either killed by local farmers, or hunted for bushmeat. Huge stretches of the riverside are set to be submerged, destroying vast areas of rich biodiversity. As with the Bujagali dam before it, scores of people have been violently removed from their land and offered a tiny fraction of its value with which to start a new life wherever they are lucky enough to find the opportunity to do so. There have been numerous strikes over working conditions with many workers reportedly injured on site and offered little recompense or even medical attention. Finally, Jinja, the town perched over the source of the Nile and the Owen Falls dam, is going to change drastically as a consequence of Isimba. The tourism industry and the service sector that has been built up around it, not to mention the locals whose livelihoods are dependent on the river and its banks in some way, shall all suffer significantly as a result of the increased water levels and submerged rapids the new dam will ensure.
Yet again the Ugandan government has cashed in on one of the country’s greatest natural resources at the expense of the wildlife and local people that populate and benefit from the area.
Yet again the Ugandan government has cashed in on one of the country’s greatest natural resources at the expense of the wildlife and local people that populate and benefit from the area. The country is swimming in renewable energy but unable to connect the people that need it with the abundant supply. Rather than subsidise tariffs and invest in grid delivery systems, connectivity came as an afterthought to a white elephant that primarily benefits, as they always do, the questionable politicians in charge of authorisation and the creditor countries that supply the capital to make it happen. Ignoring previous deals based on conservation, it seems the Ugandan government has very little to justify this egregious act of environmental destruction new dam brings. While conservationists, locals and kayakers alike all hope this is the last dam to dissect this great natural wonder, sadly the cynic/realist in me knows that I’ll probably be writing a similar story to this in a few years’ time, whether in regards to Uganda or another Sub-Saharan African country unlucky enough to have a powerful river running through it.
Featured image via Isimba Dam
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