Ugandans who benefit from the rafting and tourism industry nearly lost their livelihoods in 2011 when the Bujagali Hydroelectric Project was completed, burying half of the Nile’s famous rapids in its reservoir. Fortunately, the companies were able to relocate downstream and continue their businesses. Following the construction and a public uproar from the local people, in 2007 the Ugandan Government signed a non-development agreement with the IDA/World Bank called the Kalagala Offset Indemnity Agreement to protect the area for its cultural significance and tourism value.

Despite the agreement, the World Bank and its affiliates were quiet as the Ugandan government accepted a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China and contracted China International Water and Electric Corporation to build the Isimba Power Station. Three dam heights were proposed; the largest, which would generate an estimated 183 MW will create a devastating reservoir to the people and economy of the Victoria Nile. The smallest, which would generate an estimated 170 MW–only 13 MW less–would spare most of the rapids and homes in its path.

While there is no denying the need for more power generation in Uganda, the Isimba Dam discussion bypasses the compromise that the local people are striving for.

THE BACKGROUND

Uganda is pushing hard to develop from one of the world’s poorest countries into a middle income country. As of 2014, 85% of Ugandans lack a connection to the electrical grid in a country of 37.78 million. A key aspect of country development is power generation.

Uganda is helped in their development by a division of the World Bank called the International Development Association (IDA), which provides grants and interest-free loans (called credits) to the world’s poorest countries. As part of their program to provide a majority of Ugandans with affordable power, the Ugandan government has devised a hydropower scheme with at least 5 large scale dam/hydropower locations. There are several major hydro projects already completed. Along the White Nile River, one hydro project became fully operational in 2012: the Bujagali Dam. This dam produces 250 megawatts and created an 8km reservior. The Bujagali Dam reservoir covered a series of large white water rapids of international fame and which were considered one of Uganda’s major tourism attractions.

Local business who were impacted by the loss in tourism and the Ugandans who viewed the lost rapids and waterfalls as a loss of a culturally significant area protested the project. As a response, the Ugandan government worked with the IDA/World bank to create an agreement known as the Kalagala Offset Indemnity Agreement. Importantly, this agreement clearly defines an area of river downstream of the Bujagali dam as protected from flooding from future hydro projects.

Specifically, section 3.06 of the Indemnity Agreement states that:

“the Government of Uganda “shall set aside the Kalagala Falls Site exclusively to protect its natural habitat and environmental and spiritual values in conformity with sound social and environmental standards acceptable to the Association. Any tourism development at the Kalagala Falls Site will be carried out only in a manner acceptable to the Association and in accordance with the aforementioned standards. Uganda also agrees that it will not develop power generation that could adversely affect the ability to maintain the above-stated protection at the Kalagala Falls Site without the prior agreement of the Association. In addition, GOU undertakes to conserve through a sustainable management program and budget mutually agreed by the Government and the Association (no later than expiration of the prevailing sustainable management program or such later date as the Association may agree), the present ecosystem of the Mabira Central Forest Reserve, as well as the Kalagala Central Forest Reserve and the Nile Bank Central Forest Reserve on the banks of Kalagala Falls (as such Reserves are included within the Kalagala Falls Site).”

With little consultation to people in the area, a new hydro project began to be constructed in 2013 known as the Isimba Hydropower Project (HPP). In the initial stages of the engineering, there were three heights to the dam wall with three corresponding reservoir sizes suggested. The smallest of the dam walls and reservoirs would flood an area upstream of the dam but finish before reaching the river area protected by the Indemnity agreement. The two larger dam walls and reservoirs would flood a large area of river under the protection of the agreement. The government argued that the Isimba Dam built to the largest power generating scale would be expected to generate 1,039GWh of electricity a year and increase the country’s total electric capacity by 23%. Considered to be the fourth biggest hydropower project in Uganda, the Isimba HPP is expected to generate hydroelectric power at 68 cents per kWh, the lowest in East Africa. However, it would mean breaking the agreement of protecting the Kalagala river area and flooding the majority of the remaining rapids on the river. After accepting a loan of $485.2 million from the The Export–Import (EXIM) Bank of China, construction was rapidly begun on the Isimba Dam project with an expectation the wall would be built to the highest specifications.

The breaking of the Kalagala Indemnity Agreement has significant consequences for the people of the area. The river to be flooded has the last remaining rapids of international acclaim in Uganda; rapids which draw large numbers of tourists every year. An estimated 50,000 people participate in adventure activities each year around Jinja, many of them engaging in some kind of ecotourism or adventure tourism within the river area under the protection of the Indemnity Agreement. Tourism is a large part of the Ugandan economy, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council 2014 Uganda Economic Impact Report, tourism was responsible for 3.3% of the country’s GDP. A loss of tourism business in the Jinja/Kalgala area will affect both primary and secondary business, as well as a projected drop in tourism across the country as visitors.

The flood plane of the Isimba HPP at its largest scale would also significantly affect the area in other ways. It would displace over 2,000 Ugandans who are primarily subsistence farmers. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of Ugandans who live around the project are and downstream rely on the river for their drinking and washing. Large dam reservoirs, in this instance 28km of reservoir, are known for impacting the water quality of the river and can increase the propagation of water borne diseases, furthering the diseases crippling Uganda’s growth.

 

WHAT CAN BE DONE

It would be unfair to say that all dams are inherently bad. Power is important for commerce and development. However, Isimba falls into the bad dam category due to its low generation capacity and its disproportionately large reservoir. The dam is situated in a flat river plain, creating no natural barrier for the reservoir water to be contained. This creates a large, shallow reservoir, to provide enough potential energy to create electricity. Additionally, the dam’s reservoir vastly increases in square kilometers as the dam rises a mere meters. This is however, the silver lining.

The Ugandan government has proposed three dam heights: 1043m above sea level, 1048m, and 1055m. These three heights will create different amounts of electricity, but vastly different sized reservoirs, the highest being the most damaging. 

In our advocacy, all we are asking is for the World Bank to make the Ugandan government and Chinese developers compromise with the people of Uganda to reduce the dam’s height to a reasonable level that would protect jobs in the tourism industry, and homes within the floodplain. 

Though the World Bank is not directly involved in the Isimba HPP, not only are they one of the few geopolitical entities that have the power to make change, but also the responsibility to uphold their promises to the Ugandan people. Please join us in asking the World Bank to uphold their promise by submitting the petition below, and help us spread the word.