Part of the charm, and sometimes the frustration, of living and working in Uganda is that you never really know what’s going on. This applies equally to water releases from various dams on the Nile, whether you might get caught in a political rally on your way to your favorite play spot, distribution of vaccines and medicines at government health centers, the availability of fuel at gas stations, whether roads are passable after rain storms, or finding the condoms and rubber gloves you may be trying to procure along with other medicines at your local supplier. From one day to the next, everything can change 180 degrees. So it’s really not a surprise that we are now in May 2016, and, despite ongoing construction at the Isimba Dam site on the Nile River, no public announcements have been made by the government of Uganda regarding the intended size of the Isimba dam.
Why is this an issue? Well, back in 2007, during construction of the Bujagali Dam, which flooded the famous Bujagali Falls and other incredible rapids such as Total Gunga and Silverback, the World Bank and the Government of Uganda signed a protective agreement called the Kalagala Offset Agreement. This offset was put into place to protect both Itanda Falls and Kalagala Falls, and the 25 kilometers downstream of the Nile River corridor. The Kalagala Offset Agreement was made to ensure that this totally unique section of rapids and river corridor would never be destroyed by any potential future hydropower dam projects.
About a year and a half ago, information about the proposed megawatt generation, as well as anticipated areas of flooding based on different dam sizes for the project at Isimba, were available on the Internet. Recently that information has disappeared. According to the now-vanished information, the three varying heights of the dam walls showed the different megawatt generation as it corresponded to the areas of theoretical flooding of the river. All were small megawatt dams, and all appeared to be significantly smaller power generating dams than Bujagali, Karuma, and the other proposed dams to be built in Uganda. However, the information also suggested that only the smallest of the proposed dams would make it possible to preserve the entire Kalagala Offset Area.
Another wrinkle in all this comes because the government of Uganda contracted with the Chinese International Water and Electric Company not the World Bank (ironically, a company that has been blacklisted by the World Bank!) to build the Isimba Dam, as well as the Karuma Dam farther downstream at Karuma Falls. Technically, as the government of Uganda is building these dams without the World Bank, it does not have to honor the Kalagala Offset Agreement. However, the World Bank can put pressure on the government of Uganda to honor the agreement, as the World Bank has a number of other ongoing projects in Uganda.
Ever since the Ugandan presidential elections in February of this year, we have been waiting for any news about what has been agreed between the Ugandan government and the Chinese Water and Electric Company for the height of the Isimba Dam. There is talk suggesting that the smallest dam option is being built, and there are other opinions that say the opposite. Speculation about the volatility of the Chinese economy and its ability to lend the vast sums to build the dam are also circulating. Various sources have said that the dam is due to be completed by the end of 2017. This is worrying, since 2017 is right around the corner and if a large-sized dam is built, many people will be displaced and unique bio-diverse environments lost. Also, large numbers of people remain uncompensated for their land and the country at large remains in the dark (no pun intended) about what’s really going on.
What we do know is there has been no official environmental impact assessment done on the effect of the Isimba dam at the three potential dam wall heights. In January 2016, the World Bank put out a tender for an environmental impact assessment of the three potential dam wall heights and the assessment should be completed by the end of this year. No one is completely sure how much of the Nile will actually be flooded or what impact each dam wall height would have on the Kalagala Offset Agreement. Construction of the Isimba dam began secretively, with no official announcement by the Ugandan government until construction was well underway. It was not until a small article appeared in the local Ugandan newspaper The New Vision that anyone knew that construction was happening.
The whole issue is a grey area, certainly, but this may be a good thing. It means that nothing has been decided finally and that there is still time to act. As the story with the dam unfolds, several films have been released to promote awareness about the plight of the Nile and show what we can to do help save the river and protect the Kalagala Offset Area. Check out the website www.savethewhitenile.org It has all the recent films, as well as a click and go petition to the World Bank to ask them to do the right thing and press the Ugandan government to honor the Kalagala Offset Agreement.
Other positive news on the Isimba front is that locals on the Busoga side of the river, who will be affected by the dam, are very much in favor of a small Isimba dam; that is, one that would honor the Kalagala Offset Agreement. Thousands of signatures in favor of the small dam have been collected and submitted to the Ugandan Parliament. In addition, there is talk that the Chinese International Water and Electric Company is considering the Isimba dam in a benchmarking study to see how its dams affect local people and the environment. This could ultimately help ensure that Kalagala Offset Agreement is honored and that this unique and amazing stretch of river is protected for all.
The most important thing is that there is still time to act to help protect one of the World’s most remarkable rivers. If you have not already done so, please take a look at www.savethewhitenile.org link and sign the petition. Everyone’s voice counts here!
"There is still time to act to help protect one of the World’s most remarkable rivers."