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The Folly of Damming Murchison Falls

Above: Murchison Falls in Murchison Falls National Park . Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: Swara magazine Oct-Dec 2020 (East African Wild Life Society-EAWLS)

Environmental Degradation

It does not seem to matter to the Ugandan authorities that Murchison Falls is a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance.

On a visit in 2017, we enjoyed a leisurely drive to the top of the famous falls dubbed the ‘most powerful in the world’ on a murram road watching the different species of birds and mammals. En route, we met a team from the road works. It maintained it was smoothening the road. On a return visit in 2020 the road had been overly smoothened into a tarmac highway making it impossible to maintain a slow speed. And to top it, the contracted Chinese road company had cut swathes of indigenous trees that once lined the road and was home to the chimpanzees of Budongo forest, an endangered ape.

Inside Murchison Falls National Park road being cleared. Feb 2020. Copyright Rupi Mangat

I was with a family friend, an 80-year-old woman who fifty years ago had regularly camped in the park. Returning half a century later, she was shocked at the devastation in the park. Neither she nor l would ever be able to return, especially if the dam is built on Murchison.

However according to the Ugandan government after the public outcry, changed its position. It now states that it’s not damming Murchison Falls but Uhuru Falls. That is laughable because until 1962, the year of Uganda’s independence, Uhuru Falls did not even exist.

But the tarmac road, suspect many Ugandans is to facilitate oil activities and to help Bonang to do a feasibility study for the proposed dam on Murchison Falls. Bonang Power and Energy, a South African company started in 2014 according to its sketchy Facebook page (it shows no website or any other projects taken), applied for a licence in June 2019 to build a 360 MW dam at Uhuru Falls.

Murchison falls in the National Park in 2017. Uhuru Falls is separated by a tiny islet. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The little-known Uhuru that lies in the shadows of its more famous neighbour, came into existence after the heavy rains when the magnificent Nile burst its banks. The 6,500 kilometre long river is the world’s longest and one of the most charismatic whose source was unknown until 1858. The flooded river had literally carved out a separate passage a few feet from Murchison Falls. Arial shots show this phenomena.

Chimpanzee early morning on tree in Kinyara Sugar plantation 40 kms from Masindi copyright Rupi Mangat

The Road – from murram to tar

The tarmac road to the top of the falls in Murchison Falls National PARK in 2020. copyright Rupi Mangat

“We have written to the National Environment Managment Authority (NEMA) and the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) for a copy of the Environmental Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) to inform us whether the road is part of the oil roads,” tells Dickens Kamugisha,the current CEO of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO). “They however have ignored us. Total the oil company maintains that it’s not part of the oil roads and it is not party to it.” Uganda has the approved energy company Total E&P to develop six oilfields in the park.

The same stretch of road to the top of the falls in 2017. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“So, for now, we do not have any ESIA for the road to see the possible risks,” states Kamugisha who is also an advocate of the High Court of Uganda and holds a Master of Law degree majoring in Energy Governance from Makerere University. He regularly writes on oil and electricity governance.

“This is the beginning of the curse that will greatly damage biodiversity and nobody will take responsibility for it in years to come,” laments Kamugisha. 

Timeline

In 2019, the Ugandan government announced its plans to provide power to its citizens by damming Murchison Falls. A public outcry made the government revise its plans to announce that it was not damming the magnificent Murchison Falls but the less-known Uhuru Falls.

This led to another public protest by tourism operators, green activists and local communities.

“The Uganda Women’s Birders is not happy about the dam issue,” stated Lilian Kamusilime, a member of the group who also operates as a tour operator specializing in birding safaris. “Since the road works started many species of birds have disappeared like the three species that were always there to welcome guests to Murchison Falls like the Black and white casqued hornbill, the majestic Abyssinian hornbill and the elegant Saddle-bill stork (the Saddle-bill stork has the same colours as Uganda’s national colours – red black and yellow.”

Saddle-billed stork on cover of Swara magazine. It has the colours of the Uganda national flag.

In recent years, African governments have been hell-bent into generating power to fast track their Vision 2030 or Vision 2040 development plans. And it’s mostly at the expense of the environment. The Ugandan government wants to boost the country’s electricity supply to the national grid from 26% to 80% in twenty years. According to it, the demand for power is growing at 10% per year and hydropower happens to be one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy.

Already, 80 per cent of its electricity is from its rivers, gobbling waterfalls like Karuma that once boasted a stunning cascade at the edge of Murchison Falls National Park. There are plans for more dams like an 840-megawatt plant inside the park that could become the country’s largest hydro park.

Karuma Falls a cascade in Murchison Falls National Park . Sept 2017 now dammed. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“If it’s a question for providing power to Ugandans, there are other sources to tap into,” asserts Kamusilime. “But if the tarmac roads continue to be constructed and the dam built, we may as well change Murchison Falls National Park to Murchison Highway National Park.”

“The government wants to swop the iconic falls for a dam that has no market and is too expensive for the citizens to afford because of corruption and poor planning,” continues Kamugisha. “It is clear that some corrupt people have received money from Bonang and now they are under pressure to give the falls. Even the President knows that we currently earn over $1.6 billion from tourism and it’s the iconic features such as Murchison Falls that attract tourists.

Murchison Falls and Budongo forest ecosystems minus the oil reserves have an economic value of over USD 60 billion.

Compare this to the USD 2 billion per year from oil for 20 to 30 years that the Ugandan government estimates to earn approximately. “Electricity and oil cannot be compared to the biodiversity values of the Murchison Falls National Park and Bugondo forest,” reads a petition submitted to the government.

“However, l still believe that with pressure from the consortium of organizations against the project, the dam plan may fail even when the feasibility study is completed. But the huge roads with no ESIA has done its damage,” states Kamugisha

Bonang has applied for the feasibility study, with its pay check.

Fall of Murchison

In August 2019, the project had been rejected by NEMA, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and Uganda Tourism Board (UTB).

But in November, the President directed Cabinet to review its decision against the project and allow Bonang to conduct a feasibility study to make an informed decision.

“If the Uganda government decides to go ahead with the dam,” continuesKamugisha, “AFIEGO will file a case in court under Articles 50 and 39 of the constitution and sec 4 of the NEMA Act to defend our right to a clean and health environment including the right to nature.”

But, the law man himself acknowledges that the courts are weak on politically-related cases especially when the president has an interest in it. The way forward then is to continue building and expanding public pressure.

It makes little difference that Murchison Falls is a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance and the government obligated to be its custodian – as it happened with the standard gauge railway cutting across Tsavo East National Park and Nairobi National Park in Kenya.

The globe marking Murchison Falls National Park . Sept 2017 Copyright Rupi Mangat

Or in Tanzania, with the government constructing the Nyerere Hydropower Project in the former Selous Game Reserve that was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tanzanian government ingeniously carved out Nyerere National Park from the game reserve minus the spectacular gorge.

“The biggest problem regarding conservation is not lack of relevant laws but none-compliance,” laments Kamugisha. “We have many good national laws but corruption and bad governance fails everything.

“So, Murchison Falls and others may become victims irrespective of Ramsar or not. But if all Ugandans stand up the way they did for Mabira Forest, we can stop impunity.”

People’s Power for Mabira

The rainforest covering 300 square kilometres near Jinja is home to many endangered species like the Uganda mangabey.

In 2007 the government announced the degazettement of Mabira Forest Reserve to turn one-third of it into a sugar plantation. It promised 3,500 jobs with the sugar project contributing 11.5 billion Ugandan shillings to the treasury. The Kabaka of Buganda opposed the deforestation.

A thousand people demonstrated with at least three killed during the riots. The state’s sugar plantations were set on fire. In addition the public threatened to boycott the state’s Lugazi sugar.

Despite the President’s support for the sugar project, in May 2007 the Ugandan environmental minister suspended the deforestation plans.

Endangered Rothschild giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park . Feb 2020. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Mabira has become a symbol of Uganda’s social struggles where Ugandans are demanding accountability from their government.

Fact File

Murchison Falls National Park in north-western Uganda measures 3,893 square kilometres. The waters of the Nile flow through a narrow gorge that is 23 feet wide before plunging 141 feet to continue its flow to the Mediterranean Sea. The Murchison Falls Conservation Area is home to rare species like the Rothschild giraffe and chimpanzees. Since 2005, the protected area is considered a Lion Conservation Unit.

Top of Murchison Falls . Uhuru Falls is separated by a few feet by the rock chasm with the grass. Sept 2017
Copyright Rupi Mangat

MFCA is already besieged with oil wells and exploration extending up to Lake Albert (into which the Nile flows from Murchison Falls) as is the Nile with more dams being built along its course like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a gigantic project on the Blue Nile that when completed will be capable of producing 6,000 megawatts. It has the potential of drying up Lake Turkana in Kenya which is the largest permanent lake in a desert. It is fiercely resisted by Egypt, which fears its water supply could be at stake.

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