The Bujagali Hydro

Published:  01 October, 2009

The long-running saga of the $860m Bujagali Hydropower plant in Uganda rumbles on towards the project’s due date in 2011, but disputes are surfacing over the project’s environmental and social impacts. Alex Halperin reports

A few kilometers downstream from where Lake Victoria plunges through the Nalubaale Dam into the White Nile, jackfruit trees and coffee bushes grow on the wooded river bank. A slip of land called Dumbbell Island splits the water. On the river banks, cranes and trucks are at work on the Bujagali Hydropower Project, an attempt to relieve Uganda’s perpetual electricity shortfall.

With only 5 percent of Ugandans connected to the grid, nobody disputes the country’s need for power. However, critics say the government’s fixation on building an $860m dam has absorbed resources which could be better spent diversifying the country’s power supply into solar or geothermal power, and connecting more people to it. Meanwhile, the dam will submerge rapids, which are of spiritual significance to local tribes and attract thousands of tourists annually for white water rafting.

Bujagali has been under consideration for at least 15 years. Back in 1994, it must have promised a silver bullet for Uganda’s power needs. Since then the power supply has not kept pace with one of the world’s fastest growing populations and on completion, Bujagali’s role could be little more than triage, replacing the generators in Kampala which have increased the price of electricity, but not preventing the frequent blackouts.

“Are we going to benefit? We are not sure,” Mpango Sulaiman, head of a local Nile fishing association says. Already living near one dam, Sulaiman’s home still does not have electricity.Across Africa, hydropower will generate similar disputes for decades. The continent’s rivers are underdammed by world standards and Africa desperately needs power, and dams are often the cheapest way to jack up a region’s power supply. According to NGO International Rivers, up to 70 dams are under construction or in planning stages in Africa. But dams refuse to be chic; they scar the landscape, often without directly expanding access to power.

Despite their drawbacks, the groups essential to building African infrastructure seem to prefer working on megaprojects such as dams. Contractors like the big fees, governments can impress their people with large public works and financing organisations such as the World Bank often have to respond to the projects brought to them. Joshua Klemm of watchdog Bank Information Center says the Bank has an incentive to fund these big projects because its relevance depends on how much it loans. “They’re a bank. They try to get money out the door.” With Asian and Middle Eastern investors circling Africa, the Bank has to continue major financing, or governments will find other partners.

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