Will tourism development activities at Kalagala Falls be negatively affected now that the government of Uganda has reneged on the original deal to protect it? According to the International Rivers Network, during the planning of the Bujagali Dam on the River Nile, the Ugandan government and the World Bank agreed to set aside the “Kalagala offset area” further downstream to “conserve the natural habitat and environmental and spiritual values.” It was on this basis that the Ugandan government was able to get a loan from the World Bank for the Bujagali Dam. It clearly states in the document that Uganda will not develop hydro-power projects that will affect the Kalagala offset area.
With EXIM Bank China spoiling the partyless stringent conditions applied, geopolitics would play out on the tempestuous waters of the Nile since the government of Uganda found another suitor and reneged on the Kalagala agreement after securing a US$556 million grant from EXIM to commence construction of the 183-megawatt Isimba Dam.
As a result, Jinja town, famously known as the “Adventure Capital of East Africa,” for the source of the Nile, white water rafting, kayaking, and birding, may soon lose her crown once the falls are lost to flooding.
Although the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) report for Isimba Hydro Power Dam highlights the benefits that shall be accrued from the project: employment, skills transfer, sourcing of local materials, improvement of local roads, and adding power to the national grid, the report adds that the hydro-power plant will affect property owners by way of loss of land including the Damba and Kooka islands, loss of structures, loss of crops, economic displacement in some cases, and impact on community resources such as boreholes, schools ,and places of worship and burial grounds.
A number of ecotourism and associated experiences shall be directly affected, namely bird watching; rafting; recreational fishing; transportation, including the ubiquitous motorbike taxis (boda bodas); crafts shops; and restaurants. The hydro-power project shall also indirectly affect tour business, hotels, and even airlines such as Brussels airlines that has been offering to transport kayaking equipment free of charge.
Nine adventure tourism companies along the Nile interviewed during the SIA study grossed an annual turnover of 3.6 million in 2010. If the rest of the 9 operators and 12 resorts/lodges were interviewed, the turnover would be substantially higher.
The report adds that different options for the size and scale of the Isimba Dam were investigated. While the SIA favors altitude 1:1055 which is the highest elevation of the dams reservoir wall, it is this option that will have the far most impact to negatively affect tourism development activities at Kalagala falls and degrade the present natural ecosystems of Mabira central forest reserve, Kalagala central forest reserve, and Nile bank forest reserve.
Construction at Altitude 3:1043 meters above sea level could have created a significant amount of electricity and have a negligible impact on compensation and expanding the Ugandan tourism industry.
The end to primary businesses, along with secondary and tertiary businesses that support thousands of Ugandans through livelihoods in tourism now remains a fait accompli. That is not all because of flooding, as it will also destroy a significant breeding ground for Uganda’s national bird, the endangered grey-crested crane and other birds, animal, and plant life.
The Ministry of Energy remains adamant that construction downstream gives it geological, geophysical, and geochemical advantages that compares to no other site, thus making it the most ideal location for the Isimba hydro-power project. The Ministry spokesman, Matovu Bukenya, added that the River Nile should be transferred to other falls around the country such as Karuma Falls. According to the funders, many jobs will also be created in construction, welding, and skills transfer.
Peter Knight, one of prodigies of water sports adventures along the River Nile, says unlike Karuma, the River Nile is a favorite among tourists due of its close proximity to Kampala and Entebbe which are a hub for the tourists.
That aside, the transfer will require incurring extremely high costs, because it will entail developing sites like Karuma from zero to international water adventure standards.
“At the end of the day, this will translate into a hike on the charges for the adventures and in so doing this, the country risks driving its tourists into the arms of its competitors like Zambia, because their fares will be more comfortable,” Knight warned.
Since excavation started a week ago, this has left many like Yasin Kabunga of Adrift Rafting Company guessing as to whether or not rafting days and for that matter his job shall be halted on this stretch of the Nile depending on what altitude the government has endorsed. The last time he checked, he maintains, so far rafting would still be guaranteed, but only for 12 kilometers from The Haven Camp stretching until Itanda Falls, leaving 18 kilometers submerged, that is if government keeps its part of the bargain.
With Murchison Falls as Uganda’s leading National Park further downstream and willing funders, one can only hope that common sense prevails over shortsightedness.