By Solomon Oleny
Government’s planned development of the 183MW Isimba dam has resuscitated the environments-development debate, bringing government planners up against opposition from tourism promoters and environmentalists.
For three years now, the tourism sector has stamped its name among the Uganda’s top five revenue earners with its worst earnings being 2011’s $662m.
Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities credits this remarkable growth to the increasing influx rate of tourists in the country, estimated to be at annual rate of 20% since 2011. While 20% of these tourists flock the country for business, cultural and spiritual tours, over 60% (roughly 70,000) of them come in pursuit for nature based tourism, especially gorilla tracking and the water-sports adventures along the River Nile such as white water rafting, kayaking, bungee jumping, sports fishing and boat rides among others.
It is this massive pursuit that has earned Jinja a prestigious honour as the World’s Best Tourism Sports Capital of 2014 by the Travel magazine, an international travel advisory based in the UK.
According to Amos Wekesa a domestic tourism promoter, Uganda is a favourite among visitors because unlike most of their countries which have destroyed their nature in favour of industrialization and modernization, Uganda still has over 30% of Africa’s bio diversity.
However, following the Government’s ground breaking ceremony of 06th October 2013 in along River Nile-Kayunga District for the construction of the 183MW Isimba Dam, the tourism sector fears for the worst because the dams construction will be at the cost of the water sports adventures-along River Nile. As a result, massive tourism earnings will be lost because Adventure between Bujagali Dam and the site for Isimba Dam lies Kalagala falls and Itanda falls which are the most powerful baits that Uganda depends on to attract nature loving tourists.
According to the social Impact Assessment (SIA) three different options for the size and scale of the Isimba Dam were investigated. Whilst the SIA favours AALT 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.
It will entail creating a 28km reservoir that will also flood a large portion of Kalagala meaning over 2000 farmers will be displaced, adversely affect water quality leading to an increase on water-borne diseases for hundreds of thousands of people who live along the Nile. Worst of all, it will cease the operation of adventure tourism affecting not only primary businesses, but also secondary and tertiary businesses, according to SIA.
These businesses, in an otherwise impoverished region supports thousands of Ugandans through well-paid jobs in tourism and generates significant amounts of overseas income for Uganda while also maintaining Uganda’s by-line as the Green Pearl of Africa.
More to that, it will destroy a significant breeding ground for Uganda’s national bird, the endangered Grey crested crane, which will be flooded and numerous other species of birds, animals and plant species will also be negatively affected.
Ministry of Energy insists on Isimba
Despite the above consequences, the head of Communications Ministry of Energy Matovu Bukenya confirms that the construction of the Dam must go on. Matovu bases the Ministry’s stand on the fact that the country needs more dams to meet the growing demand for electricity which is growing at an annual rate of 11%.
“While industries and households’ are mushrooming at jaw dropping rates, the country’s current power production isn’t sufficient to meet their increasing demand for electricity. It is this growth that has inspired the construction of Isimba whose 183MW power production will be used to supplement the country’s current total power production estimated to be 800MW,”says Matovu.
However, Matovu is quick to add that the pinch of this demand shortage wouldn’t have been felt if the country was fully utilizing its electricity at night-like countries such as South Africa and Nigeria.
“The actual problem is that over 90% of the industries’ and power consumers go to sleep as soon as the sun buries its self. As a result, there’s an overwhelming scramble for electricity during day time which has resulted into power shortages and load shedding,” said Matovu .
Why the dam cannot be constructed elsewhere
When asked why the Dams site has been changed from Isimba falls in Kamuli to further downstream approximately 40 KMs from Bujagali Dam, Matovu said the site 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. Among many, such advantages include the speedy pace of the falls before it such as Kalagala falls and Itanda falls and the strength of its rocks to support the weighty dam.
“Putting such factors into consideration, constructing it at Kalagala would come at minimal costs that can be easily met by China’s Exlm Bank, the funder of the project. It is for this reason that plans to construct Isimba Dam in Kamuli District were aborted in favour of its agreed site along the Nile.” he says.
In this regard, Matovu advises that the arena for watersports adventure along the River Nile should be transferred to other falls around the country such as Karuma falls.
However, Peter Knight one of prodigies of water sports adventures along River Nile says unlike Karuma, River Nile is a favorite among tourists due of its close proximity to the 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 warns
Which opportunity cost is better?
According to Wekesa a local tourism investor, if the Government chooses water adventure over electricity, in five years’ time the tourism sector could earn the country twice as much revenue as its current earning approximated by the Ministry of tourism to be over $1.3bn, thus making it one of the country’s biggest revenue earners.
Wekesa bases his forecast on that fact that while less than 10% of the country’s tourism sector has been tapped, it is already earning revenue jaw dropping revenues. Considering that the country’s tourism investments is growing at a very promising pace, in five years’ time approximately 20% could be tapped meaning the current earning will have doubled or tripled-or even much more.
Wekesa adds that since 2010, the number of prestigious tourism honours that Uganda has been earning has been increasing every other year that comes by. This is directly helping in marketing Uganda’s tourism endowments to the world thereby wooing for it more tourists.
Wekesa gives an example of the Orbitz Rewards Program’s choice of Uganda as its preferred destination of 2014 which is the latest honour that Uganda has earned.
“Orbitz is an international travel planner based in Chicago. In so choosing Uganda, the organization is marketing the country’s tourism endowments to over its 5M online followers.” Said Wekesa
On the other hand, William Kiryahika the deputy Chief Executive Officer of Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited notes that the establishment of Isimba Dam is equally good news for Uganda because of the terms and conditions that come with it.
For starters, Kiryahika says the establishment of Isimba is going to be financed using a soft loan of $415M, a loan that a third world country like Uganda can comfortably pay because besides being almost interest free, it is repayable in over 10 years.
Secondly, the fact that the dam is a Government owned project points towards the possibility that it might not be profit oriented. This means the industries and consumers who will depend on it for power might not be exploited financially-which would have been the case if it were a private initiative. As a result, it will stimulate their productions thereby reducing on Uganda’s dependency on imported goods which can be produced locally.
However, according to the agreement that World Bank signed with the Government of Uganda around 2007 with the objective of conserving River Nile, the establishment of a dam in the area will translate into the establishment and growth of industries along the Nile. As a result, River Nile and the environment surrounding it will be degraded and polluted thereby frustrating the conservation of the area.
Following a Tourism and Economic Impact Assessment on Isimba Dam that was carried out by Save Adventure Tourism Uganda, a National Initiative striving to conserve water adventure, Paul Scherzer the Managing Director-recommends that lowering the dam level to Alt3:1043 meters above sea level, a fairly shorter height of the water reservoir wall can solve the Isimba dam-Water adventure equation.
Scherzer advises that the Alt3:1043 meters above sea level would still create a significant amount of electricity and have a negligible impact on expanding Ugandan tourism industry.
“That way, the Government will be spared of the untold costs that will come with constructing the dam such as land compensation for locals whose area will be swallowed by the reservoir of the falls.” Advised Scherzer
Most important, it will also help in keeping the river almost entirely within its natural banks, and honour the international agreement between the Ugandan Government and the World Bank that was put in place to protect this precious section of the Kalagala-River Nile that is part of every Ugandans heritage.