By Curtis Abraham

Kampala, July 26 – A plan to construct a 360MW power plant on Uganda’s River Nile, at Murchison Falls National Park in Kiryandongo and Nwoya Districts, has been met with outrage by wildlife conservationists, private tour operators and one of Uganda’s prominent kingdoms.

On 25th April, Uganda’s state-run energy sector regulator the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) received an application for a permit to conduct feasibility studies from Bonang Power and Energy (Pty) Limited, a South African-based hydropower company  that specializes in renewable energy projects.

In keeping with the law, ERA was obliged to publish a notice in the local media indicating that Bonang had applied for a permit for a feasibility study on a 360MW power project on Murchison Falls. This was on the July 7..

ERA spokesperson Julius Wandera has been quoted in the local press stating that a definitive decision on the project had not been taken and a review of the application would take public criticism into consideration.

According to its website: “Bonang Power and Energy Pty (Ltd) was founded by South African entrepreneur Ernest Moloi in 2014, as was established with intentions of breaking new ground in helping Africa to develop hydropower projects that could bring transformational change to the lives of the sons and daughters of this continent for the better, by combining its worldwide network teams and all required competencies in building and growing a better African economy, through provision of sustainable generation of electricity power.”

The Ugandan government aims to expand the country’s energy generating capacity to provide inexpensive, clean and renewable energy as well as to help fuel the country’s industrialization drive. President Yoweri Museveni’s government has promised to provide universal access to electricity by 2030 and plans are afoot to establish 25 industrial parks over the next decade that would help boost the country’s socio-economic development. The parks are expected to consume up to 1,000MW of electricity eight years.

But should industrialization of a developing country be at the expense of its irreplaceable natural heritage? A heritage that is increasingly under threat from  climate change, cultivation expansion, rising human population, corruption, construction of roads and dams through ancient wildlife habitats and lands belonging to indigenous communities, as well as Chinese and African-backed poaching and trafficking?

Although the granting of a permit to Bonang to conduct feasibility studies is not yet a done deal, Uganda’s nature conservation community has been outraged by the latest developments.

On June 20, a letter put out by the Honorary Wildlife Officers’ Association of Uganda, an association established under section 11 of the Uganda Wildlife Act Cap 200 of the laws of Uganda 2000 stated: “…we wish to register our strong objections to not only the planned establishment of a hydro power plant in the area but also the intended detailed feasibility studies.”

“Murchison Falls are the most spectacular falls on River Nile and are the biggest tourist attraction in the park. They provide tourists with amazingly unrivalled experience. They are therefore a must-see iconic feature… The falls also create a spectacular view that leaves tourists yearning for more and have enhanced the attractiveness of Murchison Falls,” it added.

The letter also stated that according to the published notice in which a map is added, the coordinates of the proposed dam would be “on top of the Murchison Falls itself”.

Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), which covers an area of 3,900km2 and spans the northern end of the western (Albertine) Rift Valley, is the country’s’ oldest (and largest) conservation area whose roots go back to 1926 when it was first gazette as a game reserve.

Murchison Falls, which bisects MFNP, is the crown jewel of the park. It is here where the Victoria Nile plunges some 45 metres over the remnant Rift Valley wall with an 80-kilometre stretch of rapids.

The park is home to important African wildlife species, including an estimated 76 species of mammals, such as buffalo, giraffe, crocodiles, a rising elephant population and 451 varieties of birds. This biological diversity as well as the park’s unique landscape on the Nile, which attracts over 100,000 visitors and generates over 15 billion Uganda shillings ($4.1 million) annually (not to mention attracting private investors who have not only establishing accommodation facilities for visitors to the park but also pay the relevant taxes and provide jobs to Ugandans) according to figures from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), a government statutory body which oversees the country’s wildlife while promoting tourism.

Local people attach lots of cultural and social meanings, which have not even been researched for documentation, the letter added. This is most relevant for the traditional Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara. On November 26, 2013, the Omukama (King) of Bunyoro, Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I, erected a plaque on top of the falls to mark the site where the Babiito first stepped on their way to the kingdom around 1500 AD.

In a July 3 letter to the chief executive officer of Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), the kingdom’s Prime Minister, Andrew Byakutaga, stated that the park is a unique landscape with several components that are crucial for enhancing the social-ecological resilience of the people of Bunyoro and neighbouring districts.

“Building a hydropower dam along River Nile within Murchison Falls National Park will disrupt the physio-chemical and biological processes of the river. The river and the adjacent riparian landscapes host several flora, fauna and cultural landscapes revered by the people of Bunyoro and used in several cultural and royal rituals,” the letter reads in part.

(Murchison passed into cultural history in yet another way. In 1954, only two short years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature (for novels such as “The Green Hills of Africa” and short stories like “The Snows of Kilmanjaro”), American author Ernest Hemingway and his wife Mary Walsh, were flying in a light aircraft en-route from then Belgian Congo to photograph Murchison Falls from the air. Their plane hit an abandoned telegraph wire and crash landed in thick scrub vegetation. Hemingway’s injuries included a head wound, while Mary broke two ribs. The couple would survive a second plane accident while trying to reach medical help at Entebbe).

(Then, during the 1990s, British-born mechanical engineer and Kenyan resident Alastair “Yank” Evans, discovered the hull of one of two boats that was used in the 1951  Hollywood classic, “The African Queen”, while bulldozing one side of The Nile at MFNP. The boat was restored to its former glory with a 100- year old steam engine and original woodworking and is currently used for tourism).

During the 1970s and 80s, war, insecurity and political instability in Uganda substantially reduced wildlife populations in MFNP (elephant and giraffe populations were particularly affected) and most of the country’s protected areas. However, wild species populations have since rebounded throughout Uganda.

“The comeback story of  Murchison Falls National Park is a real success story and is now the most visited park in Uganda,” said Alfred Kamya, Director of Letsgosafari, one of East Africa’s most popular tour and travel companies based in Kampala.

“This is due to a whole host of stakeholders working together under the umbrella of conservation to achieve the same goal, to restore the park to its former glory where everyone benefits from this Ugandan treasure…any interference with the falls will have a catastrophic effect the on the area, some of which will be felt immediately and some which will manifest in years to come,” he added.

The Murchison ecosystem already faces a number of development challenges. Over the past decade oil and gas installations have been established (several oil wells are already operational). Such energy initiatives also mean the construction of roads through previously undisturbed wildlife habitats. The last thing that MFNP needs is another feasibility study or additional dam construction.

(A 16-month monitoring programme around four drill pads at MFNP between February 2010 and June 2011 that was undertaken by staff of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Wildlife Conservation Society, showed that most large mammals: elephants, buffalos and giraffes, were negatively affected by the activities at a drill pad site).

Many hydropower dam projects worldwide are fraught with controversy. For starters, they are the primary cause of declines in water levels (this is the fear of the Sudan and Egyptian governments that the Grand Renaissance Dam project in Ethiopia will bring about). Such declines can have devastating environmental consequence such as damaging wetlands of international importance as is suspected in the case of the proposed Stiegler’s Gorge dam in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition, they can bring about changes in river ecosystems, and they usually initiate a series of negative impacts on local communities among other negative impacts.