Uganda's Power Drive Stills Rapids at the Headwaters of the Nile

Uganda, where 90 percent of the people lack electricity, taps deeper into waterpower, by eliminating cascading rapids on the Victoria Nile.

Despite years of warnings, Richard Njuba was still stunned when Uganda's Bujagali Falls actually flooded in late 2011.  For three years, the river guide had been taking people  on boats for a closer view of the falls, which were not so much a waterfall but a  series of raging rapids about six miles (ten kilometers) north of the source of the Nile.

In early November, Njuba noticed the water level rising, and less than two weeks later, the cascading falls were gone, he said.

The flooding of Bujagali Falls to create a reservoir was one of the last steps before the launch of Uganda's $862-million, 250-megawatt Bujagali Dam on the Victoria Nile, one of the two great tributaries to the world's longest river. Limited power-production testing began the first week of February, following nearly five years of construction and more than a decade of controversy.

The debates haven't ended, even as the countdown continues toward full power production within the next few months. On one side are the project team and the investors, eager for the hydropower project to succeed. On the other side are environmentalists, who have predicted the dam will harm biodiversity, curb local tourism, and lower water levels in Lake Victoria, the world's largest tropical lake.

(Related Blog Post: Resurgence of Large Dams Threatens Tribal People Worldwide, Report Says)

Power Poor

The most anxious onlookers, though, are the Ugandan people. More than 90 percent of them have no  access to electricity.

Uganda, with one of the highest population growth rates in the world, cannot keep pace with its energy demands. Even those on the grid have suffered frequent power outages since several emergency energy plants closed last year.

Bujagali's 250 MW is a relatively small-sized dam; it is about one-tenth the capacity of Egypt's Aswan Dam far north on the Nile River. In the United States, it would be enough power to feed 190,000 homes, but of course, the electricity will go much further amid the low per capita energy consumption of Uganda.

(Related: "Ethiopia Moves Forward With Massive Nile Dam Project")

The Bujagali Dam is the "best long-term solution" to help reverse Uganda's power problem, according to the project's director, Glenn Gaydar. Gaydar works for Bujagali Energy Limited (BEL), which won the bid to build the dam in 2005 after its first developer—AES—backed out. BEL is owned jointly by U.S.-based Sithe Global and Kenya's Industrial Promotion Services. AES, based in Arlington, Virginia, and with projects in 27 countries, wrote off its $76 million investment in 2003, saying delays had increased risks and reduced potential returns.

But Gaydar said the project, which is supported by investments from 12 different sources—including the World Bank—will underscore the potential of privately funded hydro projects to meet regional energy demands.

(Related Photos: "Preserving Beauty, Providing Hydropower in Scotland")

Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of Uganda's National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), said the energy gains don't outweigh the environmental costs. He ticked off environmentalists' objections: the flooding of natural animal habitats, the possible disruption of fish migrations, and the forced resettlement of families to create the reservoir.

A 2006 assessment of the project's impact acknowledged all of those issues, but Uganda's top environmental body signed off on the dam anyway.

And BEL did follow up on efforts that AES had started to resettle or compensate the roughly 8,700 people affected by the flooding. The company also worked with local wildlife authorities to rescue animals that would have been trapped in the reservoir. Gaydar said it was part of BEL's "outside-the-fence activities," which also included establishing schools, medical clinics, and a micro-credit fund in affected communities.

"We bent over backwards to be responsive to the community and to the country," he said.

But Muramuzi said he is still concerned that the dam has put one of the country's most important resources—Lake Victoria—at risk. He said that if the dam operates at its potential, it could reduce water levels in Africa's largest lake. He pointed to a 2006 study that showed two smaller dams upstream from Bujagali were partially responsible for a drop in the lake's levels. If Bujagali runs at 250 MW, he said, he suspects it will drain even more.

If that happens "you'll not even get enough water to supply to these urban centers and cities," he said.

Gaydar said that's not going to happen. The dam will operate under internationally agreed upon rules that regulate the amount of water that can be drained from the lake, he said. And in the end, he said Bujagali could actually help relieve the flow of water from the lake, since the dam will add energy to the grid by reusing water already being pulled for the upstream dams.

Water and Africa

Bujagali is of a piece with much of sub-Saharan Africa, which is dependent on big hydro for its energy, according to Lori Pottinger. Pottinger works on the Africa campaigns for International Rivers, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection of the world's rivers. The organization has  been a vocal opponent of the Bujagali Dam.

In 2010 International Rivers determined that 60 percent of the subcontinent's power comes from dams. That's a problem, Pottinger said, as climate change causes fluctuations in water levels that could either overwhelm dams or render them useless.

But a 2010 World Bank report came to an opposite conclusion, arguing that hydropower can actually strengthen a country's capacity to regulate and store water.

(Related Blog Post: Can Uganda and Ethiopia Be Egypt's 'Water Bankers'?)

Nevertheless, Pottinger said, some of Uganda's neighbors, such as Kenya, are "starting to see climate change as a real risk to [hydropower] projects" and are looking at wind power and other sources to diversify their energy projects.

Still, hydro remains king in Africa. International Rivers put together a map in 2010 showing proposed dams across 76 different rivers on the continent, including two more in Uganda's Nile River basin.

(Related: "Report: Africans Must Adapt to Drought in a Warming World")

Now, with Bujagali Dam set to come fully online, environmentalists are taking a wait-and-see approach. But the impact on Bujagali Falls—which used to serve as the climax for local rafting trips and as a popular tourist attraction—is already clear.

Local companies, with financial support from BEL, are moving quickly to ensure that the loss of the falls does not spell an end to tourism in the region.

Peter Knight owns All Terrain Adventures, which offers quad biking in the area, as well as a café and bar. He started building the business in 2002, knowing that the rapids would one day disappear. Last year he put in a miniature golf course.

"I concede it's a bit of a folly—the old ruined castle," he said of the course.

By the time the falls flooded, he said, he had already invested too much in the location to move. Now he's working out a rebranding strategy, hoping to get the idea of Lake Bujagali to catch on. It could be a place geared toward families and relaxation. It's a place where former falls guides, like Njuba, can take people on slow boat rides in the shadow of the dam.

(Related Photos: "A River People Awaits an Amazon Dam")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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