Rafting companies express concern over Isimba plans


(Posted 21st October 2013)

Key stakeholders in Uganda’s adventure tourism sector have joined hands with local authorities and the Busoga Kingdom in voicing their growing concern over the lack of consultations about the planned Isimba hydro electric power plant and dam. From information available and gathered over the past weeks does it appear that no substantive consultative talks have taken place nor has an environmental impact assessment been made available to affected communities and tourism stakeholders, all of whom are bound to lose big time should two of the floated dam versions be implemented.

White water rafting has become one of Uganda’s trademark adventure activities and already suffered setbacks when after the closure of the Bujagali dam the water upstream began to rise, eventually flooding the formerly famous Bujagali Falls and turning the river into a lake of sorts, where previously dozens of rafts every day raced over the rapids, providing thrills to tourists from around the world.

Subsequently did all the operators have to relocate their river entrance point to below the Bujagali power plant, only to be confronted once again with the prospect of up to 16 kilometres behind the planned Isimba dam being turned into another mini lake, flooding rapids crucial to the rafting sport and potentially forcing them to close shop.

Several individuals involved in the rafting and kayaking business have since mid September provided details of how two of the three floated versions of the dam would effectively kill rafting in Uganda, leading to a major loss of jobs and foreign exchange earnings, as tourists seeking such thrills would then divert their visits to Zambia and Zimbabwe where they can raft the Zambezi River, to the upper sections of Kenya’s Tana River or to South Africa’s white water rivers, no longer coming to the Pearl of Africa.

Stakeholders claim to have been sidelined and given the cold shoulder by government offices where they sought information about the dam, with implied suggestions that they were ‘anti development’ in a classic tactical move used before when initial concerns were raised about the Bujagali power plant. Back then, when America’s AES was still involved, they equally tried to silence critics and portray them as ‘enemies of progress’ – turning the facts on the head as was later found out by grossly understating and downplaying the huge tourism potential of rafting and related businesses. As a result have stakeholders been forced to use the channels of the media to put their issues into the public domain, as attempts to engage directly with the concerned companies and public offices have failed to get any meaningful results so far.

The main issues brought to the fore are the almost complete lack of information on any environmental and social impact assessment for the project and subsequent opportunity to publicly review the details in such a study, its data and interpretation and mitigation measures. As a result the following demands are now being made by stakeholders before irreversible damage is being done by wrong decisions taken by bureaucrats, perhaps the same lot which sanctioned the Kira dam design which proved woefully inadequate and has failed to live up to the projections of power production ever since it was commissioned.

The effect of this dam on the tourism industry would be huge. Rafting and kayaking bring people from all over the world to Uganda, and a whole industry has built up around the river. There are all sorts of other secondary activities that benefit from the people who go rafting here and thousands of Ugandans that are employed by the industry. Members of the tourism industry here have compiled a list of 100 companies that will be affected by the Isimba Dam. Some of these are directly affected like the kayaking and rafting companies or riverside accommodation that will be flooded while others are affected in different ways (like accommodation provided for rafters) and some that are only affected partially (like tourist restaurants in the nearby town that will be affected by a downturn in tourism). In addition to the primary affect on companies, there are all sorts of other economic disadvantages, like the shop owners ,taxi drivers and alike that make their money predominantly from tourists.

It is understood that a feasibility study was begun by a Norwegian firm, who from what we can gather gave the government quite negative initial feedback about the projects viability, then they seem to have been moved from the project for unknown reason. From what we can gather feasibility is being done / has been done by a Ugandan firm with alleged political patronage. It may be finished already, but we don’t really know its status and it is hard if not impossible to get accurate information.

The proposed reservoir under two of the three known scenarios would flood pretty much all remaining white water on this stretch of the Nile and some of the best rafting and kayaking in the world.

From all the information we can gather the dam would need to be 1.2 miles wide, the banks on one side of the river especially is very flat, so the reservoir will be huge, and in order to get any gradient the dam will have to back up 16km of river.

Even with such an enormous reservoir and wide dam (and the obvious large corresponding environmental impact), the head will be significantly less than the Bujagali dam which was supposed to create 250 mega watts and is producing less than promised. The Isimba power plant is supposed to create 188 MW but is unlikely to do so.

The area that will be flooded is populated with subsistence farms and homesteads, who already live along the poverty line. The dam developers have reportedly said that they are going to pay the villagers large sums of money per household for displacement. However, from what we can gather this seems to be mostly a ruse to get public support in the rural area around the dam and reservoir behind it. We are highly skeptical whether the developers will deliver the amounts that they are saying they will give $10,000 per household to over 350 (or 600 depending on the source) households.

From what is on public record there was a clause in the contract between World Bank and the government for the Bujagali offset, that states there would be no other hydro power affect on the area within a certain radius, within which much of the reservoir sits. This clause was to protect among others the Kalagala Falls area and prevent damaging environmental, social and economic impact for the surrounding area.

It is very hard to get accurate information about this project. There was one stakeholders meeting where two of the 100+ companies that will be affected were invited that was part of the ‘feasibility’ study, we found out at the last minute and a few of the companies were able to go along and be represented, but it was a chaotic meeting with people who didn’t really know what they were talking about and were confident that the views of the tourist industry as a collective weren’t properly recorded or represented. We don’t even know what stage the project is at and whether the feasibility study has been completed. The local media report that the project a lot further along than the Ugandan company running the feasibility study say.

We therefore demand to get an independent study done on the impact the project is likely to have on the tourism industry and on the local community, the region and the country. More specifically, we want the study to provide tangible figures and facts for the people making the decisions so that they realize the scale of the effect the new dam will have on Uganda.

We also want to raise awareness online and in the media of this issue as too little seem to reach the public at this stage. Considering the scale of what is happening this is still an untold story which has to be made public.

Stark prospects certainly for the business owners along the upper Nile valley and sadly the same tactics and methods are being used which AES practiced, downplaying, bedevelling and foulmouthing those who dare to ask legitimate questions and challenge patently false answers. Perhaps the promoters of the Isimba power plant could take a leaf from the way the present Bujagali consortium approached these issues, with wide spread consultations, taking sound advice on board and giving stakeholders facts and figures in the spirit of open disclosure, but then, that was IPS, an AKFED company with ethics and standards of best business practice and not an obscure entity trying to stay in the shadows where they can evade and avoid being directly challenged. Watch this space.