Isimba hydro electric dam under the spotlight


(Posted 27th June 2014)

Uganda’s key rafting and adventure companies doing business along the upper Nile valley are up in arms over plans to build another dam on the Nile which could effectively wipe out rafting, a lucrative adventure activity for which Uganda has become known over the past two decades, should the preferred high dam be constructed

When the Bujagali hydro-electric power plant and dam was constructed, financed in part with World Bank money, did the Ugandan government give a binding undertaking on certain offset measures to be taken, which included the integrity of Mabira Forest as much as keeping certain clearly mapped out downstream sections of the river free of any further dams which could impact on local communities and the tourism industry which has become a major employer and revenue source for the area.

The agreement, seen in full by this correspondent, was signed on the 18th of July 2007 between the International Development Association and the Government of Uganda and reads in key parts: ‘The obligations of Uganda under this Indemnity Agreement are irrevocable, absolute and unconditional’ binding the country to refrain from any action which could impact on the river section in question, something the proposed new Isimba power plant now appears to ignore.

The ‘Save Adventure Tourism in Uganda’ team has now written to the World Bank to once again reiterate the need for Uganda’s commitment to respect the offset agreement as well as pointing out the downside of the dam project, should indeed, as has been suggested to this correspondent by several sources, the option of the highest possible dam version put up.

Start quote:

We understand that you are the representatives for the World Bank in Uganda, and felt there was an issue that would be of interest to you, we have also sent a similar email to Somin Mukheriji, who we believe to be the task team leader for the Bujagali Hydropower Project. Please allow us to explain, and accept our apologies if some of it you are already aware of.

As a mitigation measure from the Bujagali Hydro Project in Uganda the Kalagala Offset Agreement between the World bank and the Government of Uganda was formed to protect the remaining sections of river in the region. The Isimba Hydropower project now threatens that region, with the planned reservoir inundating a significant portion of the protected area.

As a group of concerned citizens, investors and business people we hold this section of river very dearly in our hearts. As well as being an overwhelmingly beautiful environment, it also provides a unique and very special resource that has allowed a whole tourism industry to build in the region, creating many local jobs and sustaining the regions tourism.

Members of Save Adventure Tourism in Uganda (S.A.T.U.) recently met with the Ugandan Electricity Generation Company LTD (U.E.G.C.L.), Ugandan Electricity Transmission Company Ltd (U.E.T.C.L.) and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral development (M.E.M.D.).

One of the key issues that came up was the Kalagala Offset Agreement. It was explained at the meeting by a member of the Ministry for Energy dept. that members of the World Bank have been in discussions with the Government of Uganda about what to do about the fact that Isimba breaks the Kalagala Offset Agreement. It was noted by members of the M.E.M.D. that a number of options were being considered by the World Bank as to how to deal with the issue. It was explained that one of the possible solutions involved moving the offset area to a different section of river.

As local people who live in the offset area, as business owners and stakeholders in the Kalagala Offset Agreement, we wish to be involved in discussions regarding the Offset Agreement and provide the world bank with what we believe to be relevant information to the decision making process.

The argument was raised by the M.E.M.D. that only a ‘small part’ of the conservation area will be flooded so it isn’t a big deal. Apart from the obvious argument that you either break an agreement, or you don’t, there are also missing several vital points that we would like to raise to the world bank for consideration:

– The most important part of the offset area is the river and the river banks, this is obvious, since the offset area was created as a mitigation measure to compensate for the flooding of an upper section of river. To flood the river and its banks and say that that only makes up a small part of the conservation area is overlooking the fact that the river and its banks are the primary thing that makes this area unique!

– If you look at the attachment you will see that the map marks an area in red, the river banks which will ultimately be underwater. This area is labeled ‘area affected by reservoir’, which is noted to be only 8.2% of the K.O.A.. A figure that keeps being quoted to us when we mention the K.O.A. and no doubt is a figure that has been used in discussion with the World bank. However, there is a pretty clear oversight here. The river, not just the river bank, should also be part of the ‘area affected by the reservoir’. The islands, flows, rapids and ecosystems that the river is made up of are also effected, they will be lake, not whitewater when the reservoir is complete. So this area is bigger than the area noted, and of greater significance.

– It is also worth noting (anyone who knows this area well will confirm the same) that the primary areas in the K.O.A. that remain as untouched natural habitat are the river itself and the immediate river banks. In most places, once you are over a 100m from the river bank you enter farm land, rather than unique and environmentally sensitive rapids and river banks. So, the ‘8%’ of the offset area that they will be flooding, is a good portion of the most historic, environmentally valuable and important part of the K.O.A.

Whilst we can’t imagine the World Bank approving the plan to simply move the conservation area away from the area that is being destroyed, we would like to raise significant objections to this idea in case it is under real consideration:

– We believe it to be against the basic fundamental idea of a conservation agreement to simply move the area because someone wants to destroy part of the conservation area.

– Also, it should be noted that no other area can be substituted for a completely unique section of river and rapids. The section that will be inundated by the reservoir is a truly unique section of whitewater that attracts tens of thousands of tourists from around the world per annum, and it is the only of its kind in the world that is accessible year round. The whitewater that is left, will not have the same draw to the country and region, and there are no other rapids to substitute. On completion of the Bujagali Dam river activities moved to a different section of whitewater, the one now protected by the K.O.A., this will not be an option if the largest version of the Isimba Dam goes ahead, as there will be very little whitewater left on this section of the Nile and no other rapids that the operations can move too.

As stakeholders in the K.O.A., as people who have grown up next to the river and a group of people with in-depth knowledge of the river banks that are under discussion we are requesting to be involved in discussions concerning any alterations of the K.O.A.

We are also requesting any information you can supply us with regarding Isimba HPP and its encroachment into the K.O.A.

It should also be mentioned that this is not the plight of only a few concerned people. Over fifteen thousand people, including twelve thousand Ugandans, as well as people from over 65 countries have voiced their concern via a petition about the breaching of the K.O.A and the largest form of the Isimba Dam, we are happy to supply you with copies of this petition if you believe it will help conserve the conservation area. Many thousands of people genuinely care about this section of river and the local people who live around it.

Thank you for creating the K.O.A. and for all your efforts so far on helping conserve this beautiful area. We appreciate your support and any information you can give.

Yours Sincerely,

The Save Adventure Tourism in Uganda Team.

End quote

Having been part of the protracted consultations the World Bank initiated for the Bujagali power plant, when it was initially proposed by AES, this correspondent still recalls the circumstances and understanding why the offset agreement was put into place and any change of heart by the World Bank would amount to a fundamental breach of confidence and trust between the Bank and Uganda’s tourism fraternity. Following the launch of Bujagali have the rafting companies already moved further downstream, at very substantial expense, after the main Bujagali rapids were all flooded and became useless for rafting and kayaking as a new mini lake emerged behind the dam wall.

Should the World Bank go ahead with the option to move the offset site it would without doubt trigger major law suits not just from Ugandan companies but also international organizations like the International River Network. 13 years ago they were all part of the negotiations and discussions which saw AES’ attempts rejected to ride roughshod over the then nascent adventure tourism sector in Uganda by using grotesquely low tourism revenue figures in their estimates and projections, which of course by now are all proved to be totally false and exposed as the smokescreen put up by self-serving consultants employed by AES at the time.

The adventure companies in Jinja have availed the summary of a report they commissioned last year, outlining the impact the high dam wall option would pose to their businesses which makes interesting reading:

Start quote:

Independent Tourism and Economic Impact Assessment of the proposed

Isimba Hydropower Project

Nile River, Uganda

Prepared by: E&D Consulting Services in association with Imani Development

December 2013

Summary of Key Findings

As part of the strategy to address the significant power supply shortages Uganda experiences, the Government

of Uganda developed a Hydropower Master Plan to identify feasible hydropower projects. One of the projects

identified in the Master Plan is the proposed Isimba Hydropower Project. Out of the potential large hydropower

projects identified this project generates the least amount of power. Through various media and website

announcements the construction of the Isimba Dam is apparently scheduled to commence shortly.

Tourism operators in Jinja have only been briefly consulted and believe that the full impacts of the proposed

project have not been fully considered and, thus, requested this independent tourism and economic

assessment to provide decision-makers with additional information for consideration.

This section of the Nile River was found to be quite unique in that it caters for all skill levels from beginner

kayakers and rafting tourists, right up to the world’s most extreme world-class kayakers. The warm climate

coupled with the fact that the water level remains constant all year round, make this section of the Nile a white

water destination with possibly no equal in the world. These features attract in the region of at least 19,000

water-sport related tourists each year and make a significant contribution to Uganda’s overall tourism product

and ability to compete as a destination against its regional neighbours, namely Rwanda and Kenya. One of the

rapids, the Nile Special, is regarded as one of the top freestyle kayaking rapids in the world and in E&D’s

opinion is arguably Uganda’s top natural resource in terms of tourism revenue generated per square meter. If it

were to be promoted to its full potential Uganda could possibly earn an estimated US$4.8 million dollars in

foreign exchange from this 150 m section of river, coupled with significant international media attention.

The highest proposed Isimba Dam will leave only five rapids remaining but more critically because of the nature

and distance between them, it will not leave Jinja or Uganda with a marketable rafting experience. The kayaking

tourists would also cease to be interested in Uganda. The middle level Isimba Dam alternative will still leave a

rafting product although a diminished one that is unlikely to further increase or attract numbers and will certainly result in the number of kayakers decreasing.

The lowest Isimba Dam alternative will have little real impact or change upon the current rafting and kayaking

activities and it may even promote the development of new tourism and water based activities further down the

river beyond the current one-day section. In addition only this lowest alternative will not have any impact upon

the Kalagala Off-set area and Uganda’s indemnity agreement with the IDA/World Bank.

The Isimba Hydropower Project is one of a number of large and small power generation project alternatives

available to Uganda, yet the highest dam level which is being recommended as the preferred option carries

significant risks for tourism, one of Uganda’s other major sectors and sources of foreign exchange.

In terms of an achieving an optimum overall development strategy, E&D recommends that only the lowest

Isimba alternative should be considered along with the development of other generation alternatives. This

alternative, whilst still increasing Uganda’s overall power generation capacity, will avoid the loss of a unique

natural resource which currently and will increasingly into the future make a significant contribution to Uganda’s GDP through tourism.

End quote

This again shows the tendency of project promoters and willing financiers lacking the ethical and moral backbone of global institutions, which are accountable to the civilized world, to ignore stakeholders and brush their objections and input aside, if it does not fit their own scheme of things.

Uganda’s own record vis a vis the offset agreement is also quite chequered as attempts were made several times to carve out a quarter of the Mabira Forest, or some 7.000 hectares of prime medium altitude rain forest, to turn it into sugar cane fields, notably for one of the country’s least efficient sugar producers, which had plenty of other commercial options to increase their acreage under cultivation but rather tried to get their hands on a free gift. Following widespread protests and bloody demonstrations in Kampala however were these plans eventually shelved and will hopefully not ever be revived again. There Uganda was apparently either in a state of forgetfulness over the agreements signed in 2007 or else deliberately trying to break the offset agreement, giving rise to suspicion that the same attitude may prevail over the Isimba hydro power project and the height of the dam.

Local, regional and international conservationists are however watching with hawk eyes that the letter and spirit of the offset agreement are being adhered to, and to the fullest extent, in order to protect the environment, the biodiversity of the upper Nile valley, community interests and the interest of the adventure tourism fraternity. Watch this space for future updates.


  1. Great article that raises significant points regrading international agreements in a appropriate manner.

    The high cost of building this dam is likely to make the costs of the electricity produced extremely expensive – especially with regard to other projects that are more viable such as the Karuma Dam. Uganda will pay the price in the future.

    The loss of a large amount of foreign income both now and for the future in areas such as adventure tourism and general tourism for Uganda affect thousands of people now and will affect future generations. Decisions made now will affect Uganda’s future and if the Dam is built according to the currently specified height, will have a significant negative affect on Uganda’s natural heritage.

  2. thanks Dr Wolfgang, if ever you get a chance to visit us please let me know via

    Thank you for your great work in promoting Uganda / helping Uganda.

    I apologize for using the word affect so much in my reply to your article. Effects would be more appropriate.

    Great article about something that will effect Uganda for generations to come.

  3. How can we get some legal representation on this that will bear fruit? Government and especially the World Bank have a legal obligation to explain why this blatant breach of the offset agreement has simply been sidelined. The impact on the rafting industry is quite simply the end of it! The lack of communication from both parties with the stakeholders is alarming! The loss of peoples livelihoods is huge with this dam and questions need to be answered. Shame on you World Bank for not having the courage to address this thus far!

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