UGANDAN GOVERNMENT CHALLENGED TO ONCE AND FOR ALL HALT THE DAM SAGA IN MURCHISONS
(Posted 15th December 2019)
The replacement of Eng. Irene Muloni as Minister for Energy and Minerals has raised expectations that the Ugandan government may now, after weeks of pondering and leaving the field of public comments to those without the final decision making powers, at last move in the direction of halting the hugely controversial hydro power dam project at the Murchison Falls of the River Nile.
Both the Energy and Tourism Ministers Muloni and Kamuntu, more recently in a public joint statement, raised more questions than providing answers and with both ministers now moved – in fact Muloni found herself downgraded to Presidential Advisor – there may be light at the end of the tunnel that their successors may take a firmer stand and publicly agree that the falls project is a lunatic one, at best.
Indications are that the number of visitors who came to Uganda this year could be substantially lower compared to the year 2018.
This of course may have many reasons, the Ebola scare of earlier in the year even though the main epidemic outbreak is in Eastern Congo, the border closure by Rwanda, prohibiting her citizens to visit Uganda – on a side note did exports from Uganda to Rwanda dwindle from previously over 60 million US Dollars to a neglectible figure – geopolitical effects on the travel pattern from Britain, Europe, America and Asia and, last but not least, the repeated U-turns over the Murchison Falls’ power project. Global tourists have become much more aware of a destination country’s green credentials and environmental policies and protection measures and when there is even the slightest doubt in their mind, they rather go elsewhere – and take their money with them.
ATCNews had raised the alarm way back in June, when the first – mandatory – advert was placed in local media (https://atcnews.org/2019/06/07/major-assault-planned-against-murchison-falls/) before then doing a follow up a few days later, after a social media firestorm raced across Uganda’s tourism scene (https://atcnews.org/2019/06/10/murchison-falls-power-plant-plans-cause-social-media-storm/).
Subsequently was it reported in The East African, that government, clearly under pressure to act and contain the spreading anger and opposition by a key sector of the economy, had abandoned plans to have a power plant established anywhere inside the park, when plenty of other options existed elsewhere.
Professor Ephrain Kamuntu, until yesterday Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities before being shifted to the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, had voiced his opposition to the project back then, affirming that a cabinet decision had been taken to stop any just project inside the park though encouraging the project promoters to seek other sites outside the park.
That, it seems, was the official stand of government until a few weeks ago the project raised its ugly head once again, shifting the site from the main falls to the close by Uhuru Falls. This once more caused a fire storm of anger and prompted calls for President Museveni himself to give the final thumbs down to this environmental travesty of ‘development’.
This correspondent has a history of locking horns with government when it comes to tourism and conservation and is known to speaking his mind without sugar coating.
This at one time helped prevent the Uganda Tourism Board being forced into a merger with the Uganda Investment Authority, made public attempts to give a quarter of Mabira Forest away to a sugar baron, helped secure offset measures over the construction of Bujagali Falls – which as history now tells have all come to naught, very sadly – defended Ramsar sites from the onslaught of so called developers and more. Another case was the joint fight with my friend John Naggenda to keep a golf course out of Murchison Falls National Park, another case where President Museveni changed his mind after being made aware of all the facts.
The Murchisons saga may yet be another case where a conscious mind needs to lock horns with government and call out the powers that be to take a very public stand.
Our government cannot on one side team up with organizations like the Giants Club and profess to conservation being at the core of public policies and then run roughshod over Murchisons Falls National Park.
The construction of a hydro electric power plant, be it at the main falls or as has more recently been suggested the Uhuru Falls which are just a few hundred metres away and part of the same aquatic system, would finally put the last nail in the coffin of Murchison.
Nails already driven into that coffin are the ongoing construction of so called oil roads through the park. Sways of forest trees have been cut down to make way for a wider highway and the 40 km speedlimit is apparently no longer valid for the construction trucks racing in and out of the park.
There has been constant speculation – in the absence of a firm commitment from government to the opposite – that one of the park’s greatest game viewing circuits may become off limits for game drives with tourist visitors, once oil production will start. Whispers about security concerns made the round as a primary reason why the game drive circuits should be blocked off, and besides the fate of the falls as outlined above does the tourism and conservation fraternity in Uganda, and beyond, want to know what the actual position will be once the highways and tarmac roads have been completed, the bridge across the Nile is up and the pumps have been installed.
Given the economic challenges our country faces it is not wise to upset tourism a key economic sector and the powers that be are reminded that while the country may be on course to become an oil producer and exporter and meet our industrialisation goals, nature based tourism will for generations to come be major source for jobs, foreign exchange earnings, foreign and local investment and tax contributions.
Time to stop this Murchison power plant nonsense once and for all!