Dams of fortune or misfortune?  

Dams of fortune or misfortune?  

It is true that dams generate power but also come with shortcomings such as displacement of people and destruction of biodiversity. This has literally come home after the construction of the 183MW Isimba dam.

By Gerald Tenywa

Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, Michael Kige, a resident of Budoda in Nazigo sub-County, Kayunga District, has abandoned three houses as he battles floods in his village. 

As the Nile spills over water into his village, Kige suffers for sins he did not commit. Kige has become homeless despite efforts to put a roof over his head.  

“I constructed my first house in 2013, which I abandoned because of flooding. Water kept coming from underground, and I left because my house was no longer habitable,” he says. 

He adds, “I was advised to build a house with a concrete floor to stop water from seeping through the ground into my house. I obliged and constructed another house in 2016, which I thought was good enough to stop the flooding. I stayed in it for three years, and I was forced out in 2019 because the water was seeping through the concrete floor into the house.” 

He says the nights became too cold for him, his wife, and the children to stay in the house. He abandoned it, and today, water oozing from the place has formed a stream flowing out of the house’s lower side. 

“I had to leave because my children were falling sick all the time, and they are staying with relatives today. My wife has also abandoned me as I seek refuge among friends. I have been constructing another house (third house), but the builders are telling me that water is already seeping through the ground into the house.” 

Kige heaps blame on the construction of the Isimba Hydroelectric power dam across the River Nile. He says the Nile was flowing about a mile away (1.6km) from their village, but when the Isimba dam was created, the water came closer to his village. 

Isimba Dam

“We are living in fear because the water seeping through the ground is water from River Nile, and the lake that has formed behind Isimba dam may soon sweep through our village,” he says.                                                                         

Kige’s experience is repeated many times in Budoda. The number of affected residents is about 100, according to the chairperson of Budoda. 

He also said ten other villages on the fringes of the Nile in Nazigo Sub County have also been affected by the reservoir of Isimba that is eating into the land belonging to different people. 

In Kiteredde village, Nazigo Sub County in Kayunga, Ibrahim Kayiira, a resident, says the dam was about a mile away. Still, now the lake or reservoir has moved beyond where it used to stop. The reservoir has also cut off Nazigo sub-County from Busaana sub-county. 

“We have to pay sh2,000-3,000 UGX every time we want to cross from Kiteredde in Nazigo to Busaana,” said Kayira, adding that this is costly for school children who have to cross at least twice a day.

This is on the western side of the Nile, where the two most troubled sub-counties of Nazigo and Busaana are sitting. The destruction by floods has also been occurring on the eastern part of the Nile in Kamuli and Jinja. 

Isimba’s two faces

According to Patrick Musaazi, the Senior District Environment officer for Kayunga, the construction of the Isimba Dam has come with advantages and disadvantages. He cited employment and support towards the facelift of schools and health centres in the district’s sub-counties of Busaana and Nazigo.

The construction of the Isimba dam has also come with an extension of power to many trading centres in Kayunga, which has breathed life into the rural livelihood. 

In addition, the urban life of Kayunga town has woken up from being a sleepy town to a busy business centre near the River Nile.   

However, the developments have also come with negative impacts. “What has happened is that some people lost their land and livelihood,” said Musaazi, adding that after swallowing parcels of land, some communities have become helpless. “People have tiny patches of land and limited survival options.” 

Musaazi pointed out that Kayunga District administration is flooded with complaints from many people who have lost out demanding compensation. 

“We have been on the ground and what is clear is that the water of the reservoir of Isimba dam exceeded the demarcated areas of the land,” said Musaazi, adding that there were also areas that were supposed to go underwater, but they ended up not being affected. “We are stuck with complaints of compensation.” 

He added, “The Ministry of Water and Environment has mapped out the affected areas but does not have intentions to compensate for the lost property. Kayunga District does not also have any plans of compensation.” 

Dirisa MbabazI
Dirisa Mbabazi an affected resident from Kayunga District

Behind the floods

What is causing the floods? This is as elusive as the solutions to resettle the communities affected by Isimba Dam. However, there are fingers pointing to different reasons ranging from technical flaws to climate change.   

In his opinion, Frank Muramuzi, the Executive Director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), says it is difficult to fight against water.

“If there were no dams, there would be no flooding. Water would flow down naturally, but now it is controlled for electric production,” says Muramuzi. The dams are too close to each other.” 

River Nile, according to Muramuzi has become congested with dams, namely Owen Falls Dam, the extension of Owen Falls Dam, Bujagali, Isimba, and Karuma. “We are also talking of construction of another dam at Murchison Falls,” he said.

He also said that there is a lot of degradation in the catchment of Lake Victoria, which feeds the Nile with water. The wetlands and forests act as a break for the water and clean out the impurities in the water. “Do you know how much silt is getting into Lake Victoria and River Nile?” 

“It is time for Government-the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Ministry of Water and Environment, Ministry of Energy, and those pushing for the dams to take responsibility,” says Muramuzi. 

Geoffrey Kamese, the Executive Director of Biovision Africa, says that the dam has hurt displaced people and the environment. He says that some of the consequences of building large dams were inevitable but better engagement of the communities is necessary to create better awareness and propose ways of minimizing the impact. 

“One of the challenges is that the current dispensation does not favor civil society engagement. The space was inadequate, and engagement was narrow before and during the construction of Isimba Dam,” said Kamese.

He also said that the Bujagali dam was approved on the condition that no other dam is constructed between Bujagali and Lake Kyoga. This was spelled out in an agreement (Kalagala Falls Offset Area) between Gov’t of Uganda and the World Bank to address the Bujagali dam’s adverse environmental impacts. In addition, the Kalagala Offset was supposed to conserve the remaining tourism and cultural assets.   

A section of the Kalagala Falls along the River Nile
A section of the Kalagala Falls along River Nile

“Government has back-tracked on Kalagala offset for Bujagali. This was put in place as a condition to address the adverse impacts of construction of Bujagali dam with financing from the World Bank,” said Kamese, adding that this has contributed to the disruption of the socio-economic setup and the environment of the areas between Bujagali and Isimba.   

Dam report raises concerns 

In a report titled World Commission on Dams, civil society pointed out dam construction has become a question in many countries. This, the report stated, is due to limited inclusiveness and transparency in the construction of massive dams displacing many people and causing enormous environmental damage.

In addition, the provision of electric power from large dams has been discounted against competing interests such as displacement of people and loss of tourism, cultural assets, and biodiversity, according to the World Commission on Dams. 

Is it climate change? 

The floods have affected residents living near Isimba dam and residents around Bujagali dam in Jinja district, according to investigations by New Vision

In the past three years, the government increased the outflow of Lake Victoria through River Nile to reduce flooding around Lake Victoria. The spillover water around Lake Victoria has been blamed partly on climate change and the destruction of forests and wetlands that used to act as a break for water flowing into Lake Victoria. 

In addition, recent reports indicate that climate change is predicted to increase the variability of the Nile’s flow by approximately 50 percent throughout the twenty-first century. This shows a doubled likelihood of both flooding and drought.

The government has not given up

Dr. Barirega Akankwasa, the executive director of the top government watchdog on environment – NEMA says that flooding beyond the reservoir’s boundaries is not strange. 

“A dam or reservoir can indeed flood beyond the boundaries,” said Akankwasa, adding that the reservoir is a holding ground for water. “The water reservoir behind the dam is supposed to cover an estimated area.”

He added, “After holding the water behind the dam, not all areas may be flooded. The reservoir is created as a precaution; it is not unusual for water to go beyond the limit. If it goes beyond an estimated area, people must be evacuated.” 

Asked if the Government would compensate the affected communities, Akankwasa said, “If the flood area has expanded, people have to be evacuated, and compensation should be discussed later.” 

He added, “We (NEMA) are going to contact the directorate of water resources management in the Ministry of Water and Environment, who are technically mandated to study the situation and provide a way out.” 

When contacted by the writer for comment, Dr. Callist Tindimugaya, the Commissioner in charge of Water Resources Management, said he had taken note of the concern. He said a fact-finding mission to undertake an assessment to address the situation was going on the ground. “We need to establish why the flooding is taking place and advise government on how to overcome the situation,” Tindimugaya told New Vision in an interview.

Chinese connection 

Isimba dam cost $568m, with China’s Export-Import (EXIM) Bank providing 85% of the fund as a loan. Construction started in 2013 and was commissioned in 2018. China International Water and Electric Corporation constructed the Isimba dam. 

Biodiversity Loss  

Apart from the displacement of people, the construction of the Isimba dam has significant environmental impacts, including biodiversity loss. 

Before the Isimba dam was constructed, there were wetlands, islands, forests, and thickets along the banks of the River Nile. The creation of the reservoir or an artificial lake swallowed some of the islands, wetlands, and forests.  

After the creation of the Isimba dam, a backflow of water swallowed about six kilometers of the fast-moving river between Kalagala and Isimba, according to Addendum Environmental and Social Impact of the Isimba Hydropower project of the Kalagala Offset Area. 

The damming of the River Nile by Isimba has swallowed part of the habitats of an endemic fish species, according to the Addendum Environmental and Social Impact of the Isimba Hydropower project of the Kalagala Offset Area. 

The report cited haplochromine species that are usually found in well-oxygenated habitats. “Fish species intolerant of low oxygen level in the water will vacate the low oxygen habitats and migrate further upstream,” stated the report. 

A recent survey by the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRIRRI) in 2016, the presence of Neochromis Simotes, an endemic fish species of very high conservation importance at Kirindi, Isimba, Mbulamuti, and Kakindu. While Isimba and Kirindi lie within the zone by the reservoir, Mbulamuti and Kakindu, located downstream of the Isimba dam, have been dammed. 

Endemic means a plant or animal that lives in a small or is restricted to a specific place. 

Impact on tourism 

Because of damming of the Nile, 17 of the falls or rapids between Bujagali and Isimba and eight of the rapids have gone underwater.

 The dam has also reduced the rafting distance from 36.5 km of free-flowing river to only 16.5km.

In addition, five of the islands, which were stopovers for the water rafters, have gone underwater. The islands also provided sanctuary to water birds. 

“We have lost tourism assets and experience along River Nile,” said Patrick Kayinja, who works with Adrift and Lemala wild waters Lodge. 

This story was supported by InfoNile with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation.

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