The road that leads to Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, once brimming with wildlife, where even the most unassuming drive around would often mean spotting wildlife now stands ready to be paved over.
Large forest areas across the country are also being uprooted, to make way for ambitious energy projects. Murchison Falls is the largest and most visited park in Uganda, and is probably best known for its two waterfalls, sitting next to one another: the Murchison Falls, and its little sibling, Uhuru (which translates as “freedom” in Swahili).
It’s Uhuru Falls that now attract the attention of South African Bonang Power and Energy, the company that applied for a licence to build a 360MW hydro plant in the smaller of the twin falls. The news came as a further blow to already angered conservationists and tourism operators, who a few months earlier learned that Total E&P Uganda had been given approval to develop six oilfields in the Ramsar site, within the park’s grounds.
Uganda’s government questionable assertiveness and diverging opinions on the feasibility/environmental impact regarding these recent projects do not help the matter of settling the issue. This can be better illustrated by the recent statements from Uganda’s Tourism Minister, Ephraim Kamuntu.
In August 2019, Kamuntu said: “(the) Cabinet took a decision at its latest sitting that there will be no construction of the hydropower dam in Murchison Falls National Park”, arguing that it would “affect the scenery, ecosystem and subsequently, tourism”. He did, however, concede, in his own words, “Definitely we still need more electricity to power our expanding economy, but this project can go elsewhere, not in the park.”
However, in December 2019, the then Minister of Energy and Mineral Development, Irene Muloni contradicted that statement, declaring that “In order to make a scientifically informed decision, Cabinet reviewed its decision last Monday and agreed that a feasibility study is undertaken on the Uhuru Falls site”.
Studies point to a 10% per year increase on the country’s current energy demand. The government’s goal is to take things further and, over the next 20 years, increase access to the national grid anywhere from 26% to 80%, relying heavily on renewable energy sources, making hydropower a natural and readily available option from the get-go.
A few, smaller hydropower projects have recently sprung up, such as the Isimba hydropower plant, on the Nile, commissioned in 2018, and Karuma Plant, also on the Nile, nearing completion. The Uhuru Falls project, however, has stirred up fierce opposition, partly due to the symbolic importance of the park to the country’s identity and national pride.
This protecting sentiment has recently materialized into a change.org petition that has amassed almost 22.000 signatures as of the time of writing. One of the main points of disagreement seems to be the Government’s claim that once they build a dam on Uhuru Falls, Murchison Falls will not be affected. Conservationists eagerly disagree, objecting that the water source is one and the same for both the waterfalls, and that Uhuru Falls is actually a seasonal phenomenon, mostly dry outside of the rainy seasons.
In essence, they argue, the economic and environmental reasoning they offer, far outweigh any energy output increment such a disruptive project can offer. In the meantime, road constructions are ever nearer the site of the falls, which may be strong indication that a decision to build the dam has already been made, and all the talks and feasibility studies are nothing more than camouflage in the deep heart of the jungle.