#2: The Nile, Uganda
As told to Eric Adist
Steve Fisher spent 7 years on the Nile. Literally. He lived on an island in the midst of the classic whitewater stretch, built a house, become a part of the community, and now he stands to lose it all with the impending Isimba Dam. These are his thoughts on the dam’s impact, what it means to him, and the real reasons these dams keep getting built.
I first visited the Nile in late 2002. The first thing I noticed about the place was that it was just wild. I secured an island in 2004. This was before any dams. There wasn’t even really talk of the Bujugali Dam that I knew of.
Now the ball is rolling. The path for approval has been created. An external company does the environmental impact study and once that occurs its cleared, it’s good to go. The company comes in and brings all their own high end people, build their own village that’s heavily fenced off. They bring a lot of transient workers in who are already trained at all the roles needed for building a dam. At the lowest pay grade within the building of the dam there’s some local employment for about three years, and then they pull the pin and they leave. What used to be a cool little subsistence village is now just an industrial ghost town.
They say they’re going to build roads and they’re going to build schools. I’ve spoken to Ugandans who live in the zone where it was promised who have told me in February this year that those roads and those schools have not been built. Those villagers in the immediate vicinity of the dam have no power. The village uses the river for fishing, for drinking water, for washing their clothes, and according to the dam all of that can be done still. They don’t factor in the dying fish or the water hyacinth that covers water, and they don’t factor in algae blooms that occur in the water which makes it not good for drinking.
Tourism has become Uganda’s biggest industry. And the tourism is very centered around the rapids. It’s rafting and wildlife. That’s why people go to Uganda; they go to see the gorillas and Murchison National Park and go rafting. There are some other things that they do, but only because these other attractions are there. The World Bank made a promise that they would set up an offset conservation area. For a lot of people that was the reassurance they needed that rafting and kayaking on the Nile would stay alive. And that’s the reason a lot of people rolled over on them building the Bujugali Dam.
I’ve talked specifically to the lawyer on the Bujugali project. She told me: “If you want to make a complaint about these dams, please don’t tell us there’s corruption in the government and that we’re spending millions on it, we know that. We factor that into whether this is a net positive or net negative. Please don’t tell us that it’s destroying a beautiful river that you love to kayak on, we don’t care. What we care about is, did some woman’s baby survive because of this dam.” And that is the promise of the dam builders. And she said, “If you can prove that they are not fulfilling their promise, then we’ve got something to go on.” And I don’t believe they are, because I’ve talked to the locals. You can go to Uganda and get a photo of the mud hut with no power and the dam wall in the background. You can do that tomorrow, it exists.
This story is part of a C&K series covering the world’s ten most threatened paddling runs. Read about the other rivers on the list: