Op-Ed: Will the White Nile’s Legendary Whitewater be Drowned?

Construction is underway for new dam, but there is still a chance to mitigate impacts on local communities

By Jessie Stone

Dam building has entered a strange, even contradictory, phase. In North America, the era of large dams has passed, and river restoration is on the rise. More and more dams are being removed in order to enhance recreation, protect fish habitats and improve the health of river ecosystems. In the developing world, however, the opposite is happening. Despite abundant potential for alternative energy, such as solar power, and economic studies which conclude large dams usually result in an economic loss for the countries that build them, large hydropower dams continue to go up at a breakneck pace.

Despite the fact that construction on the Isimba Dam has already begun, the size of the dam has not yet been determined. There is still time to act and advocate for a smaller dam.

In Uganda, the White Nile will soon be dammed in five places. One dam (the Bujagali Dam) was completed in 2011, and has already caused a marked decline in the tourism-driven economy of the area. Two similar dams are currently under construction. While there is no way to stop these dams, it is still possible to mitigate their effects by restricting their size.

The Isimba Dam, which is being built near the epicenter of Uganda's famous whitewater tourism industry, has three possible dam height options. Despite the fact that construction has already begun, the final decision has not yet been made as to which of these options will be built, and the World Bank still has a major say in determining the dam’s height. There is still time to act and advocate for the smallest dam option, which would mean a negligible loss in power generated but would preserve the many benefits ecotourism brings to people living near the Nile. In addition, it would keep the World Bank from violating a protective offset agreement made with the Ugandan government when the Bujagali Dam (aka the Silverback Dam) was completed.

The White Nile provides world-class playboating and whitewater rapids for paddlers. Courtesy Jessie Stone.

The White Nile provides world-class playboating and whitewater rapids for paddlers. Courtesy Jessie Stone.

This agreement, known as the Kalagala Offset was designed to protect the world-class whitewater of Itanda Falls, Kalagala and Hypoxia rapids as well as 25 kilometers of wild river downstream from these rapids. If the large- or medium-sized options for the Isimba Dam were completed, the offset agreement would be nullified. Only the small dam size would honor the Kalagala offset and keep the Nile very close to its current state. Most Ugandans who live in the area do not even know about the offset so they don't understand that a major violation could take place. To make matters worse, the Ugandan government has hired the Chinese International Water and Electric Company to build the dam, a corporation that has been blacklisted by the World Bank for falsifying information and corrupt business practices associated with another hydro project in Uganda. All of this sounds ominous for the Nile.

In order to understand what's at stake with the Isimba Dam, one doesn't have look far. When the Bujagali Dam flooded a whitewater stretch just upstream that included the famous Bujagali Falls–a gorgeous series of rapids and home to Bujagali, the spirit god of the area–Ugandans and international visitors alike lost an amazing natural wonder and local communities suffered.

White-Nile Map

The proposed dam on White Nile in Uganda is near the source of Africa’s biggest river.

The falls once served as the economic backbone of the area. Entrepreneurial Ugandans became "Bujagali swimmers," using geri cans to run the falls for a fee while entranced tourists watched; photographers specialized in souvenir portraits; art stands, chapatti stands, restaurants, boda boda taxis, campgrounds, curio shops, and guided tours of the village all thrived along the Nile. Thousands of Ugandans were able to earn a living wage and to support themselves and their families with sustainable income. During the pre-dam years, many mud dung huts were replaced by brick and concrete homes, a rare occurrence in rural Uganda. In addition, the large and diverse numbers of people attracted to Bujagali Falls brought another side benefit: nonprofit work in local communities. Many of the area's improvements in healthcare, education, and even gardening have come from tourists who originally visited the area for recreation, but then decided to stay and help the local residents.

Once the dam was completed and reservoir replaced falls, however, many local businesses disappeared. Crime in the area increased, as many people who once had a source of income are now unemployed. Without the falls, the former beneficiaries of tourism dollars are struggling to support families.

Now, with the imminent construction of a new dam further downstream at Isimba Falls, the majority of remaining paddleable whitewater on this section of the Nile may be flooded within three years. What happened at Bujagali is a scary foreshadowing of what's to come to the entire area if the large- or medium-sized dam is built and Itanda Falls is flooded. The rafting and kayaking businesses that relocated to the Isimba area after the Bujagali Dam was completed are now in danger of losing their river once again. These rapids, which are about forty kilometers downstream from the source of the Nile, are the largest and most spectacular on this section of the river. Itanda Falls in particular has an enormous cultural significance for the local people, and is the traditional home to another powerful river spirit.

Itanda Falls represents a consistent tourist draw for schools, universities, and curious locals as well as international visitors. Since most Ugandans can't afford to visit the other well-known tourist attractions such as Murchison Falls, or the Gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, it is the Ugandan natural wonder most visited by local Ugandans. In fact, these days, Itanda is more visited than ever since Bujagali Falls is gone.

In Uganda, 62 percent of young people are unemployed and there is a very high birth rate. These factors suggest that the Isimba Dam, if its effect in any way mirrors that of the Bujagali Dam, will certainly not alleviate the unemployment problem or improve the quality of people's lives. In fact, the opposite will happen. Ironically, if Bujagali is any predictor, the electrical power, the whole point of the dam, is unlikely to reach those who need it. Instead, the power will be sold off to neighboring countries to generate money for a few wealthy people in Uganda.

Isimba dam white nile uganda

Officials meeting on the Isimba Dam project.

With all of the red flags associated with the Isimba Dam project, it is extremely disturbing that very little information about the dam and its future impact has been provided by the Ugandan government, the World Bank, or by the Chinese International Water and Electric Company. Most locals are not properly informed about what the short- and long-term effects of the dam will be. Most do not understand that if they live near the river, they will be displaced; most do not understand that no more whitewater means no more visitors, and hence a major blow to local businesses. Those who work for Nile River Explorers, and who have seen the negative changes brought about by the Bujagali Dam, are trying to spread the word and to help inform and empower people.

A few weeks ago, a group of locals who would be negatively affected by a large- or medium-sized dam presented their case to the Ugandan Parliament. The Speaker of Parliament, who is from the area that would be hardest hit, said that there should and would be a further investigation into the long-term impact of the dam. This sounds encouraging, but whether it actually happens, and if it will have any result, is unknown at this point.

Luckily there is still a chance that the smallest dam option could be built, preserving the Ugandan Nile's best whitewater and skirting the same type of economic devastation wrought by the Bujagali Dam.

There is still time for people who oppose the large and medium dams to make their voices heard. Contact the World Bank and register your protest about violating the Kalagala Offset agreement. In addition, sign the petition against the large and medium dams HERE.

Regardless of whether you see hydroelectric projects as inevitable progress or as wanton destruction, Uganda's Nile region will not be what it has always been for much longer. If you have dreamed of experiencing this wild place, there is no time like the present.

Jessie Stone is a doctor and whitewater kayaker who has spent many years in Uganda helping distribute mosquito nets to fight malaria. In 2006, she opened a clinic in Kyabirwa, the small village flanking many of the Nile's best play features, which were since inundated by the massive Bujagali Dam hydroelectric project.

–For updates and more information, visit: https://www.facebook.com/saveadventuretourisminUganda