The decision to have the Owen Falls hydroelectric scheme in Uganda was taken at a time when World War II was just ending.
The end of the war came with post-war economic unrest and constitutional changes. These posed a challenge to the new governor to Uganda, Sir John Hathorn Hall, who introduced new measures to curb the unrest.
The new measures were based on the Uganda Development Plan by Dr E. B. Worthington. The plan was to develop Uganda as an agricultural country with as much industry as possible.
According to Gal Wilson’s book Owen Falls Electricity in a developing country, “References to the hydroelectric scheme were short because at the time a comprehensive report was being prepared. Electricity was considered as one of a number of services which the government should provide to encourage industrialisation.”
Dr Worthington recommended a large hydroelectric scheme capable of meeting an expanded future demand. As Worthington was preparing the Uganda Development Plan, the future chairman of the Uganda Electricity Board, Charles Redvers Westlake, was investigating the hydroelectricity project.
According to a 1947 publication, Uganda Electricity Survey by Westlake, a survey on the potential of the Nile being able to generate power was conducted as early as 1935.
“Engineers had concluded that, although technically feasible, such a project would not pay, as electricity consumption, both actual and potential, was too low,” the report said.
The Uganda Electricity Survey had two recommendations based on two stated beliefs. The first was that the provision of electricity was not merely a commercial enterprise but a service to be undertaken by the government; and that in the past power schemes were undertaken in order to satisfy existing demand, but that the time had come to begin a scheme which would be capable of supplying foreseeable potential demand.
The Egypt factor
The construction of the dam was subject to the Egyptian government approval; failure to secure one meant it would have taken Uganda much longer than it did to have the dam constructed.
In May 1929, the governments of Britain and Egypt signed what was known as the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement. This agreement gave Egypt “historical rights” to the River Nile waters, where no country which shared the Nile could do anything that would affect the flow of the Nile waters without consent of the Egyptian government.
As a result, in the Egyptian circles, the Owen Falls dam project came to be known as Egypt’s Century Storage Scheme on the Nile.
After deciding on the construction, the British government, through its ambassador in Egypt Ronald Campbell, presented its plans to the Egyptian government.
Act of faith
Though created by a special ordinance in 1947, the Uganda Electricity Board project, according to financial secretary Hugh Dalton, was “an act of faith”.
Dalton’s argument was that both the survey and the Uganda Development Plan were prepared at a time when little statistical material was available and economic conditions were artificial and unstable.
However, the survey’s predictions stated that the scheme’s success depended on two conditions: One, the power produced should be cheap, and the other was that demand should be built up before the hydroelectric station began production so that the full potential of the first generating set could be used at once.
The site and construction
The decision to construct the dam was done hurriedly. Between May 1947 and January 1948, the Uganda Electricity Survey report was presented, the Uganda Electricity Board (UEB) ordinance 1947 was passed and the UEB board came into being.
For the site of the dam, there were several options which included the Napolean Gulf where the Nile leaves Lake Victoria, the Ripon Falls, the Owen Falls and the Bujagali Falls.
The choice of the site was based on the document Owen Falls, Uganda Hydroelectric Development by Westlake R. W. Mountain and T. A. L. Paton which stated that water levels records of Lake Victoria had been kept since 1896 by the physical department of the Egyptian ministry of public works.
“The highest and lowest flows recorded were 43,000 and 10,500 cusecs, with an average of 22,100 cusecs. For these reasons, the dam could be constructed to pass the highest recorded flow of 43,000 cusecs without fear for its safety,” the document said in part.
“The flow of the Nile at Jinja was directly related to the level of the lake and was, therefore, predictable. The average flow of the river could be calculated from a base of 50 years.”
The total budget approved for the scheme totalled £7,120,000 (Shs35.6 billion at current exchange rate) as opposed to the earlier estimates of £4,298,000 (Shs21.5 billion) by Westlake. The increase in costs was as a result of a larger generating station.
Westlake’s earlier recommendations were for a capacity of 90,000kW. But it was finally decided to raise the capacity to 15,000kW.
However, all project reports had pointed to 30,000kW as the amount of power that could be produced by the dam. Unfortunately, the railway line from Mombasa could not, at that time, transport anything bigger than what can be used in the power production.
For fast progression of the scheme, UEB estimated a labour force of 2,000 would be employed. UEB decided to build labour quarters at the Amberly Estate north of Jinja, for Europeans and Asian at a cost of £400,000 (Shs2 billion at current exchange rates).
The estate was complete with a club, community centre and swimming pool. The African staff had their quarters across the bridge in Njeru.
They ordered for the generating equipment as soon as the construction started in July 1948. However, the contracting of the site engineers was delayed, waiting the completion of negotiations with the Egyptian government.
Once the negotiations were done, a consortium of British, Danish, Dutch and Italian firms was awarded the contract in September 1949.
At the time of signing a contract agreement, there was a shortage of building materials. Cement was at first to be imported. In 1949, UEB agreed to act as managing agents for a local cement factory to be established at Tororo.
Immediate effects of the scheme
The construction of the dam had some indirect effects on the surrounding country. By the time of completion, it had employed 2,500 Africans, 200 Europeans and 123 Asians. Many of these came with their dependents to Njeru and Jinja respectively. In addition, others not directly employed by the Owen Falls construction company settled in Jinja.
As would be expected, this sudden increase in the population had a marked effect on the town. Offices, shops and flats were built. However, once the dam was completed in 1954, the labour force fell rapidly and stood at 600 at the end of 1955.
Another positive outcome of the construction of the dam was the elimination of the mbwa fly from the area. This fly was the vector for ‘river blindness’ and was in part responsible for the low density of population along the Nile in Bugerere and Butembe-Bunya. With its elimination from the area, there was an upsurge in agricultural activity in the once affected areas which had now been cleared of the fly.
The dam started generating power in January 1954, though with a steep rise in the estimated cost.
The scheme was, however, executed at a time of rising prices, by 1953 the project report estimate had been exceeded by almost 100 per cent bringing the total cost to £13 million (Shs65 billion at current exchange rate), nearly twice the revised estimate of £7.1 million (Shs35.5 billion) on which the decision to build the dam was based.
At the time of commissioning by the queen in April 1954, two turbines where operational and others were opened later.
Letter to egyptians
After deciding on the construction, the British government, through its ambassador in Egypt Ronald Campbell, presented its plans to the Egyptian government. In a letter dated May 30, 1949, saying:
“Monsieur le President du Conseil, I have the honour to recapitulate below the points on which His Majesty’s government in the United Kingdom and the Royal Egyptian Government have reached agreement concerning the construction and administration of the dam to be erected at Owen Falls in Uganda.”
“The Royal Egyptian government and His Britannic Majesty government, in accordance with the spirit of the Nile Waters Agreement 1929, have agreed to the construction of a dam at Owen Falls in Uganda for the production of hydroelectric power and for the control of the Nile.”
The letter further went on to say: “The two governments have also agreed that though the construction of the dam will be the responsibility of the Uganda Electricity Board, the interests of Egypt will, during the period of construction, be represented at the site by an Egyptian resident engineer of suitable and his staff stationed there for the purpose by the Royal Egyptian Government, to whom all facilities will be given for the accomplishment of their duties.”
“Furthermore, the two governments have agreed that although the dam when constructed will be administered and maintained by the Uganda Electricity Board, the latter will regulate the discharges to be passed through the dam on the instructions of the Egyptian resident engineer be stationed with his staff at the dam by the Royal Egyptian government for this purpose in accordance with arrangements to be agreed between the Egyptian ministry of public works and the Uganda authorities pursuant to the provisions of agreement to be concluded between the governments.”
Writing in the Uganda Journal volume 16 of 1952, Brigadier C. G. Hawes says, “The dam was designed to be one metre higher than was necessary for the electricity scheme alone and it was agreed to restrict the average flow to 17,500 cusecs in order to store water in Lake Victoria for Egypt. The Egyptian government financed the extra work and undertook to pay compensation for loss of power a total of £980,000 (Shs5 billion at current exchange rate).”