There was uproar last year when news broke of a bid to conduct a feasibility study to determine the justification of constructing a hydro-power dam at Murchison Falls National Park.
What is not known by many is that this is not the first time a dam has been proposed on the Murchison Falls. In 1968, during the first Milton Obote regime, the then president announced the construction of the dam while making a speech about the future of Uganda’s industrial development.
This, he said, would supplement the Owen Falls Dam and it was to be built by a Norwegian firm with funding from the World Bank and other donors.
Unlike last year when opposition to the project was mainly internal, in 1968, Ugandans were in support of the project and it was the international community that led the fight to save the falls.
When Robert S. McNamara, then World Bank president, visited Uganda in early January 1970, the dam project was top on the agenda.
According to World Bank Group archives folder titled Travel briefs, Uganda (01/01/1970-31/01/1970), McNamara arrived in Uganda on January 14, 1970, for a series of meetings with political and business leaders.
Although the World Bank was to partly fund the project, it wanted the Uganda government to first give assurance over wildlife protection and preservation of park’s natural beauty.
“A fear Ugandans seem to have is that the Bank may be yielding to pressures from other sources on account of the danger to wildlife. In response, we have expressed concern about the physical implications of the project, we would also wish to be satisfied that the commissioning of the power station is the most economical way of meeting Uganda’s power requirements,” reads the file. During his visit, McNamara visited the site of the proposed dam.
At the time of Obote’s proposal in 1968, Uganda had got its first loan from the World Bank. As a justification for the loan, the Bank detailed how successful the first loan had been. Loan number 279 UG, signed in March 1961 worth $8.4m, was meant for Uganda Electricity Board (UEB).
Internally, UEB was pushing for the success of the project. The UEB chairperson, Erisa Kironde, was quoted in The London Times, a British newspaper, saying: “The scheme’s opponents have a case, but their fears are exaggerated and based on unprovable assumptions. All possible alternatives have been examined, but none of them has proved predictable.”
Despite the success of the first loan to the power sector, there were fears of straining the relationship should the World Bank yield to outside pressure and pull out on funding of the dam project.
According to the Bank’s records, after the announcement of the Murchison Falls project, it ceased being a developmental issue and became political. It also threatened relations between the Uganda and the financial institution.
“Mr McNamara has received a number of letters from various organisations and distinguished persons to request that we refrain from encouraging such development,” the World Bank document states.
Despite international pressure, the Bank was convinced by the Uganda government of its commitment to preserve the environment.
“We have been assured that the government intends to ensure preservation of the wildlife and the natural attraction in the area and plans for the scheme have been designed with this point in mind,” the Bank’s records show.
Besides preserving the natural attraction, plans were made to hide the structures of the dam from the public. The Bank also proposed that tourist roads in the park be rerouted away from the falls.
“The tops of some steelwork structures in the overground substation and also the first three or four transmission towers are likely to be visible from the road. If suitably painted they should be scarcely visible to the naked eye from a distance,” records state.
Besides preservation of the park’s natural attraction, the other concern was its commercial viability. The economic viability was dependent on Uganda’s ability to supply 30MW to Kenya.
In 1958, Uganda had signed a bulk power supply to Kenya for a period 50 years until 2008.
“The timing of a new major power project in Uganda could undergo a change if Uganda is able to negotiate some modification of the present agreement governing the bulk-supply of power from Uganda to Kenya,” the Bank stated.
Opposing the project
Just as it was last year, the project had people opposed to it in 1968. British newspaper The London Times of September 15, 1969, described the controversy surrounding the proposed dam.
“Opponents claim that it will not only disturb the animals in the park, but it is also likely to ruin the falls as a spectacle and thereby destroy Uganda’s most valuable tourist asset,” the paper reported.
In what the newspaper called a flood of letters from all over the world, there was international protest against the project.
“Protest letters from all over the world has aroused bitter reception from many Ugandans who accuse the protesters of being more interested in animals than people.”
UEB chairman Kironde’s reaction to international criticism of the construction probably reflected how most Ugandans viewed the national parks.
“He has at times reacted fairly violently to criticism of the Murchison Falls project, and is reported to have said that various people overseas want to make Uganda into their private zoo,” the World Bank report described Kironde’s reaction.
According to the World Bank records, the project was expected to last five years, starting in June 1971. The commissioning was supposed to be in 1976. Unfortunately, with the change of government in Kampala in 1971, the project never took off.