How hydropower dams dry up Nile River tourism

Bujagali was a bustling tourism centre before the dam was built, according to local vendors, tour guides and taxi drivers. Many businesses had to close when tourism slowed. PHOTO BY JULIA BURPEE

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Bujagali Falls, a series of rapids that used to attract thousands of tourists annually, was flooded when the hydropower dam was built. This slowed tourism and forced some businesses in Bujagali to close, according to locals. Now, residents of Jinja District say they are worried the planned Isimba dam will dry up the remaining tourism they depend on.

JINJA. Bujagali was a different place before the dam opened in [July] 2012, locals lament. “I can’t even say how many customers I would have daily ... maybe 200 or more, now I only see one every few days,” says Peter Lumumba, who sells handicrafts at his shop in the area’s tourist centre.

Every week, several coach buses would bring local and international tourists to see the whitewater of Bujagali Falls on the Nile River, says Francis Ochiti, who used to own Nile Café, one of the main restaurants in the area. The Bujagali hydropower dam’s reservoir flooded the Falls, the series of cascading rapids that used to attract tourists as onlookers and to raft and kayak, so tourism slowed, he says.

“Six months after the dam opened, I had to close my restaurant. I couldn’t afford to pay rent or my workers,” Ochiti says, explaining his business depended on tourists. Now, I earn 10 times less than I did when I had Nile Café, he says. “I support 10 people here and in northern Uganda and can no longer afford to pay school fees for my brothers.”

There’s a massive number of Ugandans who benefit from tourism directly and indirectly, Ochiti says, adding that his wife is a receptionist at a rafting company. Although tourism in Bujagali is waning, Ochiti, who grew up in Jinja, says he has managed to continue his lifelong work in the industry. He now sells packed lunches to tour operators.

“We depend on tourism here,” agrees Fatiya Namugaya, a mother who lives in Bujagali, where she opened a souvenir shop outside the gates of a popular tourist camp 10 years ago. Along a road with no tourists in sight, Namugaya points to local restaurants and chapatti stands that didn’t survive the dam. They’re closed because few tourists come here now so the primary customers were lost, she says. “I have children to care for. This new dam is going to kill my job,” Namugaya says, predicting the final blow to her business when Isimba dam opens about 40km away from the one built in Bujagali.

A call to reduce Isimba dam size

Namugaya’s cry was echoed by a petition with 15,000 signatures that was presented to Parliament on September 22. The petition, signed by vendors, tour operators, residents and others from Jinja District, asks the government to value the jobs tourism creates for communities around the source of the Nile and modify Isimba Dam plans; an initiative in line with World Tourism Day’s 2014 theme of tourism and community development, which was celebrated on September 27.

An additional petition online has garnered nearly 3,700 supporters (as of October 2) from 68 countries, according to the lead petitioner and Jinja resident, Jeff Bidandi. Bidandi represents the collective, Save Adventure Tourism Uganda (SATU), that wants the wall planned for Isimba dam to be scaled down from 1055 metres above sea level to 1043 to protect local jobs and the environment.

A lower wall would reduce the reservoir size, preserving the whitewater in the conservation area, which was created in 2007. It was created as part of an agreement between the government of Uganda and the World Bank’s International Development Association to offset the construction of the Bujagali dam. The protected stretch of rapids, called Kalagala Falls, became the alternative rafting and kayaking route, after the dam was built, locals say.

Constructing Isimba dam in the planned size will flood most of the remaining rapids suitable for water sports, which attract tourists from around the world, Bidandi says. The industry won’t be able to adapt this time. “We want a win-win: the government gets power and we get tourism,” Bidandi says, stressing that tourism is integral to his region and country.

Sustaining tourism versus increasing power

Tourism recently became Uganda’s top export earner, drawing US $1.4 billion (Shs3.7 trillion) in the 2013/14 fiscal year, up from $1.11 billion (Shs2.9 trillion) in the previous year, the Bank of Uganda reported in August. The World Travel and Tourism Council “estimates that the Uganda tourism industry directly contributed 225,300 jobs in 2011.” Although, the number of jobs created by tourism jumps to 522,700 when considering positions indirectly supported by tourism, according to the WTTC.

“We really appreciate the issue of tourism, we’re very mindful of it because it’s an important revenue earner, but at the same time, we really need electricity to develop the economy,” says Irene Muloni, the minister of energy and mineral development. Uganda’s current demand for electricity at peak hours is about 500 megawatts, but the demand is growing by an average of 10 per cent annually, the minister explained in a phone interview.

“Hydropower is one of the cheapest sources of renewable energy so we are tapping into the potential in the [Jinja] region,” she says.

The planned Isimba dam will generate an additional 183 megawatts, the majority of which will be fed onto the national grid, which provides power to 16 per cent of the country, according to Kenneth Otim, head of communications at Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Ltd. Electricity from the national grid is distributed to Kampala (about 60 per cent of it), Mbarara, Kasese, Lira, Soroti and Tororo, he says.

Although Jinja isn’t connected to the grid, some power from Isimba dam will go to the district through a separate transmission line, following the same distribution path as power from Bujagali dam, Otim explains.

Tourism matters to Jinja, locals say

“Even if they’re building 10 dams, we can’t benefit because we can’t afford electricity,” says Bujagali resident, Stephen Kirunda, challenging the contributions dams make to his home at the cost of steady tourism, which he says he needs to sustain his work as a quad bike tour guide.

“The chain of [tourism beneficiaries] is incredibly long,” says Jon Dahl, owner of Nile River Explorers (NRE) in Jinja town. The company, which opened in 1996, is one of several that primarily offers rafting and kayaking tours. NRE employs 100 full-time staff, the majority of whom are Ugandan, he says. Approximately 200 other Ugandans are employed by other rafting and kayaking companies, according to an independent Isimba dam economic impact assessment conducted by E&D Consulting Services in December 2013.

Jaffer Buyinza paints rafters and kayakers inside Bujagali dam "to remind people what was lost," he says. The Jinja artist says he was commissioned by Bujagali Energy Limited to paint murals inside the dam as compensation for losses to his business. COURTESY PHOTO

A short visit to Bujagali, where chapati stands are marked with 'no credit cards accepted,' clearly addressing tourists, or Jinja Town, where the centre is coloured with souvenir shops and lined with western-style cafés and restaurants, illustrates how entrenched the tourism industry is in the lives of local people.

Boda boda and taxi drivers say they also depend on tourism. Emma Musana, a taxi driver who spent 11 years driving tourists between Entebbe airport and Bujagali several times a week at Shs200,000 per trip, says he now goes three months without comparable business.

Jaffer Buyinza, who signed the petition presented last week, is an artist who says he relocated his shop from Bujagali to Jinja Town after the dam slowed tourism there.

If generating more power and sustaining tourism can’t coexist then one has to go, says Julius Wandera, communications officer at Electricity Regulatory Authority, which licenses companies to generate and distribute power. “We have to ask: what is more beneficial to Ugandans: adding 183 megawatts of power [with Isimba] or tourism?”

Top attractions

There needs to be a balance so we can have a dam for power and preserve tourism: rafting and kayaking are connected with huge amounts of profit, says Edwin Muzahura, head of marketing at the Uganda Tourism Board. “If rapids are destroyed that will be a disaster.”

The Nile’s whitewater offers world-class, grade-five rapids unavailable in neighbouring countries, making rafting a major selling feature for Uganda, he says. Rafting is also listed as a ‘tourism highlight’ on the Ministry of Tourism’s website.

Last year, rafting and kayaking attracted more than 19,300 tourists to Jinja, according to E&D Consulting Services. NRE reports selling as many as 50 rafting trips a day (Shs330,625 per person) year-round. The 800 or so independent kayakers who visit Uganda each year contribute an average of US $720,000 (Shs1.9 billion) annually - money spent at restaurants, hotels, shops and on local transportation, according to a 2012 report commissioned by British kayakers

“You don’t come all the way to Uganda to spend a few hours with the gorillas,” says Dahl, who has worked in local tourism for 18 years. Rafting and kayaking is also located closer than Bwindi to key entry points, like Nairobi. “This keeps Uganda in the tourism loop. Otherwise, tourists could just go to Rwanda to see gorillas.”

A study of nearly 300 tourists conducted by SATU last year found that respondents spent 73 per cent of their trip to Uganda in Jinja, where every tourist reported spending an average of US $390 of the $834 each person spent in the country.

Two German tourists arriving in Jinja from Nairobi, on September 25, say they only came to Uganda to raft the Nile. “We’ve already done safaris in Kenya and Tanzania and gorilla tracking is too expensive,” says Kathrin Welther. This sentiment was reiterated by a group of 10 Americans who say rafting was the reason for their visit. Other tourists coming from as far as away as Australia say they included Uganda on a 50-day trip around Africa just to go rafting.

Often, it’s the novelty of the Nile - the river mentioned in the Bible - that draws tourists to raft and kayak here instead of elsewhere, says Juma Kalikwani, who has worked as a rafting tour guide for 14 years.

Spectators watch kayakers on the Nile River at a festival in Jinja last year. "The Nile Special rapid, which will be lost to Isimba dam, is one of the best in the world," says Juma Kalikwani, who represented Uganda in freestyle kayaking at the London 2012 Olympics. PHOTO BY TRU ADRENALIN

Reducing rapids risks drying up tourism

Petitioners maintain that Jinja’s central tourism industries of rafting and kayaking will be compromised by the planned Isimba dam height as it will leave only four commercially viable rapids, cutting the route in half, while increasing driving time, according to Dahl. “It’s like saying ‘you can climb Mount Kenya, but you can only go halfway up.’” Losing whitewater will mean scaling down operations and firing staff, he laments.

“Water is a public resource, it doesn’t belong to tour operators,” says Matovu Bukenya, head of communications at the ministry of energy. “You think that employment outweighs other national interests?” He asks, affirming that power generation is the priority and tourism stakeholders won’t be compensated for losses, including one lodge located on an island that will be inundated by the dam reservoir.

While a social impact assessment for the Isimba dam project, commissioned by the ministry of energy, was made available in September 2013, following public consultations, no government-commissioned economic or environmental assessments have been made publicly available. However, Bukenya says these assessments were done.

SATU petitioner, Buyinza, says his group will continue to pressure the government to reevaluate the economic and environmental costs of the planned dam size. “Even if we lose this fight, we can get the next one; there will be continuous demand for power that will come at a cost to Ugandans and their land.”