Why damming Isimba Falls will destroy tourism on R. Nile

A tourist bungee jumps at the source of the Nile. Bungee jumping is among the major tourism activities along the Nile.

What you need to know:

The proposed dam is likely to tamper with commercial activities along the course of the river like white-water rafting and kayaking operations which many believe will affect more than 100 tourism businesses in Jinja and beyond.


In July, the governments of Uganda and China signed a memorandum of understanding to construct a 188 Megawatts hydro-power dam at Isimba Falls in Kayunga District, 40kms downstream from the newly built Bujagali Hydropower Dam.

Following the May 2007 motion passed by Parliament authorising government to guarantee $115m for the Bujagali hydro power project, an Indemnity Agreement was signed in July 2007 between the government of Uganda and International Development Association (IDA), giving a partial risk guarantee on credit extended to the Bujagali project.

In the agreement, the government undertook to set aside the Kalagala Falls site to protect its natural habitat and spiritual values. In addition, the government agreed not to develop hydro power generation that could adversely affect the protection of the Kalagala Falls site without prior agreement with IDA.

Six years down the road, with the Bujagali dam completed and a sustainable management plan for Kalagala Offset developed and in place, a project has been approved that could erode all the efforts to preserve Kalagala falls and its associated natural features and attractions.

Most likely to suffer because of the construction of Isimba Dam is the adventure tourism industry along the River Nile in Jinja and Kayunga districts. The 40km section between Bujagali dam and the proposed Isimba dam site is used by companies running white water rafting and river kayaking trips.

According to the people operating on the affected section of the Nile, there has been very little consultation on the impacts of the Isimba dam and where it was done; many of the companies were not involved. “There was a stakeholders’ meeting about one year ago in which only two companies were invited, Adrift Adventure Company (who never attended) and Hairy Lemon Resort. The meeting had no prior knowledge of the tourism base in Jinja and was more concerned with the farmers or landowners that would be affected. It wasn’t concerned about the tourism industry at all,” says Jon Dahl, proprietor of Nile River Explorers white-water rafting company.

Information accessed by the company at the initial stages of the Isimba dam feasibility study suggests three options were being considered for the dam reservoir size. In the first option, the dam reservoir would back-up to the base of the Hairy Lemon Island resort in Nazigo, leaving the popular river kayaking wave chain, Nile Special, intact. The impact on independent river kayakers would be minimal.

However, commercial river rafting and kayaking operations would be the most affected since the major family rafting and kayak learning sections run from Hairy Lemon Resort in Nazigo to Busana, the Isimba Dam project location in Kayunga District.

The second option suggests the dam reservoir would recede up to the top of the Hairy Lemon resort in Nazigo, flooding the popular Nile Special rapid and leaving the section of water between the flooded rapid and Kalagala falls. This option would have a huge impact on the number of visitors which would affect the kayak community badly.

The third dam option would be flooding the whole section of the river from Busaana up to Kalagala Falls. According to the adventure companies on ground, the impact would be serious, resulting in a complete stop to independent kayakers visiting Uganda, which would be a major loss to river rafting and kayaking companies. In this option, the dam would flood into Kalagala offset, destroying the only viable section for white-water rafting as there are no more rapids between Isimba and Karuma.

End of adventure tourism
It would end adventure tourism in terms of rafting and kayaking on the river causing a major drop in tourist numbers and affecting businesses around and thousands of people who benefit from it. In the July 2013 World Bank Economic and Statistical analysis of Tourism in Uganda, adventure tourism was cited as the third most popular trip activity for leisure tourists coming to Uganda. For the over one million non-residents who visited Uganda in 2013, the most popular trip activities among leisure tourists were; wildlife safari accounting for 39 per cent of tourist visits, gorilla tracking at 26 per cent, adventure tourism at 25 per cent, and backpacker travel at 17 per cent.

As Jeffrey Gettleman summed it up in his 2009 New York Times article, ‘Wild on the Nile in Uganda,’ “Uganda is a wonderful place to experience Africa, and rafting is just a piece of it. You can trek deep into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and stand eye-to-eye with a 500-pound critically endangered mountain gorilla.

You can scale mountain peaks in the Rwenzoris (also known as the Mountains of the Moon) and see wild elephants at Queen Elizabeth National Park. You can bungee jump, jet boat and kayak…” A kayak is a small, relatively narrow, human-powered boat designed to be manually propelled by means of a double bladed paddle.

Following the completion of the Bujagali Dam whose construction submerged Bujagali Falls, kayakers use the stretch of white water from Kalagala or Itanda Falls down to Nile Special, a grade five rapid which is level with Nazigo, about five kilometres above Isimba Falls.

This stretch is widely regarded among the best for white-water rafting and kayaking in the world.
The main attraction is the Nile Special wave chain next to the Hairy Lemon Island resort in Nazigo, Kayunga District.

Nile Special is the only wave of its size and quality in the world that can be surfed 365 days of the year. Adrift Adventures, a white-water rafting company, says on its website, “the water temperature on the Nile has made this rapid in particular a ‘Mecca’ for white-water kayakers.”

Increasingly, people are looking to surf larger waves, like those of the Nile in Uganda and many of the world’s top athletes in freestyle kayaking train in Uganda prior to big competitions.
Kayak the Nile, a kayaking company operating on River Nile, suggests that commercial kayaking accounts for approximately 7500 visits to Uganda per year.

In addition, up to 800 kayakers travel independently to Uganda yearly, with numbers growing as Uganda becomes established as one of the world’s best kayaking destinations. Most independent kayakers stay in Uganda for two weeks or longer, some for as long as four months.

Excluding flights and travel to and from the country, on average, each kayaker could spend at least $500 at a time; totalling to nearly $400,000 brought in by 800 independent kayakers per annum. The 2013 World Bank report on Tourism in Uganda also indicates that leisure and cultural tourists spend 30 to 100 per cent more than other types of tourists per visit to Uganda.

This substantial difference in spending makes these tourists an attractive target in government efforts to increase the economic contribution of the tourism sector. According to the 2012 Tourism Expenditure and Motivation Survey (TEMS) done by the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry, roughly 500,000 foreign tourists spent at least one night in Uganda in 2012, and nearly 75,000 of these were leisure or cultural tourists.

The total economic impact of the expenditures made by these half-million foreign tourists while in Uganda is large; expenditures totalled Shs1.1 trillion and generated Shs2.7 trillion of GDP.
Depending on the dam model adopted for the Isimba hydro power project, Uganda stands to lose most of its revenue from adventure tourism.

It is estimated that up to 100 tourism businesses in Jinja and beyond could be adversely affected directly or indirectly by the dam construction and these include banks, mechanics, boda boda cyclists, supermarkets, clinics, phone companies and farmers, among others.


(Partial Risk Guarantee for the Private Power Generation (Bujagali) Project)
Between International Development Association and the Republic Of Uganda dated July 18, 2007
Section 3.06. Uganda shall:

(a) Set aside the Kalagala Falls Site exclusively to protect its natural habitat and environmental and spiritual values in conformity with sound social and environmental standards acceptable to the Association. Any tourism development at the Kalagala Falls Site will be carried out only in a manner acceptable to the Association and in accordance with the aforementioned standards. Uganda also agrees that it will not develop power generation that could adversely affect the ability to maintain the above-stated protection at the Kalagala Falls Site without the prior agreement of the Association.

In addition, GOU undertakes to conserve through a sustainable management program and budget mutually agreed by the Government and the Association (no later than expiration of the prevailing sustainable management program or such later date as the Association may agree), the present ecosystem of the Mabira Central Forest Reserve, as well as the Kalagala Central Forest Reserve and the Nile Bank Central Forest Reserve on the banks of Kalagala Falls (as such Reserves are included within the Kalagala Falls Site).

Upon receiving the Association’s notice of a termination (or prospective termination) of the IDA
Guarantee Agreement (whether by the Association’s payment thereunder or otherwise) which in turn may lead to a termination of the Project or this Agreement, Uganda will enter into discussions with the Association regarding an extension (and the terms of any extension) of the afore-mentioned setting aside of and undertakings in respect of the Kalagala Falls Site (including the Kalagala Central Forest Reserve and the Nile Bank Central Forest Reserve) and the Mabira Central Forest Reserve;


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