Floods blamed on Uganda's policy on releasing L.Victoria water

A flooded Mulungu Beach, in Munyonyo on Lake Victoria.

What you need to know:

  • Uganda says the studies that led to the policy failed to consider major water extractions in the three countries
  • To increase power production and utilise excess water spills from Nalubaale, Uganda built another dam called Kiira just a kilometre away. President Yoweri Museveni commissioned it in 2003

Uganda’s attempts to meet demand for electricity could be behind the recent floods that have rendered frequent floods at home and in regional states like Kenya.

The East African Community (EAC) Council of Ministers suggests Uganda may have breached the agreements on how much water to release from Nalubaale dam — the main outlet of the world’s largest freshwater lake.

Lake Victoria flows into River Nile, with the dam being one of the two major outlets.

Documents filed at the EAC Council of Ministers say Uganda has refused to execute a new policy governing the release of water in Jinja, a decision that has led to flooding of the lake that could claim more lives and cause destruction.

The council ordered EAC member states to implement the policy in 2012, but over four years, despite protests by Uganda.

Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi voted for its implementation at a Council of Ministers meeting that year.

Uganda insists that the policy, which determines volumes of water to be released based on Lake Victoria levels, cannot be implemented as it does not take into consideration several factors, like extraction in the affected countries.

Life and death

The policy is yet to be implemented. “The 26th EAC Council of Ministers directive on the policy has taken more than four years to implement, not only by Uganda, but also by the partner state,” Uganda says in its appeal to the council.

“Studies that had been directed to be completed by November 2014 have never started. Uganda is, therefore, of the view that the policy cannot be implemented and needs review.”

Nalubaale dam was built as part of a hydropower station in Jinja after Uganda and Egypt signed agreements that the East African country would not do anything to interfere with the flow of the Nile, the world’s longest river.

However, power station operators have, over the years, increased or reduced the volumes of water flowing from the lake based on how much is needed to meet the East African country’s electricity demand.

The release of too much water means Lake Victoria’s depth will decrease, a situation blamed on drought for many years.

Releasing less water means the level of the lake increases and could lead to floods in towns and villages surrounding it.

Floods killed at least six people and displaced 32,000 in Kisumu County and its environs in April and May. Ugandan authorities want the original natural flow out of the lake maintained.

The regional bloc ordered implementation of the schedule after it emerged that Uganda had been violating agreements to maintain the natural Lake Victoria outflow volumes before Nalubaale dam was built.

Mitigation measures

Uganda says the studies that led to the policy failed to consider major water extractions in the three countries.

It adds that the EAC Council of Ministers ordered the implementation of the policy before more data and information on water extraction in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania had been collected, yet that was recommended by experts whose reports were used in formulating it.

“The developed and adopted blueprint is therefore only a release policy and not a release and abstraction one,” Uganda says in its appeal.

“Potential impacts of the policy in Lake Victoria Basin countries as well as downstream states was not carried out to provide mitigation measures for a win-win situation as directed by the Council of Ministers.”

“Uganda has more than 600 kilometres of River Nile across her territory that includes lakes Kyoga and Albert. It has made significant developments based on the agreed curve policy that came into existence in 1954, which will be affected by the new water release and abstraction policy.”

The construction of Nalubaale hydroelectric power station in 1954 provided a reliable source of electricity for Uganda, but the decision has come to haunt hundreds of thousands of families living around the lake.

Before the construction of Nalubaale, the Owen and Ripon waterfalls were the main links between Lake Victoria and the Nile.

The waterfalls also acted as a natural tap, controlling the Nile and Lake Victoria outflows. After signing the agreements with Egypt, Uganda built Owen Falls dam, later renamed Nalubaale.

Preparations for building the giant dam and power station meant that Ripon Falls was to be excavated.

Moderating factor

Eventually, Nalubaale was submerged but Ripon Falls remained.

But as Uganda celebrated its increased electricity supply capacity, it was the beginning of problems for millions of people around areas touched by the lake in the three countries.

Since the commissioning of Nalubaale in 1959, its operators have either increased or reduced Lake Victoria outflows, depending on volumes required for the production of electricity.

When more water is needed to meet growing power demands, operators allow more water to flow out of Victoria, which in turn leads to lower levels in the lake.

Whenever rain falls heavily, Nalubaale has sufficient water. It means less water is released, increasing levels in Lake Victoria in turn.

To increase power production and utilise excess water spills from Nalubaale, Uganda built another dam called Kiira just a kilometre away. President Yoweri Museveni commissioned it in 2003.

In 2005, World Bank senior disaster risk management specialist Daniel Kull led a study that showed that Uganda released more than 50 per cent of the allowed water volumes from Nalubaale and Kiira dams over the previous two years.

Fish population

Mr Kull’s team also found that the drastic fall in Lake Victoria water levels at the time was more as a result of the releases in Jinja than drought as had been widely believed.

“Based on the results of this analysis, it must be concluded that the severe Lake Victoria drops occurring in 2004 and 2005 were about 45 per cent due to drought and 55 per cent due to over-releases from Nalubaale and Kiira dams,” the World Bank disaster risk specialist’s report said.

It added that the rains that followed could not raise the levels of the lake, which was partial evidence that water release had more impact that drought.

Nalubaale dam is operated by Eskom Uganda Ltd — a subsidiary of South Africa’s state-owned Eskom Holdings Ltd.

Eskom has been spilling large volumes of water from Nalubaale and Kiira dams between February and May. The water reached its peak limits after the heavier-than-normal rainfall, leading to floods.

The effects of water releases go beyond flooding. When the water level in the lake drops, it affects the fish population.

As marine creatures move inwards to deeper waters, fishermen follow them. They at times get arrested after ending up in Uganda or Tanzania.

At least 70 Kenyan fishermen were arrested after crossing into Uganda between May and October last year.

They were released after paying heavy fines. Others had their boats confiscated. Some complained of being tortured and beaten by Ugandan security officials.