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Eastern Uganda Grapples with Power Plant Project

Rafting along the Victoria Nile. i

With five grade-five rapids, the Victoria Nile is considered one of the best white-water rafting spots in the world. Jason Kane hide caption

toggle caption Jason Kane
Rafting along the Victoria Nile.

With five grade-five rapids, the Victoria Nile is considered one of the best white-water rafting spots in the world.

Jason Kane
Uganda man plunges into the rapids. i

For a few dollars, young Ugandan men plunge through the dangerously fast-moving rapids holding nothing but a jerry can for buoyancy. Jason Kane hide caption

toggle caption Jason Kane
Uganda man plunges into the rapids.

For a few dollars, young Ugandan men plunge through the dangerously fast-moving rapids holding nothing but a jerry can for buoyancy.

Jason Kane
Village leader, Nabamba Bujagali. i

Traditional leader Nabamba Bujagali says that if the ancestral spirits inhabiting the falls are not properly consulted about the dam, "many people will die." Jason Kane hide caption

toggle caption Jason Kane
Village leader, Nabamba Bujagali.

Traditional leader Nabamba Bujagali says that if the ancestral spirits inhabiting the falls are not properly consulted about the dam, "many people will die."

Jason Kane

In the East African nation of Uganda, where 95 percent of the people live without electricity, a $750 million hydropower project has been approved by the government.

While it promises to turn lights on in a handful of homes and businesses throughout the country, critics say the project will destroy cultural sites that are home to ancestral spirits, wreak environmental havoc and kill one of the best white-water rafting spots in the world.

Near its source at Lake Victoria, the Nile seems angry.

The water tumbles down the river in a series of thundering white-water rapids, known collectively as Bujagali Falls. Rafters say the spot provides one of the best adrenaline rushes in the world, and in recent years, they have been swarming eastern Uganda from as far away as the Americas, the UK and Australia.

Cultural Dilemma

The surge in the popularity of Bujagali Falls for rafting has created an entertainment industry along the banks of the Victoria Nile. For tips, young Ugandan men will plunge through the dangerously fast-moving rapids holding nothing but a jerry can for buoyancy, or perform acrobatics from the top of a 15-foot pole. And on weekends, a 10-piece band battles with the thunder of the falls.

This is now. But if all goes according to plan, the riverbank will soon be silent and empty. In May, the government gave the green light for the construction of a 90-foot-high dam to be built about a mile downstream.

When completed, this entire area will be flooded, and Bujagali Falls will be gone.

It's a scenario that would mean disaster for hundreds of tour operators along this stretch of the Nile.

For the last 11 years, Godfrey Buyera has been operating a boat cruise at the base of the falls, and he's worried about his future.

"Here is the place, the only place, we earn a living," Buyera says. "What I know is about tourists, and what I know is about Bujagali. And I'm proud of it. I don't want to lose it."

Risky Business

But Uganda is a nation plagued by darkness. In countless farming villages and small towns throughout the country, the power often blinks out for three to five days at a time. Ironically, power shortages are also known to strike the ministry of energy in Kampala, Uganda's capital.

In his plush corner office, Minister Daudi Migereko says Uganda can no longer afford to bother with small-scale energy ventures. Analysts say Uganda loses hundreds of millions of dollars every year in lost business opportunities due to the lack of electricity.

"Without power, you can't run an economy," Migereko says. "And within our plans, Bujagali is one of those sources of power that we badly need."

That has been the government's line for 13 years now, since the plans for the dam were initiated. But when a series of corruption allegations began swirling around the project four years ago, U.S. power company, AES, pulled out, citing financial difficulties.

Shortly thereafter, a number of investors led by the Aga Khan and the U.S. private equity firm Blackstone took the reins to form Bujagali Energy Limited. And at long last, it seems that the red tape has been cleared. The $750 million project will be the largest private foreign investment in East African history.

"We have received a limited notice to proceed and we think we shall do ground breaking sometime in August," said Jimmy Kiberu, communications officer for Bujagali Energy Limited. He added that construction should take about four years.

Breaking Ground

And once the Bujagali dam is connected to the national grid, energy will flow freely to the 5 percent of Uganda wired for electricity. The 250-megawatt facility will pick up the slack of the two old and cracking dams, both of which are currently operating several miles upstream at less than one-third of their capacity.

"Bujagali is simply going to be recycling the same water that is flowing out of these two dams at the moment, and generating more power than these two dams combined," Kiberu said.

But activists like Frank Muramuzi of Uganda's National Association of Professional Environmentalists are skeptical.

They say the older dams are less efficient because Lake Victoria is shrinking. And the lake is shrinking because Uganda is allowing too much water to flow over dam walls in an effort to create more electricity.

Today, Lake Victoria is six feet shallower than it was 45 years ago, shortly after the first dam was built.

"This lake is very important for the people of Uganda and the region in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, and if the levels continue to go down as they are now, 30 million people will be affected," Muramuzi says. "And especially now that the region — including Uganda — is being hit by climate change and global warming, we are saying there is not enough water to produce the 250 megawatts."

Supernatural Concerns

Activists, though, aren't the only ones feeling angry. A 95-year-old traditional leader, Nabamba Bujagali, says the falls are inhabited by a collection of powerful spirits who are promising destruction if they are not properly consulted about the dam.

"If they decide to construct the dam forcefully, many people will die," he said. "Those ones who will be working on the dam will die. People will get so many problems. Some will even become mad."

Several houses away, Felix Chinala, an elder in the village at Bujagali Falls, is simply tired of the controversy and its protestors.

"Anyway, they are just fighting the development, otherwise they have failed because the thing has already passed. The construction is starting. It is late for them now, they cannot succeed," Chinala said.

At least in theory. Once again, plans are lagging behind schedule, with no physical evidence in sight to indicate that a massive dam will soon sink these rapids. The tourists and locals here look unconcerned as they enjoy the carnival-like atmosphere. After all, such talk has been raging for more than a decade now, and little has changed at Bujagali Falls.

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