Uganda's Thirst for Electricity Drains Lake Victoria

Uganda is facing an electricity crisis after the water level in Lake Victoria dropped dramatically. Uganda relies almost exclusively on hydroelectric power, but drought and demand have cut generating capacity. Rolling blackouts leave residents and businesses without power for days.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. The country of Uganda in east Africa is suffering through a major water and electricity crisis. The level of giant Lake Victoria has dropped significantly and since Uganda is almost entirely dependent on hydroelectric power, the country has had to impose rolling blackouts, leaving electricity customers in the dark for days and nights on end. The government blames the crisis on drought. Environmentalists say the problem started after a second hydroelectric plant started discharging water from Lake Victoria.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN: At the town of Jinja near where Lake Victoria flows into the Nile, the water level has fallen so much that boats can no longer use the town port. The port is a long forked jetty. Boats used to be able to pull in between the two prongs of the jetty to load and unload goods. But the water level has fallen so much over the last two years that there is now a precipitous drop from the jetty to the deck of any boat that tries to enter.

OMAR ACHILE: The water level has just gone down. That's why you find that instead of the ferry to park there, they are just parking outside.

BEAUBIEN: Omar Achile is loading sacks of cottonseed onto a ferry bound for Tanzania. He explains that boats now pull up along side the jetty close to the shore, but then they have to get towed out of the mud when they're ready to leave. A rail link at the port used to allow train cars to drive straight onto the ferries, but this, too, is now inoperable.

Lake Victoria is Africa's largest lake. It's bordered by Tanzania to the south, Kenya to the east and Uganda to the north. The only outlet is a dam complex at Owen's Falls near Jinja. Achile says the problems at the lake started after a second hydroelectric project was built at the falls a few years ago.

ACHILE: You know, they put a second dam. That dam was using a lot of water and after making the second dam, that's when it become like this.

BEAUBIEN: A report from the California-based International Rivers Network issued in February found that after the construction of the second dam at Owen's Falls, the volume of water being released from the lake nearly doubled. The overall water level in the 200-mile-long lake dropped by more than three feet and now the hydro plants are running at less than a third of capacity. This has meant that Uganda is generating about 100 megawatts of power while demand for electricity is at 450 megawatts. Since the beginning of February, electricity customers have been getting power every other day if they're lucky.

Frank Muramuzi the head of the Ugandan Association of Professional Environmentalists, says Uganda's been draining Lake Victoria in an unsuccessful effort to keep up with the country's growing demand for electricity.

FRANK MURAMUZI: So that was a big mistake, so we don't have electricity. And that decline also has caused the shortage in water supply because the pipes which get water from Lake Victoria cannot reach the level where water can be got so many people are facing problems with water.

BEAUBIEN: At Jinja, the lake has receded in places more than 25 yards from the shore and with the drought sweeping the region, the lake level isn't expected to rise significantly for at least a couple of years.

Downstream on the Nile River, the reduction in water now flowing from the lake could also have effects on farmers in Sudan and Egypt. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in his recent reelection campaign, blamed his country's crippling electricity crisis on foreigners, environmentalists and opposition politicians. Addressing a rally of party faithful, Museveni said his plans to build additional dams were blocked by his enemies in Parliament and foreign meddlers.

YOWERI MUSEVENI: Those who meddle in our internal affairs wanted to build three or four dams at the same time, but were told most arrogantly that you can only build one dam at a time.

BEAUBIEN: Despite that dam having disastrous effects, Museveni wants to push forward quickly with additional hydro projects. He's amended the Constitution so in the future he won't be, in his words, paralyzed by Parliament.

MUSEVENI: Henceforth, we shall not listen to anybody when it comes to vital matters like defense, like energy, like roads, like politics.

BEAUBIEN: Landlocked Uganda is now scrambling to import generators and diesel fuel to meet the electricity needs of the county.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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