The bungling of Bujagali

On Tuesday the New Vision reported that Bujagali Energy finished their environmental feasibility study for the construction of a new dam at Bujagali Falls.

The proposed dam — a $530 million collaboration between the Sithe Global LLC (based in the U.S.) and Industrial Promotion Services (based in Kenya and owned by Aga Khan) — is an attempt to ease Uganda’s energy crisis. Estimates made in 2005 by Power Technology, a web site that aggregates power industry data, claim that, if construction goes as planned, Uganda’s electricity supply would exceed demand for the first time in years.

Though Uganda’s electricity deficit has been called “the single greatest obstacle to the country’s economic growth,” many local and international groups have raised concerns as to whether the dam is the best choice for development. An independent study conducted by the Prayas Energy Group of India found that the project would cost the nation up to $132 million annually — money that the government has considered taking from the World Bank (which agreed, then refused to sponsor the project), from an infrastructure development bond and from the National Social Security Fund. All of these options would place an enormous strain upon the citizens of Uganda, miring the country even deeper in debt.

Furthermore, official discourse on the dam has thus far ignored the losses Uganda would sustain as a result of the project. The National Association of Professional Environmentalists released a list of major concerns, including the submersion of both the falls and the surrounding islands (which would cost $675,000 annually in lost agricultural revenue), the extinction of several rare species of plants and birds, and the extirpation of regional tourism. Tourism is Uganda’s second-largest industry after coffee, and sightseeing and whitewater rafting at Bujagali contribute between $600,000 and $1 million to this every year.

Despite the dam’s excessive costs, the government is charging on towards its completion, actively working to lessen the falls’ international attraction. In 2000 Uganda refused to host the Camel Whitewater Challenge, a rafting competition that would have brought over 1000 participants and spectators to the country for two weeks and cemented the nation as a leading adventure tourism destination. Writing for the International Rivers Network, an organization that opposes the dam, Stephen Linaweaver claims, “Tony Hansen, the CWWC Director, was specifically told by a Ugandan government official that Uganda would not host the Challenge because it did not want to broadcast the popularity and success of rafting or the beauty of Bujagali Falls, for fear that it would spread opposition to the Bujagali Falls Dam.”

The government’s handling of this project is appalling. The drive to proceed with the dam in the face of so many clear counterindicators to its success rings eerily of the October declaration that all IDP camps would be closed by the end of the year: it’s a flashy, economically dangerous move that has the potential to harm not only those who live and work near Bujagali but the wellbeing of the country as a whole.

Aga Khan, I’m disappointed in you.