News & Updates

A Dam on Uganda’s Murchison Falls a Potential Environmental Catastrophe

By Nancy Ogonje, Executive Director, East African Wild Life Society

The East African Wild Life Society has received recent news that the Ugandan government intends to proceed with a plan to construct a hydropower dam at the Murchison Falls National Park on River Nile with alarm and consternation. We are joined by a number of conservationists inside and outside the country, in raising the alarm against this project, given the importance of the Falls to Uganda’s tourism and the potential damage to ecosystem that supports a large number of species.

According to media reports, the government has given the green light for a feasibility study to be carried out on the construction of the 360MW power project on Murchison Falls.

It is shocking that authorities in Uganda would be so insensitive as to consider the implementation of a project that would be disastrous to a crucial ecosystem and a key tourist attraction.

Murchison Falls National Park, which has a span of 3,900km2 and extends from the northern end of the western Rift Valley, is Uganda’s oldest and largest conservation area. It was first gazetted as a game reserve in 1926.

The waterfall itself cuts across the park and is considered the crown jewel of the park. It is here where the Victoria Nile plunges some 45 metres over the remnant Rift Valley wall with an 80-kilometre stretch of rapids.

The park is home to important African wildlife species, including an estimated 76 species of mammals, such as buffalo, giraffe, crocodiles, a rising elephant population and 451 varieties of birds.

This biological diversity as well as the park’s unique landscape on the Nile attracts over 100,000 visitors and generates over 15 billion Uganda shillings (US$4.1 million) annually, according to figures from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). Private investors have not only established accommodation facilities for visitors to the park but also pay the relevant taxes and provide jobs to Ugandans.

Damming the river at Murchison Falls will have far-reaching adverse consequences for both the fauna and flora species in the conservation area and greatly undermine the park’s contribution to the Ugandan economy through tourism.

Even before the hydropower project was conceived, the Murchison Falls ecosystem faced challenges. Over the past decade, oil and gas installations have been established. Such energy initiatives also mean the construction of roads through previously undisturbed wildlife habitats.

In their petition to President Yoweri Museveni and the government, Ugandan conservationists have pointed out that Murchison Falls is a designated Ramsar site, meaning that the waterfall is recognised as being of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Uganda is a signatory to the convention and the country’s authorities are therefore obligated to protect and conserve Murchison Falls.

The electricity production project in Murchison Falls once again brings to the fore the question of whether infrastructure projects in developing countries should be implemented even at the expense of irreplaceable natural heritage.

The stance of the East African Wild Life Society is that the protection of a country’s natural heritage takes precedence over development needs.

Conservationists in Uganda are genuinely outraged by the government’s apparently cavalier attitude towards the integrity of one of the country’s most iconic landmarks. The East African Wild Life Society stands with them in opposition to this ill-advised project.

Hydro-power dam projects are some of the main causes of the decline in river water levels. Such reductions can have devastating environmental consequences, including damaging wetlands. They can also engender changes in river ecosystems that have adverse effects on people and the environment.

A dam at Murchison Falls is surely going to change the landscape in a most dramatic way and have far-reaching negative impacts on the ecosystem as we know it. This project must not proceed. The Uganda government must seek alternatives to enhance the country’s power production capacity. Alternatives include other clean energy projects such as solar and bio-energy.

Murchison Falls is a natural resource that is already paying dividends to the people of Uganda mainly through the tourism industry that it supports. It must not be destroyed in the name of development.

Voicing their opposition to the Murchison Falls hydropower project in a letter to the government on 20th June this year, the Honorary Wildlife Officers’ Association of Uganda stated that “Murchison Falls is the most spectacular falls on River Nile and are the biggest tourist attraction in the park. They provide tourists with an amazingly unrivalled experience. They are therefore a must-see iconic feature […] The falls also create a spectacular view that leaves tourists yearning for more and have enhanced the attractiveness of Murchison Falls.”

The government of Uganda must heed the call of its citizens and cancel plans to implement the project.

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