Going by feedback received from Uganda’s rafting stakeholders, scenes like the one shown in the articles photo will soon be a thing of the past, when the new Isimba dam will be completed and most of the rapids behind the dam and upriver towards the Bujagali dam will be flooded.
When Bujagali was proposed and discussed in 2001 at a World Bank Forum in Washington, this correspondent represented Uganda’s tourism industry, exposing the false figures produced by consultants working for the US-based promoters of the project. Those purported income and economic benefit figures from tourism via the rafting and related activities were pegged at an absurdly low level to support the notion that the impact of the dam on Uganda’s tourism-related economy was negligible and the dam’s and hydro power plant’s contribution to the national economy indefinitely greater.
It was agreed at the time, that as Uganda was entering a period of fast-growing demand for electricity, and shortfalls were already looming on the horizon, Bujagali was a necessary investment even though a section of major grade five rapids would be submerged when the Bujagali dam was up. Rafting operators reluctantly began to relocate their river entry point to below Bujagali, and the World Bank, a major financier of the dam, had the Ugandan government enter into an offset agreement, which included both river and catchment areas, among them Mabira Forest and a commitment to leave the Nile, downstream from Bujagali towards Lake Kyoga, especially the area around Kalagala Falls, intact to facilitate rafting.
The economic benefits from tourism for Uganda do not need to be repeated here and in particular the impact of rafting and related activities vis-a-vis jobs, foreign exchange earnings, and investments, proved to be massive, belying the figures AES, the erstwhile promoters of Bujagali, had peddled.
Rafting, for which several companies are now operating daily departures, has become one of Uganda’s high-profile adventure activities, and the section of the Nile below Bujagali is regularly used for winter training of wild-water kayaking professionals when their own rivers are frozen over.
This viable industry is now under existential threat with the Isimba dam project gaining shape, and rafting operators have suggested that they will have to close shop – and rob Uganda of a high-profile tourism activity it has become known for since the mid-1990s, when rafting started in earnest.
It appears obvious that the so-called offset agreement between the World Bank and the Government of Uganda has been ignored. When the Isimba dam project was inaugurated and when initial complaints to World Bank officials yielded no results, not only were questions raised as to why the officials did not intervene, but ways and means were sought to stop the project in its present format and compel the developers to use the least-height option for the dam to preserve the rapids upstream for rafting.
It has now emerged that a Ugandan law firm, on behalf of Ugandan citizen residents in the affected area and affected by the dam development, has lodged a formal complaint to the Inspection Panel of the World Bank, outlining the specific complaint elements vis-a-vis the alleged violation of the Indemnity Agreement between the Government of Uganda and the World Bank.
Additional correspondence seen by this correspondent further suggests that the main aim of the complaint is to have the World Bank compel the Ugandan government to stick to the agreements signed on July 18, 2007 and in particular enforce relevant clauses which should ensure the continued integrity of the river downstream from Bujagali, including the Kalagala Falls.
While the World Bank is not co-financing Isimba – otherwise corrective mechanisms would already have kicked in well before construction started last year – it is still party to an agreement which by the look of it is now being completely ignored by the developers of the Isimba dam and, therefore, must act to protect the substance of said agreement of 2007.
Legal experts spoken to since the information was made available agree that this cause of action, after direct appeals to the World Bank offices in Kampala and beyond did not yield any results, will provide the last hope for Uganda’s rafting businesses to see this adventure sport survive and avoid thousands upon thousands of adventure seekers look for alternative sites on the Zambezi River or elsewhere in Africa, with a subsequent loss of multi-million US dollars to the Ugandan economy in the short term and hundreds of millions of US dollars in the long term.