World Bank: Not in Uganda – environmental protection

Just back from a country where environmental protection ranks as a centerpiece in national politics in Rwanda, information has emerged that in Uganda the same may not hold true, nor does it apparently

World Bank: Not in Uganda – environmental protection

Just back from a country where environmental protection ranks as a centerpiece in national politics in Rwanda, information has emerged that in Uganda the same may not hold true, nor does it apparently any longer hold water in the corridors of the Washington-based World Bank.

Several sources expressed varying degrees of outrage, disappointment, frustration and anger, when sending in details about the apparent start of construction on the controversial Isimba hydroelectric power plant and dam.

“They are trying to create facts on the ground which, if unchallenged, may be hard to reverse. If Isimba goes ahead with the maximum dam height, it will be the end of white water rafting in Uganda, and one of the very best white water rafting stretches on any river in the world will be lost forever. I still bear a grudge with you personally for your conditional yes to Bujagali back in 2002 and later when the project was revived by the Aga Khan Group.

“I guess Bujagali was inevitable, and you sought the best possible outcome for tourism overall even though it destroyed the famous Bujagali Falls and turned the mini lake behind it into a breeding ground of malaria and bilharzia. The offset to protect Mabira and the down river stretch of white water was a success of sorts even though it now seems that it is ignored by the Ugandan government and worse, by the guardians of that deal, the World Bank.

“I hope that you will speak up about and against Isimba and the consequences the maximum dam height will pose to a flourishing adventure tourism industry, about the number of jobs lost, the investments lost, the foreign exchange lost and most important, a key feature to promote Uganda abroad as THE adventure destination in East Africa lost,” let a periodic commentator let fly in my direction, referring to the role I played when President of the Uganda Tourism Association.

Back then in 2002, I had to defend sectoral interests against AES, which used grotesquely-falsified figures about tourism income and rafting potential to justify their project – going bust afterwards perhaps was some divine intervention and punishment for those outright lies – and have the World Bank impose an offset agreement on the government of Uganda to protect Mabira Forest, a crucial water tower, and the green lung for the capital Kampala, which to this day spews out polluted air as if there was no tomorrow.

Subsequently, when the project was revived years later by IPS (Industrial Promotion Services) of Kenya, it was again important to ensure that key downsides of the dam’s impact needed to be mitigated, something which showed initially great promise as a result of the open engagement of the project’s promoters.

However, this was not followed up properly by those who succeeded me in office, leading to several of the mitigating measures to be eroded, and according to business owners who remained based at the former Bujagali Falls, eventually fall apart, with river banks now heavily cultivated and the almost still waters turned into a breeding ground for malaria and bilharzia, to a great part as a result of overfishing these waters and no enforcement making its presence known.

A more regular source provided some detailed background information on the project which now seems to go ahead almost by stealth, as the eyes of the public and the media are glued to national politics rather than key national environmental issues, which are now at stake:

Start quote:

Construction has begun on Isimba, about 1200 Chinese laborers are on site, diggers etc. and most the way through making a dirt coffer dam across the first channel!

On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, a SATU representative spoke to both the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Finance; they were shocked to hear construction was underway; we even had to show them photos as they did not believe it was all going ahead.

Listed below are some of the irregularities:

• A written agreement between the World Bank and the government of Uganda protecting the remaining whitewater is being completely ignored. The World Bank are [reportedly] planning no action to protect the area or the people the agreement has pledged to protect.

• The World Bank are set to receive ‘financial compensation’ in order to allow the government of Uganda to destroy the area. Or in other words, they are being paid off to keep quiet. How much of this money we wonder will the people set to lose their livelihoods and homes see? Members of SATU have tried on a number of occasions to report this to the fraud and corruption department of the World Bank via the phone number that they have on their website for this use, but their number consistently goes to an automated machine with no chance of leaving a message!

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• Before even considering starting a major construction project an environmental permit should be obtained from NEMA (National Environmental Management Authority). Construction is moving ahead with no NEMA Permit in place, with minimal or no regard for the environment, or the conservation area set aside to protect the environment.

• A primary beneficiary of the project is the Chinese Government. They lend the money to the government of Uganda, who have to pay back the money with interest. In addition, the Chinese have lent the money with no social or environmental conditions, but with one primary condition: that a specific Chinese construction company (owned by Chinese government!) gets the contract. So pay the money to themselves and get paid back the same again with interest! A definite win for the Chinese economy.

• The result of the Chinese loan defining a specific construction company is there is no competition for the contract, which means higher price and lower quality for the Ugandan people.

• CWE (the construction company assigned to the project) have been blacklisted by World Bank for ‘Sanctional practices’ which is defined on their site as corrupt / coercive / fraudulent / obstructive practices. But they are still allowed to continue to construct the Isimba Dam and destroy the conservation area!

• CWE [allegedly] fraudulently won the contract for Karuma dam, then it was revealed that “the firm has no capacity to manage such big project as the Karuma power project” (quote: http://allafrica.com/stories/201304152381.html ) so were removed from the project. Also, “The IGG (Inspector General of Government – in charge of dealing with corruption in Uganda) recommended that CWE should be banned from bidding for projects in Uganda”. Yet CWE were awarded the Isimba contract and have now been allowed to begin construction despite publicly being acknowledged as corrupt and previously deemed not capable of building major hydro projects!

• CWE has brought in a large influx of Chinese workers, with very few jobs actually going to Ugandans.

• Where is the power purchase agreement?

During the entire process there has been negligible consultation with stakeholders and no effort to keep stakeholders upto date on the status of the project. One meeting where no questions were answered, we were assured that within 45 days everyone would have response to our queries (6 months ago) and SATU has heard nothing. •

• MPs were not consulted on a major government decision until after construction has started, as a ‘token gesture’. Many MPs are upset about this. Major government projects such as these should involve MPs in the decision making process, not inform them of it after it has begun!

• MPs voted against the Chinese loan for the Isimba project in parliament, blocking the finances of the project, but construction continues regardless, ignoring the MPs!

• For those standing behind the idea that Uganda needs the Isimba dam for its power and this will be a service for the country, the article below outlines a valid point. The major hydro dams are incredibly expensive per megawatt, and it would be far cheaper for Uganda as a country to import electricity from its neighbours. Uganda is not willing to allow the cheaper electricity from its neighbours because it has to keep the prices of electricity high to pay back the enormous loans from China for its new hydro dams!

End quote

If all this turns out to be the way it has been described, it would constitute, not only in the opinion of this correspondent, a major breach of the offset agreement the World Bank signed with the Ugandan government at the time when the co-financing of the Bujagali hydroelectric power plant was concluded, but would also raise some very serious questions about the World Bank’s own conduct and potential breach of their own rules and regulations, exposing those responsible to a likely process of investigation to establish if this was sheer incompetence, gross negligence, or worse.

What is clear is that white water rafting companies will have anxious days, weeks, and months ahead with their future hanging in the balance – perhaps the right moment to have Tourism Uganda get involved and take a stand to ensure that one of the country’s most high-profile activities, after gorilla tracking, remains a viable, vibrant industry.

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