The famous Bujagali waterfalls of the River Nile, just below the original Owens Falls dam, will fall victim to the advance of construction of the new hydro-electric dam and power plant a few kilometers down the river, and as early already as January or February next year, according to reports coming from Jinja. In fact, it is expected that in a year’s time, two turbines will be operational and feed as much as 50 MW into the national grid, with a gradual addition of more turbines until the full capacity of 250 MW is reached.
The present falls are a popular hot spot for tourists and locals alike, and on long weekends, thousands throng the site to see the water gush over the rocks and watch rafters and kayakers negotiate the rapids, applauding those brave enough to attempt it and cheer on those whose rafts flipped, throwing the daring rafters into the clear warm waters of the Nile. Accommodation and restaurant facilities have been erected on site since tourism began its revival in Jinja in the mid-1990s, and Bujagali has become as famous a name for white-water rafting as the Zambezi and other challenging rivers.
Former power plant promoters, AES of Virginia in the US, still stand exposed as either fools or peddlers of ill intent, as their studies for the power plant in the 1990s projected tourism levels, both in terms of numbers and in terms of income, which were far from the truth then and have in fact been massively overtaken by reality since then. It is, therefore, no wonder that when AES fell upon hard times, following the ENRON collapse, few shed a tear when their project collapsed, and they left Uganda with the proverbial tail between their legs.
Years later, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development came on the scene to revive the project, following hard years for Ugandans when the hydroelectric plant at Owen Falls had to reduce output after lake levels had sunk to record lows following prolonged droughts and increased use of water from source rivers for domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses, leaving less and less reaching the lake in the end. With the new power plant on a sounder financial footing, and following extensive stakeholder consultations across the board, construction eventually went underway three years ago, and by early next year, the dam will be closed, leading to the flooding of all up-river rapids and falls, rendering them unusable for rafting activities.
However, it is understood that the rafting companies will relocate to new entry points below the new dam, while a whole range of other water and sports-based activities may spring up on the new lake forming behind the dam, affording other opportunities to utilize the river’s waters.
One of the big disappointments, however, was the location and route of the new high-voltage power lines right along the path of the river, causing a distinct visual pollution and remaining a source of irritation for those who had built houses and planned to put up facilities to promote a new weekend hub for Kampaleans, the area being less than 100 KM from the capital and, therefore, within easy reach of large numbers of affluent citizens wanting to own weekend homes – not under high voltage power lines though, as is now being realized. It is also understood that not all property owners have been compensated as of yet, with some of those affected arguing that the money offered as compensation is a far cry from the real market value of what once was, and with some adjustments to the power line route, it could have been prime real estate along the Nile’s banks.
Some staff of rafting companies have confirmed to this correspondent that while they are willing to relocate, a number of logistical issues remain unresolved, such as the opening up of new access roads to the river and improving existing ones to the new starting points for rafting and finding suitable land to build new facilities on river islands or along the shores, all issues addressed by stakeholders during the consultative exercises years ago but with little done so far amidst high expectations and equally high cost for the affected companies in the face of vague promises by the developers, none of which it turns out are legally enforceable and depend entirely on good will.
While the name Bujagali will undoubtedly remain, in guide books and memories of tens if not hundreds of thousands of tourist visitors over the years, the attraction of the site will change and it is hard to foresee at this stage how existing businesses like camps, restaurants, and lodges will make do in the future, when the real action is several kilometers downriver, once the water levels will begin to rise above the new dam.
Meanwhile though, as the countdown continues, this is the opportunity now to visit Jinja one last time, or many times as opportunity allows, and raft or kayak the original stretch of river for as long as is possible, as afterwards, all which remains will be memories of Bujagali, joining those memories of old of Rippon Falls and only then found in old guide books and the work of historians.