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Activists want Uganda minister reprimanded over insistence on dam project

Bothered by perceived implications of a proposed energy project that appears to have far-reaching implications, a team of activists in Uganda is urging legislators to call a minister to order and halt his dreams.

Yoweri Museveni
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda

Over 19 civil society organisations (CSOs) in the East African country have written to the Speaker of Parliament to request that parliament censures the Minister of Energy over the energy ministry’s continued push to develop a dam at Murchison Falls.

A proposal for the establishment of a hydro-power dam at Uhuru Falls adjacent to the Murchison Falls National Park has generated controversy in recent months over concerns that the project would negatively impact the environment, ecology and tourism.

The CSOs’ letter followed a meeting through which the campaigners discussed the socio-economic implications of the continued push for a dam by the energy ministry and other stakeholders at Murchison Falls.

The CSOs argue that dams have not led to adequate increased electricity access, lower power tariffs and equitable socio-economic development among others yet a lot of money has been invested in hydropower dams.

“In the face of the above failures, the energy ministry and others are pushing for another hydropower dam at the expense of culture, tourism, fisheries and other economic activities,” says Diana Nabiruma, Senior Communications Officer, Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO).

In a letter dated February 26, 2020 and addressed to Rebecca Kadaga, Speaker of Parliament of the Republic of Uganda, the CSOs called on Parliament to reprimand the State Minister for Energy, Simon D’Ujanga, over the feasibility study of the proposed dam.

The open letter reads in part:

On behalf of the undersigned signatories and on my own behalf, I take this opportunity to thank you and Members of Parliament (MPs) for the work parliament is doing to play its legislative and oversight roles.

In particular, we thank you and parliament for conducting the ongoing investigation into government’s decision to conduct a feasibility study for a dam at Murchison Falls on River Nile in Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP).

While tens of thousands of Ugandans including local communities, cultural institutions, civil society organisations (CSOs), tourism operators, Ugandans of goodwill and government agencies such as Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), yourself Rt. Hon. Speaker and others have said that no dam should be developed at Murchison Falls, government through the Ministry of Energy has defied Ugandans’ will. This is unfortunate but we commend parliament for interrogating the Ministry of Energy over their disregard of citizens’ wishes on the proposed Murchison Falls dam.

As part of the interrogation, on Tuesday February 11, 2020, the State Minister for Energy, Hon. Simon D’Ujanga appeared before parliament’s Natural Resources Committee. During his appearance, he informed the country that government would go ahead with conducting a feasibility study for a planned dam at the Murchison Falls, which will inevitably destroy the Murchison Falls landscape.

The state minister informed parliament that government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with South Africa’s Bonang Power and Energy Ltd to undertake the feasibility study in December 2019. This was in total disregard of parliament and other Ugandans’ objection to the planned dam.

The MPs on parliament’s Natural Resources’ committee questioned why the feasibility study should continue when everyone in the country is opposed to such a proposal. Unfortunately, Hon. D’Ujanga maintained that the study must go on as per the cabinet’s resolution.

Clearly, the minister and executive’s position to go ahead with the feasibility study undermines the role of parliament as an institution that represents all Ugandans. The minister and executive’s position is also against public interest as it will hurt community livelihoods, tourism, fisheries, employment opportunities and cultures among others. This has been variously pointed out by many stakeholders including communities, cultural institutions, CSOs, tour operators, government agencies and others.

It is noteworthy that government is also going against Ugandans’ wishes on a dam at Murchison Falls when available evidence shows that government’s spending spree on hydropower dams has only increased Uganda’s indebtedness amidst low power access, high power prices, low job creation, increased poverty rates from 19% to 27% and unacceptable destruction of biodiversity.

For government to desire to construct another hydropower dam and destroy the mighty Murchison Falls amidst the above failures demonstrates the highest level of government failure to appreciate the importance of tourism and other industries in the country. It also demonstrates a high level of impunity.

Through this letter, the undersigned CSOs are calling on parliament to use the powers vested in the institution under Article 118 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution to censure the minister of energy and stop impunity. This will serve as a warning to other government officials who disregard the recommendations of institutions such as parliament and the voices of Ugandans. Parliament is our hope to fight government impunity that has led to destruction of environmental resources including forests, national parks, rivers, lakes, wetlands and others. Let us not allow Murchison Falls to also get destroyed.

Below, the undersigned CSOs show how the energy sector has been mismanaged and why there is no need to destroy the Murchison Falls to perpetuate the said mismanagement:

  • Dams amidst indebtedness and low power access: Government has invested hugeamounts of money to develop, expand or rehabilitate hydropower dams in Uganda. For instance, to develop, expand or rehabilitate the Owen Falls, Kiira, Bujagali, Karuma, Isimba and Achwa power dams, government has spent over $4.1 billion (over Shs. 15 trillion). The total invested sum is nearly half of Uganda’s Shs. 40.48 trillion 2019/2020budget. Despite the huge investments made, only 24% of Ugandans have access to grid electricity.
  • Biodiversity destruction: In addition, the Uganda National Household Survey of2016/2017 showed that over 90% of the people in Uganda including those who have access to power depend on firewood and charcoal for cooking leading to the destruction of biodiversity especially forests. Power is so expensive that Ugandans suppress their demand. They resort to using dirty energy alternatives such as charcoal and firewood that hurt women’s health and hamper their development. Further, manufacturers in addition to small and medium enterprise (SME) owners have consistently complained that power prices are too high and power supply is unreliable. The manufacturers and SME owners have to find alternative power sources such as running diesel fuel generators. This drives up the country’s carbon emissions, contrary to commitments under the Paris Climate

Change Agreement. It also drives up the cost of doing business and denies youth job opportunities as manufacturers are constrained from expanding their businesses.

  • Poor planning and power evacuation: Rt. Hon. Speaker, as the undersigned CSOs writethis letter to you, government has commissioned two dams whose power is not being evacuated to the grid and to the consumers. In March 2019, the president commissioned the 183 mw-Isimba power dam. It was envisioned that the dam would result into lower power prices with a unit from the dam being sold at $4.16 US cents. However, the dam is a burden on Ugandans today as it is only operating at half its capacity; only 90mw is being produced as there is no infrastructure to evacuate the other 93mw to the grid. Reports also indicate that though the 43mw-Achwa II dam was completed, there is no infrastructure to evacuate power from the dam. Ugandans are paying Shs. 10 million per hour for the unconsumed power.

In December 2019, the Secretary to Treasury, Mr. Keith Muhakanzi, warned that the more dams Uganda develops without creating demand for electricity, the more the budget is hit as government or consumers have to pay for the excess unconsumed power.

  • Excess power: The issue of unconsumed power is a thorny one Rt. Hon. Speaker. WhileUganda’s total installed generation capacity is 1, 254.2mw, only about 600mw is being consumed. Failure by Ugandans to consume all the electricity produced in the country has contributed towards ensuring that power remains unaffordable for the majority of Ugandans. Corruption by government officials in the Ministry of Energy has also seen bad deals that favour project developers and utility power companies at the expense of Ugandans being signed. These bad deals contribute to high power prices.
  • Bujagali debt refinancing: Rt. Hon. Speaker, it is noteworthy that the Ministry of Energyalongside other stakeholders have been tasked to reduce power prices. Among the measures that were taken was to refinance the Bujagali dam. Ugandans were promised that refinancing of the dam would lead to lower power tariffs. However, following the debt refinancing in June 2018, the promised power price reductions were paltry and are being enjoyed by only a few. The power prices came down from 13 US cents to 8.3 US cents for only extra-large industrial consumers! The ordinary Ugandan/domestic consumers was left out.
  • Failure to create market for excess electricity: Furthermore, the energy ministers havebeen telling Ugandans that they will increase power demand through implementing the ‘Free’ Electricity Connections Policy (ECP), construction of an electric Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), development of industrial parks and others. However, available information shows that electricity distribution companies including the biggest utility company, UMEME, failed to attain the 300,000 new customer connection target that the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) set under the ECP; the utility had only connected 93,580 customers by the time of half-year reporting in August 2019. In addition, plans to develop an electric SGR were hit hard when Kenya constructed a diesel-run SGR. There is no way Uganda will run an electric train. The industrial sector is also yet to adequately take off.
  • Destruction of other industries: Rt. Hon. Speaker, in face of the above, government isconducting a feasibility study that could lead to the development of a dam at the Murchison Falls. As many stakeholders have pointed out, such a dam will affect tourism which earned Uganda $1.6 million in 2018/2019, cause unemployment for scores of the over 500,000 people that are employed in the tourism sector, will affect the fisheries industry that is one of Uganda’s major foreign exchange earners and will affect culture among others.


What should be done?

  1. In line with Article 118 of the Constitution, Parliament should invoke its oversight powers and censure that Minister of Energy who together with cabinet allowed the feasibility study for a dam at Murchison Falls in disregard of parliament’s recommendations and the voices of Ugandans.
  1. Further, parliament should investigate the government officials who signed the MoU with Bonang Power and Energy Ltd. and disclose the terms therein with the aim of fighting corruption. It is clear that some powerful people may be behind Bonang as vehicle to cheat tax payers.
  1. Finally, parliament should use its oversight powers to pressure the executive to use the money meant for a dam at Murchison Falls to invest in offgrid solar and other clean renewable energy sources which have the potential to serve the majority of Ugandans including the poor, women and others that find it impossible to access and afford the grid power.

We thank you in advance for your co-operation.

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