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Story Publication logo May 15, 2008

Museveni's Dams a Threat to Lake Victoria


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In Ethiopia and Kenya, dry seasons grow longer and tribal conflict over access to water is on the...

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As the first rays of sunlight streak into Lake Victoria, Idi Otwoma and his two sons leave their village, pick up their nets and board their old wooden boat for the port of Kisumu.

The sales from his catch put bread on the table for his family of two wives, eight children and nine grandchildren.

But in the last few years, the seasoned fisherman has barely caught enough fish to feed his family. The catch is dwindling and this is becoming a tall order for Idi and his sons.

At Uhanya fishing village in Bondo, the fishermen are an angry lot. They complain that they are forced to go further into the lake due to declining fish stocks.

In doing this, they say, they also risk arrest by either Ugandan or Tanzanian authorities, especially when they enter their waters.

Mr George Omolo, the secretary-general of the Uhanya Fishers Group also says that the declining fish stock has coincided with the dropping water levels in the lake.

Asked whether they know the reason for the drop in water levels, many fishermen say they have heard about the construction of huge dams in Uganda, which might have played a role in reducing the water level in the lake.

It is a claim that Mr Frank Muramuzi, the director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists in Kampala, Uganda, confirms.

Mr Muramuzi says that in 1999 Uganda added Kiira dam to the 1954 Owen Falls dam, now renamed Nalubaale dam, in pursuit of more hydro-electric power.

When Kiira dam was built, he says, it could not meet its expected power production of 200 megawatts. For this reason, Uganda had to pump more water from Lake Victoria into the dam to make it produce the amount of power demanded of it.

This explains the drastic decrease of the lake water around the year 2004, says Muramuzi.

The drop in water levels has changed the fortunes of the fishermen drastically, says Mr Otwoma.

"Before 2004, our catch was good, but I've seen the water recede. Even now the water continues to go down," he says as he gestures with his hand.

"Fish prefer staying in deep water. When the water level drops, we have to go to the deeper water. That is the only way we can get enough fish," he adds.

Mr Daniel Kull, a hydrologist with the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, established that 55 per cent of the decline of the lake water can be attributed to the construction of dams at Jinja.

The rest, he says, is attributable to other causes, including climate change and excessive evaporation.

With the construction of Kiira dam, which Mr Muramuzi says had technical faults because it was built parallel to Owen Falls dam, Uganda had hoped to up its power production for export to neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The completion of Kiira dam saw the water drawn from the lake double since the outlet was parallel to the one leading to Owen Falls.

But in his quest to develop a regional hydro-electric power hub, President Yoweri Museveni will not stop at this.

President Museveni has now commissioned the construction of a third dam — Bujagali — with the help of the World Bank, African Development Bank and European Investment Bank.

While the dam is further downstream from Kiira, its capacity is set to be bigger and it will therefore draw more water from the lake, critics warn.

Mr Muramuzi narrates the Kiira ordeal: "As the water level in the lake went down, breeding for the fish, which usually breed on the lake's banks, was affected."


With the decline in lake water levels attributed to Uganda and the frequent arrests of Kenyan fishermen by Ugandan authorities, Mr Omolo questions the relationship between the two countries as expressed in the East African Community. "If the co-operation in the EAC cannot be used to resolve these serious issues, then it is of no use," he says.

Engaging the Ugandan Government is a strategy that Mr Keefa Kawesa of EAC's Organisation for Management of Lake Victoria Resources (ECOVIC) also suggests. "This lake is shared by three countries. Why can't Kenya and Tanzania stop Museveni from draining the lake?" he asks.

Egypt and Sudan, the other two countries which benefit from the lake, which is the source of the Nile, have intervened for their own good. "If you went to Jinja, the source of the Nile, you will see that Egyptian guards are stationed there to make sure that we don't go beyond the agreed curve," says Mr Muramuzi.

However, in this particular case the Egyptians and the Sudanese would not be interested in intervening to stop the construction of the dams because their countries, being downstream, will benefit from the channel creating the two new dams. This will significantly increase the amount of water draining into the Nile.

For Mr Omolo, the three East African countries should at least have an understanding that will allow fishermen to fish all over the lake. He says that his ancestors have fished in the lake for centuries before the colonial boundaries were established.

His appeal is supported by Mr Kawesa, who says that what is needed to solve the crisis facing Kenyan fishermen is a clear fishing policy. "Why should we arrest poor fishermen looking for their livelihood in the lake?" he asks.

Downstream from Kiira dam, construction of the new Bujagali dam is on course. When the dam is completed, it is expected to draw even more water from the lake. The dam is expected to produce 250 megawatts of electricity.

Neither this nor the fact that it will submerge Bujagali Falls when completed, will stop the Ugandan authorities from forging ahead with the construction.

Bujagali Falls is a series of beautiful breathtaking rapids that the Nile goes through when it begins its journey from lake Victoria. The submerging of these falls will be a repeat of what happened in 1954 when Rippon Falls were submerged after the building of the Owen Falls dam.

The submerging of these falls will devastate the Basoga clans who believe that their gods live in them, Mr Muramuzi says. This will also affect the tourism industry that is estimated at US$ 100 million.

But even more worrying is the existence of the lake, which Mr Muramuzi says is threatened by the dropping water levels. "The lake is under threat. It is drying up. It cannot support the livelihoods of the people living around it."

The arrests of Kenyan fishermen by Ugandan authorities and other minor conflicts are a precursor to bigger conflicts in future as individuals and countries compete for the dwindling water resources, he adds.

Dying lakes

Mr Muramuzi also says that if the current rate of water depletion in the lake is maintained, the lake will soon join the list of dying lakes such as Lake Chad.

"If we continue losing more than two metres every four years, given the construction of dams, climate change due to global warming and other factors, we will have no lake 20 to 30 years from today," Mr Muramuzi warns.

"Lake Victoria is like a bowl. It is not a deep lake, if it continues at that rate, some of us will witness its extinction," he says, adding that this will spell doom to millions of people who rely on the world's second largest fresh water lake for their livelihood.

This story was first published as a special report by the Daily Nation of Kenya on May 15, 2008.


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