Kampala — Mpanga Falls is located in western Uganda on the eastern edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park and at the north-eastern corner of Lake George. This area contains the largest cycad forest population in the world. However, an American-based company, South Asia Energy Management Systems, is in the process of bulldozing the cycad plants, the national treasure, for a paltry 18 Mega Watt hydro electric power dam.
Mpanga River originates upstream from Kibaale National Park and flows through a cleft over the 50 metre Mpanga Falls. The river then flows gently along the boundary of Queen Elizabeth National Park into Lake George Ramsar site. From 100 yards above the falls down to Lake George is part of Queen Elizabeth National Park. The escarpments of the gorge before and after Mpanga falls lies one of the most ecologically important areas in the world for the precious and priceless cycads, Encephalartos whitelockii.
Cycads are an ancient plant believed to have survived over 200-300 million years. In his book, Uganda's Great Rift Valley, Andy Roberts describes the cycads as a "living fossil". It is probably the only Uganda's surviving 'dinosaur'. Environmental changes have reduced the range of the cycads around the world and they survive in small pockets wherever they exist. In some countries, these cycads may be represented by a single plant.
Uganda is blessed with the largest surviving cycad forest in the world. This plant is described as critically-endangered according to the international union for the conservation of nature and natural resources (IUCN) with a very small area of occupancy less than five sqkm. Uganda is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (focal point for convention is the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and as a party to this convention, we have a responsibility and obligation to protect such a national and global ecological treasures. The combination of Mpanga Falls, the cycad population and the vicinity to the eastern part of the Queen Elizabeth National Park, as well as Kibaale National Park, makes this area an immense tourist spinner. The first alert to the destruction of the cycads was made by tourists and now there is a big alarm all over the world about the survival of the "Ugandan dinosaur".
The attraction and the interest that Mpanga area exudes to researchers, tourists and private collectors make this spot an area to be strictly guarded. But Uganda has chosen the path of destruction rather than the conservation of its uniqueness. Roads and other infrastructure are crisscrossing the cycad contour zone and hundreds of the trees have already been destroyed.
The environment impact assessment report produced for the proposed development was highly lacking and in some sections and barely talked about the significance of the cycads. One of the recommendations in this report was that communities should be encouraged to grow the cycads in order for the plants to survive. Thus, according to the environment impact assessment report, the cycads were condemned already from their natural habitat. This was not the purpose of the study. How can communities start propagating plants that take hundreds of years to grow when you are destroying the natural habitat?
Local community activities are also a big threat to the cycads. It was evident that communities are cutting down and burning large areas for cultivation or grazing. There were reports of harvesting seeds for food and sale. This problem needs to be urgently addressed.
Furthermore, NEMA approved the environment impact assessment report on May 31, 2007. Ironically, the approval certificate does not mention the word cycads or endemic plants or ecological sensitive area. This was an oversight on the part of NEMA.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) expressed concerns about the environment impact assessment report and "requested NEMA to halt the on-going works at Mpanga falls". UWAâ-àrecommended a fresh submission of the environment impact assessment statement for review.
I have talked to senior officers from both institutions and there seems to be consensus on conducting a fresh study. However the destruction of the cycad forest has commenced in disregard to the technical advice from the wildlife body.
The roads and other infrastructure developments continue to eat up the landscape. Surprisingly, these roads were not even part of the environment impact assessment study.
Damming of the river and water diversion through the canal will cause major hydrological changes in the river valley. The canal is expected to divert over eight cubic metres of water of the estimated 16 at high water level.
Besides, the Kamwenge district local government is constructing a water supply plant that will draw 10 cubic metres of water per day from the same river. This could result in little or no water over the falls. However, no hydrological report is available. The ecology of the entire area will be changed and destroyed by this development. The ecology of the site is not fully known, the environment impact assessment report did not meet the minimum requirements and the technical advice was not considered. Thus, what information did NEMA base on to approve the study and recommend the development of the dam?
Why is Uganda very insensitive to tourism sites when tourism is the second largest foreign exchange earner bringing in over $450m annually? Why would we destroy the very sites that we are spending millions of dollars to advertise for tourism? Is the Mpanga Falls project a more urgent dam than one proposed for Karuma Falls? While energy development is good, we need to be more responsible in our quest for increased energy. NEMA and the UWA must reconsider this development and act quickly, otherwise it would be a shame for a country gifted by nature to destroy the largest cycad forest in the world.
The writer is the Executive Director of Nature Uganda