Barely a month after President Yoweri Museveni performed the ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of Karuma hydro power dam; issues regarding the compensation and resettlement of residents are threatening the commencement of the project and the five-year delivery deadline.
While the contractor, Sino Hydro Corporation, is already on the ground, their office is conspicuously empty - a clear indication that nothing serious is going on as yet.
Already, the residents have filed a case in court over the matter and want an injunction on the project until their issues are looked into. According to the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) of the dam, the total land required for the project is 465.52 hectares but most of project area lies within Karuma Wildlife Reserve from which the government will acquire 238.6 hectares.
In the mid 1990s, Norpak, the previous contractors, acquired 123.23 hectares of land and compensated the owners. Some 192.5 hectares are to be acquired from locals residing in four villages; Karuma and Awoo in Mutunda sub county in Kiryadongo District; as well as Nora and Akuridia in Kamdini sub county in Oyam District.
The government had hoped that it would be able to acquire this land at a cost of Shs 2.7 billion. However, the residents don't want to hear any of it. The resettlement Action Plan (RAP) shows that a total of 414 households are likely to be affected due to the land acquisition of which 280 are land owners and 134 are 'tenants.'
The total population of the affected households is 3755. An affected person is anybody who, as a result of the implementation of the project, loses the right to own, use or otherwise benefit from a built structure, land (residential, agricultural, or pasture), annual or perennial crops and trees, or any other fixed immoveable asset either in part, permanent or temporary.
While the document notes that not all PAPs need to move due to the project because of physical displacement, economic displacement, and loss of income streams, an investigation by The Independent shows that this could have been an underestimation.
On a recent visit to the project area, The Independent was told by bitter residents that the money being offered was "too little" and they vowed not to leave their land.
Eighty six-year old Bernard Ocaya, a resident of Karuma Awoo, says he earlier gave Norpak 4 acres for the dam project and he remained with 21 acres in which he has planted fruits including mangoes, oranges, and avocadoes.
Now, the government wants him to relocate and surrender all his land for the same project. His main problem is not leaving; it's the little compensation he is being offered. From one orange tree, Ocaya says he collects one and a half sacks of oranges fruit in a good season.
He told The Independent that the 18 trees chalk Shs 1 million each. A former Residential Councilor (RC) and local council I Chairman (LC), Ocaya vowed not to leave with nothing.
He says he would be satisfied with Shs 40 million, although even that "is way below the market price for his 21acres." Each acre is about Shs 10 million currently. "If the government or the Chinese firm want to evict me forcefully let them go ahead, but I cannot leave without my money," said Ocaya.
Ocaya is not alone. Many residents are still occupying the land that has been earmarked for the project because they have not yet been compensated. That effectively means the contractors and the project will have to wait a little longer.
Of course this is not surprising because more often than not, many of Uganda's large-scale projects are delayed by wrangles and disagreements over compensation.
Karuma Village LC I chairman, Severino Opio, however says that out of a total of 623 households affected, 479 have been compensated. But he says some of them are just stubborn, which he also attributed to the unsupportive community leadership and the hurried manner in which the compensation issues were handled at the community level.
He however said Ocaya's case was different because he is a respectable elder in the community. He said although none of the residents from his village is seeking legal redress, he blamed his fellow leaders for the chaotic exercise.
"We the local leaders were unfair to some individuals because we hurriedly did the work which worsened the compensation issues."
Ironically, Simon D'Ujanga, the minister of state for Energy, told The Independent that his ministry was depending on the local leadership to resolve the compensation issues. "We want to reach an amicable decision with the local community," he said.
However, the local leadership appears to be helpless. Opio said different rates had been used, which he said contributed to the mess where by the ministry of energy and mineral development used the Lira and Kiryandongo land rates (for rural areas) to compensate the land owners in the four villages.
Most locals rejected the rate as very low, which has attracted a legal battle in court between residents and the government, majority of whom are from Awoo village. D'ujanga however said the problem was "not what to pay but whom to pay." "We used the district rates approved by the Chief Government Valuer to compensate those people but money will never be enough," he said.
Sam Otada, the Member of Parliament for Kyembera, Kiryadongo District, said they have been holding joint discussions with the energy ministry and his constituents especially on compensation of personal effects and land.
He said the issue could be traced as far back as 1987 where some residents from Acholi sub region migrated and settled in Kiryadongo especially around Karuma and Kamdini.
Although the Land Act stipulates that anybody who lives on a piece of land for more than 12 years is a bonafide occupant, Otada said this has sparked off conflicts between the three clans of Paluo - the indigenous residents of Awoo, and those who bought land (12 people). Apparently, even the Attorney General is also reportedly in a dilemma about which party deserves compensation for the land.
Otada said he has negotiated for an increment of the disturbance allowance from 15% to 30%. For the land, Otada said the Paluo want 70% compensation and 30% to be given to those who bought the land. The ministry had tabled a proposal that the compensation money be laid in court so that whoever wins the case would be paid.
Also, D'U janga said the ministry had set up a Complaints Tribunal just like it did for the Bujagali and other dam projects. It is hoped that the Tribunal will be able to settle the disputes and inequity in the compensation exercise in time for the project to start in ernest.
Moses Okabo, 32, a father of five and a former resident of Nora, told The Independent he was not compensated for his 4-acre piece of land near the River Nile bank while his neighbor one Francis Mara accepted the Shs 17 million for his 6 acres and relocated in 2011.
In fact he was the first resident in Nora to relocate and others followed suit including Okabo because the land has been cleared to create channels for temporary diversion of the River Nile.
However, some residents with big chunks of land have refused to leave citing low compensation rates. Nora residents who spoke to The Independent said some of the landlords include Fr. Dr. Jacinto Ogwal (about 20 acres), Judge Opio Oweri, and Peter Etot (about 8 acres each).
Additionally, some residents in Kamdini urged the government and the contractors to consider villages outside the RAP. They cited Te toci, Te nam, and Amukugungu, all villages along the River Nile banks and close to Nora and Akuridia villages, which would be affected directly by the project.
Among them is 28-year old Robert Oceng, commonly known as Atin Lango in Kamdini, who said his 100 metres of his one-acre piece of land were from the river bank. He filled some forms regarding compensation but he has not got any feedback.
Other residents such as Francis Ojok, the LCI vice chairman of Te Toci, expressed concern that the temporary diversion of the River Nile water to the villages would cause floods in Te toci village which lies near the small River Toci, a tributary of the Nile. In June last year, floods washed away 75 houses, out of a total of 250 houses.
"Te toci is in the middle of two rivers, with the dam project, we might need a ferry or canoes to access the rest of Kamdini and other parts of Uganda," he said. Apparently, some of these impacts were not captured by the ESIA.
Yet about 20,080 people and 280 households reside in Te toci village. "So how can the government ignore us, with almost half of the 414 households in the four villages included in the resettlement plan?" Ojok asked.
Households that depend on fishing for their livelihoods are also hoping against hope that their source of livelihood - fishing on River Nile, which is 1 kilometer away from their homes, would not be affected by the construction of the dam, especially those in Panyimeda, Mutunda.
According to the ESIA, some of the social effects will include physical displacement and loss of fixed family assets, and loss of traditional fishing opportunities.
It also noted that construction projects are commonly associated with social interactions among the construction workers and the local community. Indeed, Karuma acts as a transit route for vehicles mainly trucks traveling to South Sudan, Gulu, Lira and Arua, which the ESIA says may among other factors produce an inherent increased risk of transmission of sexually transmitted diseases especially HIV/AIDS.
This worry could have some credence. The International Organization for Migration report (2010) on the HIV service delivery along transport routes noted that Karuma has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among truck drivers, female sex workers and community in comparison to Bweyale and Kigumba.
For instance, of 690 people from the community who tested, 45 were found to be positive hence a prevalence rates of 7% - almost double the rate in Bweyale and Kigumba.
But the document shows that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. They include revenue and taxes, increased electricity generation, improved local infrastructure, tourism development and agricultural improvement.
According to the ESIA, there will be direct and indirect employment opportunities during the construction and operational stages of the dam. It is estimated that about 6, 000 jobs will be created by the time of completion of the dam.
The initial personnel requirement during the construction is about 1,500 while at peak periods about 3,000 personnel will be employed - mainly causal labourer and 300 skilled workers (administrative and technical).
Indirect jobs include suppliers and service providers to the construction company in terms of accommodation, restaurants, retail shops and other entertainment centres such as bars.
According to residents of Te toci and Te nam, there has been a registration exercise for volunteers for the project but only those from Karuma and Bweyale have applied.
"People from Kamdini will be angry if they are left out when the construction starts because life is easier if you can earn some money," one resident said.
But if the compensation and resettlement issues are resolved, residents are optimistic that the project will change the region forever. Indeed, there is a plan for a Northern Gate City covering about 5 kilometers from Diima, Kiryadongo District to Kamdini Parish.
According to the 2012-2017 Karuma Town plan, there will be three markets to accommodate vendors on the road and new schools.