Nineteen (19) civil society organizations have petitioned President Museveni to unequivocally declare that his government will never build a dam at Murchison and Uhuru falls or any other place in Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP).
Led by Dickens Kamugisha, the Chief Executive Officer of the African Centre for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), the CSOs reminded the President that Uganda has a number of laws including the 1995 constitution, 2019 National Environment Act, 2019 Uganda Wildlife Act, the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act and others which provide for regulation of the environment to promote biodiversity conservation in the country.
"Despite the above legal framework, Uganda continues to face untold environmental degradation including threats brought about by oil activities in the Albertine Graben," the 8-page petition reads in part.
Value of Murchison falls
According to the petition, in 2017, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) conducted a study titled "Economic Valuation of protected areas in Uganda: A case study of Murchison Falls Conservation Area and Budongo Central Forest Reserve". The study found that minus oil reserves in the area, the Murchison Falls and Budongo forest ecosystems have an economic value of over USD 60 billion (UGX 114 trillion).
The Ugandan government estimates to earn approximately USD 2 billion per year from oil for 20 to 30 years. Electricity and oil cannot be compared to the biodiversity values of the Murchison Falls National Park and Bugondo forest, the CSOs stated.
"We must protect our biodiversity from the dangers of dams, oil and others," the petition dated November 28, 2019, added. The petition was delivered and received by the office of the President on the same day.
The NEMA study reportedly noted that biodiversity of Murchison and Bundongo landscapes' economic value takes the shape of timber stock (worth Shs. 146 billion), Non-timber products - mainly wood (worth Shs. 4.81 billion per year), non-wood forest products (worth Shs. 5.5 billion per year), medicinal and pharmaceutical value (worth Shs. 2.2 billion per year), soil erosion control (worth Shs. 132 billion per year) and tourism value (worth Shs. 110.4 billion per year).
The study among others stated that carbon sequestration and storage were valued at Shs. 3.8 billion per year, watershed protection and catchment services provided by the Murchison landscape was valued at Shs 26.5 billion while research and education provided by the landscape were valued at Shs. 47 billion.
The controversial studies
In September 2019, the Minister for Tourism, Hon. Ephraim Kamuntu indicated that cabinet had agreed to instruct the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) to stop the feasibility processes by Bonang Power and Energy Ltd that included the construction of a dam at Murchison Falls.
This followed a call by ERA in June 2019 to interested stakeholders to submit comments on an application by Bonang Power and Energy to undertake feasibility studies for the construction of a dam at Murchison Falls.
The call which was published in newspapers attracted a huge public outcry against the planned feasibility studies. Recently, the cabinet gave a green light to the contractors to undertake the feasibility study. "As a result, Ugandans and all those who love nature continue to live in fear of the plans to develop a dam at the Murchison and Uhuru falls. We, therefore, ask you to publicly commit that no dam will be built at Murchison Falls or any other place in the park," the petition read.
The activists argued that Murchison Falls and the entire Murchison landscape is under massive pressure from oil threats. For example, over 70% of the 400 oil wells under Total E&P Uganda's Tilenga project are in Murchison Falls National Park. Infrastructure such as well pads, infield pipelines, roads, oil workers' camps, river Nile pipeline crossing and others that will be developed under the Tilenga project will fundamentally affect both the park and falls, they stated.
They requested the President not allow another harmful activity such as the proposed dam to be added to the oil threats faced by the Murchison Falls landscape.
The benefits of conservation outweigh those of oil, they argued. For instance, at peak production, oil exploitation will earn the country approximately only USD 2 billion per year for the next 20 to 30 years while the benefits of conservation will be enjoyed in perpetuity, they said.
The activists observed that Uganda is continuing to invest heavily in hydropower at a time when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is advising countries across the world to diversify their energy mix and increase reliance on renewable energy. This is believed to be helpful in combating the adverse effects of climate change. This is because climate change could negatively affect sustainable energy supply for countries relying on single energy sources, especially hydro sources.
They reminded the President that ERA has failed to sell the excess power being produced by Uganda's dams.
"During the 2017 State of the Nation address that you delivered on June 14, 2017, you said that Uganda is producing surplus power. Indeed, the peak demand for power stood at 500 MW then against a total installed generation capacity of over 900 MW," the petition read.
The CSOs' leaders urged the President to cancel any contract with Bonang (or any other company) regarding the feasibility study in Murchison falls national park.
The petitioners included: Oil Refinery Residents Association (ORRA), Citizens Concern Africa (CICOA), Action Coalition on Climate Change (ACCC), Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), South Western Institute for Policy and Advocacy (SOWIPA), World Voices Uganda, Guild Presidents' Forum on Governance, African Initiative on Food Security and Environment and Buliisa Rural Development Organization (BIRUDO).
Other petitioners include Nwoya Women Association Against Environmental Degradation, Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS), Centre for Constitutional Governance (CCG), Environmental Conservation Trust of Uganda (ECOTRUST), Bunyoro Journalists Association, Centre for Energy Governance, Twimukye Women's Organisation, Graffen Organisation - Butimba and Youth Action for Environment -Kiryandongo
In a press statement released by the then Energy and Mineral Development Minister Irene Muloni on December 3, 2019, the Ministry indicated that demand for power is growing at about 10% per annum implying continuous development of renewable energy sources including hydro which is one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy.
In the effort to realize these targets set in Vision 2040, a number of projects are being studied. She argued that the Government of Uganda signed a Memorandum of Understanding with M/S Bonang Energy and Power Ltd from the Republic of South Africa leading a consortium that includes among others Norconsult and JSC Institute Hydro project to undertake detailed feasibility studies. The company applied for a permit to ERA to carry out a detailed feasibility study to guide the decision on the development of the proposed Uhuru Hydropower Project.
She says the Electricity Regulatory Authority received a Notice of Intended Application for a permit to undertake feasibility studies and other related activities in respect of the proposed Uhuru Hydropower project along River Nile in Kiryandongo and Nwoya Districts from Bonang Power and Energy (Pty) Limited. She added that when processing an application for a permit in line with the Electricity Act, 1999, ERA has to consider the impact of a proposed project on public and private rights. This includes consideration of the environmental and social impacts among others.
On 26th August 2019, the cabinet was appraised of the Power developments in the country among which was Uhuru falls and halted the process of the development of the Uhuru site.
"In order to make a scientifically informed decision, the cabinet reviewed its decision on 2nd December 2019 and agreed that a feasibility study is undertaken on the Uhuru falls site. Uhuru Falls and Murchison Falls are separate falls that are adjacent to each other. Coordinates for Murchison Falls is 2016' 22.99 N 31041'0.02 Ewhile coordinates for Uhuru Falls (The proposed HPP site) is 2016' 42.6 N 31041'08.8 E," she said.
In making the decision, the cabinet considered the need to have the feasibility study undertaken because that is the only scientific way to determine the impact of the project on the environment, tourism and ecology at the proposed site, Muloni shared. She said Government will ensure thorough supervision of the feasibility study so that its interests are taken into consideration including benchmarking where similar projects have been previously undertaken in ecologically sensitive areas.