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Is It Time to Rethink Hydropower Dam Construction in Uganda?

The government plans to increase hydropower generation from the current 825 Megawatts to 2500 Megawatts in the next two years or 2020. Two flagship large hydropower projects are under construction. Karuma is expected to produce 600 MW while Isimba will have 180 MW of power generated.
18 Sep 2017 16:48
Bujagali Dam on the Nile before Commissioning. The dam is facing water shortages limiting it from generating as planned.

Audio 2

Hydroelectricity, using the flow of water to generate power, has long been a key source of renewable energy for Uganda. 

Government through the Ministry of Energy has turned to the nation's free-flowing rivers to address the widening electricity supply-demand gap and fill the government's coffers through electricity exports to the region.

With one of the lowest electricity access rates by global standards, less than 22 percent of the population in Uganda has access to the grid, and only 7 percent of rural areas are currently electrified.

The government plans to increase hydropower generation from the current 825 megawatts to 2500 megawatts in the next two years or 2020. Two flagship large hydropower projects are under construction. Karuma is expected to produce 600 megawatts while Isimba will have 180 megawatts of power generated. There are many other small hydro power stations under construction.

But does the country have enough water to run all the existing dams and future ones with water from Lake Victoria and River Nile? That question is beginning to generate debate given the environmental and even diplomatic concerns.

Geoffrey Kamese, a senior programme officer in charge of energy, climate change and chemicals management with National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) says the way the construction of the current and future hydroelectric dams is a point of concern.

"…I think there are a number of challenges we have faced and worst case scenario is when we shall have droughts. The argument from our energy planners is that Lake Victoria is a very big water reservoir. It cannot easily go," Said Kamese. 

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Measuring the amount of water from Lake Victoria according to Kamese would be a good parameter to guide the hydropower developments along the country's water bodies.He explains that Uganda has had very many experiences of power dams operating below capacity because of a shortage of water after droughts.

"Because with our big reservoir Lake Victoria, no one knew that at one time we would run out of water" added Kamese.

Environment impact assessments in 2001 had warned against the expansion Kisiizi micro-hydro-power project on Rushoma River from 60 KW to 250 KW. One of the studies said the increased capacity will in the dry season divert a large portion of the natural flow into the channel, and reduce the flow of water into the dam. Kisiizi micro Power dam in Rukungiri recently faced drought and operated below capacity.

Hydroelectricity planners in the country have tended to plan for new power dams in isolation assuming that the water from the lakes and rivers is available. There has always been a silent conflict between the Ministry of Energy and the ministry of water and environment.

Dr Callist Tindimugaya, the Commissioner Water Resources Planning and Regulation said the conflicts will always come up because the two ministries have different mandates. He says the ideal situation is for the two ministries to work together because hydropower generation basically depends on water availability. 

"When you talk about hydropower you are talking about water. But often times the water experts oftentimes probably forget the water side. And you plan and you think the water is available. But we have tried to bridge the gap and said that when you are designing your scheme, have you taken concern about the availability of the water?" 

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Lake Victoria and many rivers across the country generate their waters from trans boundary water sources from countries neighbouring Uganda.

Over 98 percent of water in Uganda are shared and are part of River Nile. Uganda has over 43 billion cubic meters of water as annual renewable water resources. Over 29 billion cubic meters of Uganda's waters comes outside the borders. Only 14 billion cubic meters of water is generated inside Uganda's borders. So that means that Uganda depends to the tune of 69 percent on waters that come from outside Uganda's borders.

"So for us to secure our interests especially hydropower on the Nile, we have no option but to cooperate with our neighbors Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania Burundi and DRC," said Tindimugaya.

He said Uganda needs to understand those dynamics when designing its hydro schemes on the Nile.  "If Lake Victoria has water, that water is shared with Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi," he said.

In 1929 there was an agreement signed between Britain and Egypt which ideally said that all the waters of the Nile belonged to Egypt and whoever used that water had to seek permission from Egypt.

In 1959, there was another agreement between Britain and Egypt at the time when Owen falls dam was to be constructed in Uganda. The Nile has about 84 billion cubic meters of water annually.  The 1959 agreement allocated 55.5 percent of water to Egypt, 18.5 to Sudan and the rest was left for evaporation. The assumption according to Dr Tindimugaya was that Uganda and other countries in the Nile Basin would depend on water from rainfall.

Uganda continues to live the agreement and releases water from River Nile according to what is known as the agreed cap. Uganda has had to measure the amount of water in Lake Victoria before it releases it to Kiira and Nalubaale dams and later to Bujagali in line with the international agreement. ESKOM is required by license to submit data on water released every ten days to the Ministry of water.

But Experts say Lake Victoria would dry if Uganda allowed any amount of water required to run the three dams to run in a cascading manner along the Nile.

Uganda faced severe power shortages between 2005 and 2006 leading to tensions with the neighbors Kenya and Tanzania over the reduced water in the lake. At the time, Uganda was experiencing reduced rainfall but it had doubled the amount of water at Jinja for hydropower generation.

Uganda was supposed to be releasing 600 cubic meters of water per second but the dam was releasing 1200 cubic meters per second. The double release of the amount water from the dams lead to the reduction of the water level by 1.6 meters.

Hydropower generation reduced from 320 MW to 110 MW, fish exports reduced because the breeding grounds were affected.  Navigation of ships was affected because they couldn't dock.  National Water and Sewerage Corporation had to seeks USD 4 million facilities to extend water pipes deeper in the Lake.

The 2005- 2006 incident was evidence enough that you cannot talk about hydropower without water and that rivers and that host these power projects, and the ecosystems inextricably linked.

There is concern that if developed as planned, the large hydropower projects would permanently segment watersheds trap nutrient-rich sediment behind dams. The productivity of inland fisheries would gradually erode and deny the fertile silt and water flows essential to sustaining yields.

The World small hydropower development report 2013 found that the development of small, micro-or mini-hydro "has not been very systematically conducted".  In 2013 seven projects with a total of 60 MW small hydropower capacities had been announced. Nine more projected to generates between 0.5-1.5 MW with support from the Uganda Energy Credit Capitalisation Company (UECCC) are about to be constructed on rivers in Western Uganda.

 The tension between Ministries of Water and Energy and Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited continues. Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited in August requested the Ministry of Water to allow more water to be released but the request was rejected.  "We have written saying the water we have is not enough. If there has to be load shedding, let it be but we have no water to give you" said Callist Tindimugaya. 

Tindimugaya said their stand may have annoyed some players in the energy sector but his ministry had no other option.

"We might hurt somebody and thinks we are arrogant but that is why we are there. We must make sure that water is available to be used in a sustainable manner for different uses and of course our water is not only for power generation" he added.

Some experts in international Water and Trans-boundary water resources management are urging Uganda and its neighbors to fast-track the process of development of the Nile water management tool.  They believe there is need to optimize the use of the water otherwise dams like Bujagali, Isimba, and Karuma among others may not be able to what the government wants them to generate.

"One has to understand that the amount of water that you release at Nalubale will determine what you will generate at Bujagali, what you will generate at Karuma and so forth," said a source at the National Environment Authority (NEMA) who thinks the emphasis on hydro has eclipsed promotion of other renewable sources of energy. 

"You are putting their dams but are concerned about how water is going to be optimally utilized? How are you coordinating all these dams so that one dam is ready to generate as the water comes on board" said the source that asked for anonymity because he does not speak for NEMA.

The source said the government continues to enter power purchase agreements guaranteeing the hydrology without ensuring that water is available. He said many of the dams are not generating in the dry season because the water is not available.

Climate change predictions in Uganda are indicating that the amount of rainfall is not going to change but what is changing is the period within which rainfall is coming.

What Options for Uganda?

Sabine Dall'Omo, the Chief Executive Officer at of Siemens that recently organized the Energy Future Conference in Kampala said one way out is to promote other renewable sources of power from the current situation where hydropower contributes to over 80% of energy. "The country has the potential of generating power from other renewable sources like peat, solar PV, bagasse co-generation, the wind and natural gas," she said.

Globally, technological advancements are driving down the costs of the wind, solar and mini-grids among others. Geoffrey Kamese said the government needs to tap into solar for other parts of the country instead of thinking that every river can be used for hydropower. "I don't see why we want to take hydropower to areas for lighting. They would be using solar power." Said Kamese.