A new short documentary by the Dutch group BothEnds offers a clear, concise "you are there" view of problems being caused by the Bujagali Dam, now being built on the Nile River in Uganda. This well-done piece of activist filmmaking shows the viewer firsthand what is at stake in this controversial project. You'll see what the dam will flood, visit a village forced to move for the project, hear from Ugandans who hope their businesses can afford the project's costly electricity, and see the beautiful Bujagali Falls themselves -- soon to be submerged by the dam. People on both sides of the debate give thoughtful commentary on key issues -- all against the backdrop of the mighty Nile.
The video comes at a time when activists in Europe and Uganda have teamed up to call the European Investment Bank (EIB) to task for its role in the controversial project. A team from the EIB will visit Uganda next week to investigate the complaint, lodged by Uganda's preeminent environmental group, the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, or NAPE. This is the third such official complaint about the project by the group, which also lodged complaints with the World Bank and African Development Bank. Although these institutions' investigators substantiated key concerns raised by NAPE, the banks have taken few steps to resolve the problems. It seems they see their independent "inspection panels" as little more than suggestion boxes. Perhaps the third time will be the charm for these dogged activists.
Besides the dam's environmental impacts, one of NAPE's biggest complaints is that the project will only benefit a small elite in the poor nation. "Less than 5 percent of the Ugandan population is currently connected to the electricity grid. The project does not include any transmission line extension that would expand the number of people who have access to electricity, especially in rural areas," their complaint to the EIB states. Historically, electricity that cannot be sold in Uganda has always been sold to Kenya at a bargain -- much less than the cost of production, according to NAPE. Talk about being sold down the river...
The problem is a matter of scale. Uganda's poor can't afford electricity in general, and certainly not from a dam that costs close to a billion dollars. Even the nation's middle class and businesses will have trouble paying the bills. For although the World Bank, EIB and other project promoters used the lure of lower electricity costs if the dam were built, the government now says the dam will raise the cost of electricity in Uganda, which already has the highest electricity tariff in East Africa (and according to one news source, the highest tariff in the world next to Sweden).
It makes sense -- Bujagali is one of the world's most expensive dams for its size. It's just another "we told you so" moment for the coalition of activists (including my own organization) that fought the dam for many years. Such moments do not make us smile; we'd rather see a healthy river for generations to enjoy, and a more sustainable energy plan for Uganda, based on smaller, decentralized renewables that could spread the energy wealth to now-dark areas of the country.
What does make me smile is the fortitude and courage of groups like NAPE in keeping the spotlight on these problematic projects - and the big money interests behind them. Perhaps the EIB will think a little harder before embarking on its next controversial African energy project (it has its sights on the extremely destructive Gibe 3 Dam in Ethiopia, and is facing another equally feisty group of Africa activists on the ground should it proceed). While I'm dreaming, maybe the big bankers could even start spreading a little green for some green energy for Africa. They could start with all the money they'd save by foregoing overpriced, destructive dams.