Tour operators in the private sector have downplayed the excuse given by government – that the construction of a dam in Murchison falls national park is not a done deal – arguing that the mere fact that such a project could be conceived is outrageous.
Government continues to face a backlash ever since the controversial plan started making headlines in the press over the weekend. The hashtag ‘Save Murchison Falls’ has been trending on social media.
On June 7 the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) issued a notice in the press, acknowledging receipt of a notice of intended application for a license from a company known as Bonang Power Energy (Pty) Limited.
Bonang, a South African energy firm intends to generate and sale electricity from a hydro power plant proposed to be established near Murchison falls in Kiryandongo and Nwoya districts.
The proposed project is located within the vicinity of coordinates 2°16’42.6” N, 31°41’08.8” E which is actually where the Murchison waterfalls are situated.
“Bonang Power and Energy (Pty) Limited) intends to undertake detailed feasibility studies and other activities leading to the development of the above-mentioned Power Project whose proposed installed capacity is 360MW. The generated power will be sold to the Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited and fed into the national grid,” the notice by ERA adds.
On Tuesday, private tour operators under their body Association of Tour Operators in Uganda (AUTO) addressed a news conference in Kampala, criticizing the plan which they say will deal a big blow to the tourism sector which is the biggest foreign exchange earner for Uganda.
“Tourism is one of the big sectors. It accounts for 10 percent of the GDP and 24 percent of the exchange inflows. This means it’s the single biggest foreign exchange earner,” Evarist Kayondo, the Chairman of AUTO told reporters.
“It’s a substantive sector that we shouldn’t sweep under the carpet”.
He said the waterfalls offer tourists incomparable sights and experiences which is why they should be preserved for the future.
“We have 10 national parks in Uganda and Murchison falls park is the most visited. A third of the total number of tourists in 2018 visited Murchison falls park”.
“This is not because it has wildlife since wildlife can be found in all the other national parks. Murchison has the falls where the longest river in the world, which has sections as wide as a kilometer squeezes through a 7-meter-wide gap. The sight is memorable”.
In the wake of the public outcry, ERA issued a notice clarifying that no licence has been issued yet, for the construction of a hydro power dam.
“We wish to clarify to our stakeholders about this notice. ERA has not issued a License for the establishment of Power Plant at Murchison Falls but received an application for a permit to conduct feasibility studies for a proposed plant near the falls,” ERA posted on Facebook on Sunday.
However, players in tourism say this excuse does not suffice.
“Thinking about the dam alone is bad enough. The fact that they even needed someone to carry out feasibility studies is disastrous and whoever conceived it owes it to Ugandans to resign,” Kayondo said on Tuesday.
“We want this plan stopped and denounced. We are going to make a lot of noise, among other actions. In Uganda, things start as a rumour and develop, and before you know it, the waterfalls will be gone”.
He says other waterfalls including Owen falls and Bujagali have already been lost to electricity generation, but Murchison falls is a big dare.
The private sector is demanding that government formally issues a letter stating that it has abandoned the hydro project. Failure to do this in the next two weeks, the sector will declare an industrial action, Kayondo said.
Brian Mugume, a Board Member at AUTO equated the hydro dam plan to terrorism.
“This is not different from terrorism. Other countries are struggling to come up with man-made attractions, and here we are thinking of killing even the few unique attractions that are God-given,” a furious Mugume said.
“It might be a rumour, better enough. You’ve already thought about it (hydro project) which is lame enough, you need to say sorry”.
Other operators who turned up at the news conference used words like “total madness”, “shocking thing” and “murder” in reference to the plan to replace the waterfalls.
“Its a lifeline for a lot of people. So, what do we want to do? Livelihoods shall be affected, animals will be affected and the tourism value chain shall be at a loss,” said Pearl Hoareau Kakooza, the President of Uganda Tourism Association.
“We want to give it (waterfalls) away in the name of investment? I think we should tell that investor ‘Take your money elsewhere’. As Ugandans, let us not allow this thing to happen. Such a shocking thing to be happening in our generation,” she said.
Hoareau says if Uganda does not conserve for the next generation, there will be nothing left.
Many of the concerned tour operators also say tampering with Murchison waterfalls would be detrimental to the identity of Murchison national park itself since it derives its name ‘Murchison falls national park’ from the existence of the waterfalls.
The other concern is that to wipe away a landmark of remarkable significance and which can not be found anywhere else in the world, is inconceivable.
Travel blogger, Charlotte Beauvoisin who runs the travel blog ‘Diary of a Mzungu’ said the controversy is a testament to how most officials in government are misguided on the potential of tourism and how natural sceneries, wildlife and the natural environment are so critical to that.
“We are all trying to develop other tourism projects for Uganda but for the foreseeable future, game drives and natural environment are still going to be the biggest attractions for local and international tourists” Charlotte said.
“I was really horrified when i read that Murchison is under threat”.
As one who has previously visited the endangered waterfalls, Charlotte describes Murchison falls as “an incredible place that I would love to visit again and again”.
“Places get talked about and you think it’s hype. I have been to Murchison and thought i would be disappointed. I got there, and you can feel the power of the water under your feet. It’s like a multi-sensory experience”.
“There’s the sound, the spray from the river. There’s something really special about Murchison falls,” she adds.