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Uganda tour operators warn of mass protests over proposed Murchison Falls dam


In an advertisement in “The New Vision” daily by the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) on June 7, a notice of intended application for a license from Bonang Power and Energy (Pty) South Africa Limited was tendered, indicating their intent to construct a hydropower dam near the Murchison Falls in Kiryandongo and Nwoya districts.

Backed by the Board and Uganda Tourist Association Vice President and General Secretary Uganda Safari Guides Association, Herbert Byaruhanga, the AUTO Chairman Everest Kayondo condemned the advertisement in a press statement issued at Hotel Africana on 11th June, 2019. He also announced that the Association has also served the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) with an objection notice.

“Since this matter has greatly stressed and caused a lot of anxiety among the tourism business community, stakeholders and the youth employed therein, who are also pressuring us to hold peaceful demonstrations around the country; we will have no option but to proceed as they demand, should we not hear from Government about our prayers within 2 weeks from today,” said Kayondo.

“On behalf of the Board, Management and entire membership of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) we condemn the construction of this hydropower dam which would only further undermine the efforts by tour operators and other tourism stakeholders to market the country and attract visitors to Uganda, and such acts of wickedness disregard the fact that many tourists come to Uganda, mainly for its nature,” added the chairman.

Other proposals by AUTO include an appeal to the President, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, to publicly pronounce an immediate termination to this damaging project, that Government of Uganda launch a nationwide sensitisation on the importance of conservation to the future of Uganda, starting with top officials in the public sector, and to dedicate more finances towards to the conservation, sustainable development and promotion of the country’s varied tourist attractions.

Brian Mugume, Board member, noted that many countries are creating man-made attractions, yet Uganda is destroying its natural attractions.

Uganda Wildlife Authority Spokesman Bashir Hangi vowed to write to ERA formally citing that, judging by the coordinates given in the advert, the project falls within the iconic Murchison Falls. Condemning the advert, he said that electricity should not come at the expense of Uganda’s beauty that brings revenue.

Social media immediately condemned ERA for even accepting to place the advertisement. According to ERA Spokesperson, Julius Wandera, the advertisement is within the provisions of the law as the notice is subject to public approval within 30 days .

“This is madness,” posted on her Facebook page Uganda Tourism Board CEO Lily Ajarova. “Who in their right mind would want the destruction of Murchison Falls…. The ecosystem of Murchison Falls has both endemic and endangered species that If destroyed will not only affect the entire nation but the global community with species extinction, climatic change, among others. There are options for the required development’ Murchison Falls must not be destroyed.”

An online petition by the hashtag #savemurchisonfalls has passed the 9000 mark with politicians, cultural leaders and general population, in solidarity condemning government for dismantling the cultural heritage of the region.

“After we reach 10,000, we are going to petition the Speaker of Parliament, we will petition the Prime Minister and the President,” Mr. Amos Wekesa, industry personality and owner of “Uganda Lodges”, who promised to strip naked in a televised interview on NTV (Nation Television). “Zambia or Zimbabwe would never think of giving away the Victoria Falls as Canada would never destroy the Niagara Falls,” said visibly upset Amos.

Murchison Waterfalls, from the top all the way to the delta at its confluence with Lake Albert including Uhuru Falls, is a Ramsar site, designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands; an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by UNESCO, which Uganda is also signatory to.

The tourism sector was earmarked by Government of Uganda as one of the five key-growth sectors for the country’s economy in the National Development Plan II. Tour operators are puzzled that the same government can go against its word and destroy this sector which attracts the largest foreign exchange?

The Tourism Sector Annual Performance Report FY 2017-2018 shows that over the past 10 years, the tourist arrivals into Uganda have steadily increased from 850,000 in 2008 to over 1.4 million arrivals in 2017. In 2017, Tourism continued to be the leading foreign exchange earner to the Ugandan economy by generating USD 1,453 billion compared to USD 1,371 billion in 2016.

The direct contribution of tourism in Uganda is measured in form of GDP contribution of 10% as well as the direct employment mainly for women and youth in hotels, tour companies, travel agencies, airlines and other passenger transportation services. It is also measured indirectly in terms of the different stakeholders who indirectly benefit from it from being positioned along its varied value chain.

According to the statistical bulletin of the Ministry of Tourism Wildlife and Antiquities, Murchison Falls National Park received an increase of 10% over a period of 12 months, commanding up to 31.4% of all Uganda’s park visitations and leading all the 10 national parks in visitor numbers.

It is therefore to cause loss to Ugandan tourism business owners (tour operators, lodge owners and others) and many Ugandans who both directly and indirectly depend on the Murchison Falls for employment and their livelihood. It is also to deprive Ugandans today and in the future of the much needed government revenue, GDP contribution, job creation, and all other benefits that accrue from Sustainable Tourism Development.

Murchison Falls National Park is the country’s largest National Park covering 3850 Sq. Km with the whole Conservation Area stretching more than 5000 Sq.KM.

Prior to 1910, there was human settlement within Murchison Falls, revered by the Luo inhabitants as ‘Pajok’(home of the spirits).

Ironically the creation of the park was credited to the Tsetse Fly which spread the deadly sleeping sickness leading to evacuation of populations and the increase in animal populations. By the 1960’s Murchison falls had become the premium destination in East Africa with herds of elephant (up to 15, 000 strong), crocodiles, hippos, the big cats and birdlife.

Famous personalities who have visited the park include Winston Churchill in 1907, whose boat was upset by hippo at the falls, Ernest Hemingway the great 20th century writer who famously crash landed at the bottom of the falls when his aircraft clipped telegraph lines.

The falls also provided a backdrop in the 1950’s Hollywood blockbuster African Queen ‘featuring Humphrey Boghart and Katharine Hepburn, England’s late Queen Mother, and most recently Hiphop star Kanye West and his wife Kim Kadarshian visited and shot videos for their latest projects in Chobe Lodge before touring Murchison Falls.

The Top of The Falls is the narrowest point on the river Nile where the waters are forced into a 7-metre gap before cascading 40 metres downstream into a thunderous roar.

Boat rides from Paraa to the bottom of the falls lead up to an optional hike named after the 19th Century British Explorer Sir Samuel Baker who sighted the and named falls in in 1864 .

In post-colonial times the falls was re-named Kabalega Falls by then President Idi Amin Dada, after the great king of Bunyoro Kitara, who resisted British colonial conquest, only to revert to its colonial name after the ouster of Amin in 1979.

Ugandans are reeling from loss after loss of their natural resources, from Bujagali falls to Mabira Forest, to Bugoma Forest, now Murchison Falls and can no longer trust authorities to resist temptation from kickbacks. Adding to their suspicions was government reneging on an agreement with World Bank not to construct dams within the Bujagali offset area when the Chinese owned EXIM Bank came up with the funds.

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Tony Ofungi - eTN Uganda