By Dr. Richard Kagolobya

The recent apocalyptic environmental news headlines around the world about the drying up of the world famous Victoria Falls (shared by Zimbabwe and Zambia) in Southern Africa left me wondering what Uganda would do if the River Nile were to run dry. One such headline that caught my eyes was by Farai Shawn Matiashe, writing from Harare, Zimbabwe: ‘Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world, is running dry due to climate change.’ He reported that the long drought in Zimbabwe and Zambia has also led to relentless power cuts in the two countries because of their 50% dependence on hydroelectric power generated at Kariba Dam, which is fed by the River Zambezi. The unprecedented drought has left over five million people in need of food aid in Zimbabwe, coupled with a reduction in tourists who usually visit to have a view of the remarkable Victoria Falls.

Even though there may be a number of climate change doubters around the world, the recent dwindling water levels of the River Zambezi and the subsequent water droplets at Victoria Falls should be a glaring wake-up call to all of us to realize the dangers of climate change to all creation on planet earth.

However, as the above was happening in Southern Africa, here in Uganda, some development enthusiasts in recent days have been thinking about generating more hydro-electricity power so that the country is not caught off guard due to the increasing electricity demand in the face of population growth and foreseeable industrialization. These people have been romanticizing the idea of tinkering and destroying the magnificent Murchison Falls on the River Nile, even at the cabinet level! But these hydro-power based industrialization zealots rarely scrutinize the dangers of over reliance on hydro power in the face of climate change, which they also ironically contribute to. For example, in the case of Zimbabwe, due to the unprecedented dry spell, Matiashe reported that the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority introduced an 18-hour load shedding because Kariba Dam has fallen to its lowest water level since 1996, leading to a reduction in its electricity generation. It has also been reported that these issues have been caused by the changing rain-patterns around River Zambezi’s catchment area, which stretches to north-western Zambia, Angola and DRC, thus showing the international nature of eco-systems and exemplifying the far-reaching consequences of climate change and environmental degradation.

Comparatively, what are Kenyans, Tanzanians and Ugandans doing to Lake Victoria? This is important because Lake Victoria receives 80% percent of its water from direct rainfall and 20% from rivers and streams, and the only outflow from Lake Victoria is the Nile, which exits the lake near Jinja in Uganda. This makes Lake Victoria the principal source of the longest branch of the River Nile.

In the case of Uganda, quick places that come to my mind as far as catchment depletion is concerned are the Ssese and Kalangala Islands and the destruction of natural forests and their replacement with palm oil plantations, coupled with wanton timber harvesting and charcoal burning, which may affect the rainfall patterns around Lake Victoria. Another place that vividly comes to mind is the Rwera Swamp, which has been wantonly tampered with by sand mining and rice growing enterprises, yet it hosts several streams that eventually drain into Lake Victoria, and then later nourishes the Nile!

As we interfere with these resources, do we seriously think about the international environmental responsibility that countries that share Lake Victoria have for preserving the source of the River Nile’s water? Mind you, there are other nations like Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt that depend on River Nile for their survival.

Even though from September to December 2019, Uganda was grappling with heavy rainfall which led to multi-location floods, as well as landslides which killed a number of people, destroyed houses, farmland and road infrastructure in Bundibugyo and Bududa districts, the opposite can also be true in the foreseeable future as it was in Zimbabwe and Zambia during that period. Uganda (Tanzania and Kenya) can be bombarded by a lengthy dry spell leading to Lake Victoria releasing  painful tear-drops of water into the River Nile and the later turning into it a mere trickle due to climate change! And yet, Uganda, as it is today, is not at all prepared for such a climate change induced prolonged drought because of its heavy dependence on rain-fed agriculture and oversubscription to hydro-electric power. And as I write, four of the five major power stations that light Uganda’s homes and industries are on River Nile! These are Kiira Power Station (200MW), Nalubaale Power Station (180MW), Karuma Hydro Power Station (600MW) Isimba Hydro Power Station (183MW), apart from the Muzizi Hydro Power Station (44.7MW), which is along the Muzizi River in Kibaale district.

As we wonder about how Victoria Falls was running dry due to climate change, let nations like Uganda also think and plan for the worst case scenarios if nothing is done to mitigate climate change and its consequences. Nations should invest in climate change resilience programmes, one of which is to invest in other renewable energy sources rather than oversubscribing to hydroelectricity, which is at the moment susceptible to climate change. At least Kenya has made strides in that direction by unveiling the Lake Turkana Wind Power farm which consists of 365 turbines with a capacity to allot 310 megawatts of energy to Kenya’s national power grid.

Over the past decades, the mantra among nations relying on hydro-electricity power was that it is the most reliable and sustainable renewable source of energy. This is somewhat exemplified by Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited’s mission statement: ‘Sustainably generate reliable, quality and affordable electricity for socio-economic development.’ Yet such companies rarely think about hydropower’s dependence on environmental and climatic factors and scarcely invest in environmental sustainability projects in the face of climate change. However, going by the Zimbabwe-Zambia scenario, one would suggest that governments and private companies that have heavily invested in hydropower generation should be the chief advocates of environmental protection, preservation and renewal in the water catchment areas that feed the rivers on which the power stations are constructed. Otherwise, the escalating drought-spells leading to rivers and falls running to a trickle due to climate change may put to waste multi-billion hydro-power installations around the world.  And for the case of Uganda in particular, one would recommend that instead of gambling with the destruction of the much beloved Murchison Falls, the time is now to think about energy source diversification rather than over relying on hydroelectricity power on the River Nile. Otherwise, what will Uganda do if the Nile runs dry this time tomorrow?

Dr. Kagolobya works with Makerere University and is a Member of Sustainable Futures in Africa; an international consortium of multidisciplinary environmental sustainability researchers and enthusiasts.

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