Lee Doran from ESG International takes the example of Uganda's Victoria Nile when looking at river basin development

UGANDA, Winston Churchill noted famously, is the pearl of Africa. Highlights of that glistening jewel include the upper Nile river system: several Great Lakes, hundreds of kilometres of the river and its tributaries, and arguably, the source of the Nile itself – that starting place so ardently sought by Victorian explorers and adventurers.

But how can one manage this exceptional resource sustainably – optimising its benefits to present generations without foreclosing options for those to follow in the future?

This was a question faced by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, in the late 1990s. IFC had been approached by a private sector sponsor, the AES Corporation, to assist with the financing of a 250MW hydro power development on the upper Victoria Nile. It was named Bujagali, after a significant series of falls and rapids that would be inundated by the reservoir to be created by the run-of-river project.

The proposed project would be located just 9km downstream of an existing hydro power complex, the first phase of which – the Owen Falls dam – had been opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 with 2x15MW units. Owen Falls, now with a capacity of 180MW, has provided most of the electricity to the modest Ugandan grid ever since.

In the early 1990s, however, the World Bank had approved financing for the construction of a second hydro power project, called Owen Falls extension, located just downstream of the original Owen Falls dam. The new facility, entering the final stages of construction as IFC became involved with the early planning for the Bujagali project, had a total design capacity of 200MW, to be installed in stages over a number of years.

Basin development

The potential for certain specific effects of hydro power development on the Nile river system was recognised during the planning for the original Owen Falls plant.

Agreements were made to provide assurances to the Government of Egypt that any changes in the hydrology of the system would remain within acceptable limits. Monitoring of water levels was agreed. For certainty, Egypt, whose southernmost boundary is thousands of kilometres downstream of the Owen Falls site, has provided throughout, and still maintains, an engineer at the Owen Falls dam to make regular hydrological observations.

Other potential environmental and social effects of the original Owen Falls development were little studied, however. It appears certain that the ‘passenger fish’ that John Hanning Speke observed jumping in the river during his explorations in 1862 no longer make their upstream journey past the 20m high dam, which has no fish passage facilities.

In fact, Rippon Falls, the original outflow from Lake Victoria, was inundated by the backwater from the first dam. Subsequently, blasting of these falls was done to improve hydraulic flows for the development. Today, remnants of parts of the falls and certain structures used during the dam’s construction can be observed from the recreational lands on the east bank of the river.

  Some environmental and social studies were undertaken prior to the Owen Falls Extension project’s approval, but none to the standard or level of detail that would now be required for a World Bank Group project. The World Bank has provided core funding, however, for a Nile river basin initiative which encompasses all the areas located within the watershed. Officially under way since 1999, the project is called the Nile Basin Initiative and is headquartered in Entebbe, Uganda.

All ten nations with lands in the watershed of the Nile are participants.

Future plans: the context

The situation when IFC first became involved with the Bujagali project was: one hydro power plant in operation since 1954; another immediately downstream, soon to come on-line, in stages; Bujagali proposed, another 9km downstream, on-line in perhaps five to ten years on the timeline then envisaged.

The planning context, however, was more complex. As would be expected for such an attractive resource from a hydro power perspective, a number of feasibility and preliminary planning studies had been carried out over the years on the Nile River system.

Several in recent decades had reviewed and recommended many possible, relatively large scale hydro power developments. They ranged throughout the length of the Nile system in Uganda, including some within or close to the boundaries of the Murchison Falls National Park, another of the highlights on the Ugandan pearl.

On technical and economic criteria, as many as six of the hydro power sites were considered to be of high priority for development in the medium to long term. The figure above right shows a profile of the Victoria Nile and the attractiveness of its physical features for hydro power development. It was not difficult to imagine a step-wise construction of dam after dam, proceeding methodically down the length of the mainstream river. Indeed, such a series of dams had been the standard paradigm for development on comparably attractive river (hydrological) systems in other parts of the globe.

In fact certain of these other jurisdictions – the Columbia river system in the US comes to mind – had begun in recent years to reconsider that approach. Some were even seriously suggesting, and investigating the environmental, social and economic implications of removing some of the dams built over the years on those systems.

Hence, the sustainability question faced by IFC during its consideration of AES’ request for assistance with the Bujagali project. It was no longer possible to consider a single project in isolation, as a stand-alone proposal, without looking at its implications for the future development of its region. What would a project such as Bujagali mean for the future development of the Victoria Nile watershed? What priority and commitment should hydro power have in this river basin over the medium to long term?

Such questions would not be addressed by the single project environmental, social and economic impact assessments required in support of applications to the World Bank Group for funding. Those assessments would provide reasonable estimates of the single project’s effects – an essential first step. But what about the region, the watershed and its sustainability for future uses and users?

IFC’s response was to commission a study of what can be called a strategic, or alternatively a regional (it has elements of both), assessment of impacts. The study area would encompass the Victoria Nile in Uganda, a significantly larger area than that likely to be affected by the Bujagali project on its own. The timeframe would be on the order of 20 years. The study would also include significant consultations with people with an interest in and understanding of the river system: people who knew its context and uses, and who themselves had hopes and dreams for its future: and people whose descendants would be among the beneficiaries of the decisions being taken now.

Such consultations – talking with and seeking input from informed and involved stakeholders – is one of the single successes of good impact assessment practice in recent years. Early and substantive involvement of people likely to be affected by individual projects has demonstrably improved the design and implementation of many projects of all kinds. Serious attempts to address issues raised by project-affected peoples have made for better projects, technically and environmentally.

But the biggest single outcome has been the social understanding, awareness and occasionally even acceptance of projects when benefits are extended to a larger cohort of the people potentially affected. Widespread and comprehensive consultations are the key to those successes. (And conversely, the lack of such consultation has often been a major stumbling block for difficult or inappropriate projects in the past, as has been clearly established and widely reported by the World Commission on Dams in its final report.)

Strategic assessment

IFC selected Acres International of Niagara Falls, Canada to begin the work on the strategic assessment. The Acres team held numerous consultations with villages and communities along the Victoria Nile. A workshop was sponsored for ‘informed stakeholders’ including administrators, officials and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with responsibilities and perspectives that would assist in issue definition and resolution at the regional and national levels.

The Acres team also reviewed and revisited earlier system planning studies for their current applicability, the major candidate projects, and the options in Uganda for sources of electricity other than hydro power. Renewable energy sources, including their availability, practicality and economic feasibility, were also included in their work.

As the strategic studies progressed, ESG International, headquartered in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, was asked to assist in the final phases of the work. A second workshop for the ‘informed stakeholders’ identified by the Acres team was planned. One of its objectives was to define and prioritise the criteria for the future development of the Victoria Nile basin (the whole of the river system within Uganda) over the next 20 years.

The workshop identified ten key criteria:

• Regional economic development.

• Access to electricity.

• Human relocation.

• Tourism.

• Health services.

• Education services.

• Natural river flow.

• Land valuation/compensation.

• Employment.

• Cultural/spiritual sites.

ESG International subsequently developed a methodology to use these criteria to make judgements about future development in the watershed. The technique is based on a methodology developed in the early 1970s, primarily for use in the management of recreational lands and facilities in the western US. That approach was called ‘limits of acceptable change’ and was:

• Based on peoples’ perceptions and opinions.

• Presumed that change will occur.

• Aimed to manage those changes accordingly.

Such an approach had several distinct advantages over other, often highly technical and usually computer-based techniques. It could be explained to people in words. It used their understanding and perceptions to focus and set priorities for action. It recognised change explicitly, avoiding altogether the debates, concerns and confusion that surrounds assumptions that ecosystems and their inhabitants are static, fixed in time, and need to be preserved, thus. It was replicable, as and when needed.

Since change is occurring and recognised, the next iteration of the process might ‘discover’ that the changes people sought to manage previously had been accomplished, or had reached some new threshold, or needed to be revisited. So, instead of seeking a one-time, cast-in-stone ‘plan’ that could be put on a shelf for all time, the methodology allows, indeed fosters, a re-evaluation and revision of the management scheme as and when necessary. The recognition of change and the need for its management are core concepts in the success of the approach.

ESG International calls this adaptation of the limits to acceptable change approach regional integrated change management assessment (RICMA). Its application to the Victoria Nile helped IFC decide that the optimum hydro power development for the Victoria Nile under the conditions specified included two new projects: one upstream of the major hydrological ‘break’ on the Nile in the vicinity of Lake Kyoga and one downstream of that location. With the help of the World Bank’s International Development Agency and the Government of Uganda, IFC was able to set in motion plans to protect other lands and sites in the watershed, reflecting the other priority criteria identified by the stakeholders in the workshop.

The RICMA methodology has proven to be a convenient, accessible and economical approach to regional/strategic assessment in this case (the study took four months to complete). One step towards the sustainable development of the pearl that is Uganda has been taken. RICMA’s adaptability and usefulness in similar situations in future – selecting among land use alternatives; choosing between project alternatives; integrating project-level assessments at a regional level; and, specifying regional limits to acceptable change – seems assured.