“When We Save A River, We Save Ourselves” River Guardian Betty Obbo

Sarah Bardeen
Betty Obbo (center) at Rivers for Life 3
Betty Obbo (center) at Rivers for Life 3
International Rivers

When Ugandan activist Betty Obbo first came to environmental work, it wasn’t to save rivers. In fact, she’d had absolutely no connection to rivers growing up – an irony for a woman whose career has been defined (at least in part) by her work to save Bujagali Falls on the Nile River. 

Her first project instead? Trees.

Obbo had just completed studies in environmental management in 1994, and she says now that she “wanted to put in practice what I studied – educating my family and community on benefits of protecting and conserving the natural resources that support our livelihoods – land, forests, lakes and rivers.”

She decided to start close to home. She had noticed that the countryside where she’d been raised had grown denuded, with many of the trees felled for firewood. No one was replacing those trees, and so she started, an acre at a time, to do just that.

“I started by protecting indigenous trees (Acacia Africans) that grew naturally on my late father’s land,” she says. “Three years later I introduced pine trees on a two-acre piece of land. Now, those pine trees have matured and are ready for harvest.” 

That last part is important. Obbo wasn’t restoring the trees purely for environmental reasons; she was thinking of her family and community’s economic well-being as well. “The trees have benefited my family. The trees have provided firewood...and a bigger part of it is sold and the proceeds used to cater for other family needs.” 

That dual concern for people and the environment – seeing the health of each as intimately linked to the other – has become a hallmark of the soft-spoken activist’s career. That interest ultimately led her to the Ugandan NGO NAPE. The National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) is an action organization committed to finding sustainable solutions to Uganda’s most challenging environmental and economic growth problems. 

NAPE and International Rivers have worked together for many years, and Obbo says that our support has been instrumental. “International Rivers has been NAPE’s mentor in advocacy, and in all the organization’s struggles to protect natural resources nationally, regionally and indeed globally. ” 

But Obbo says International Rivers has been most helpful “in the struggle to prevent the government of Uganda from damming the River Nile.”

Tourists at Bujagali Falls.
Tourists at Bujagali Falls.
Betty Obbo/NAPE

Bujagali Falls

Obbo’s biggest campaign against damming the Nile – and perhaps her saddest defeat – lies with Bujagali Falls on the Nile River. The falls were a spectacular series of cascading rapids which Ugandans consider a national treasure. A tourist destination that brought river rafters from all over the world, the place also has great cultural and spiritual importance for the Busoga people. 

The dam that ultimately inundated the falls was first conceived in 1994; Obbo and International Rivers got involved in the campaign against Bujagali Dam not long after. The fight was protracted, and the odds – with financiers and consultants like the World Bank and African Development Bank on board – were long. After years of legal wrangling, the dam was completed in 2012.

But when I asked Obbo what work she was most proud of, she cited this campaign. Why? “Our action and advocacy campaigns against Bujagali Dam on the dam’s economic, social, environmental and spiritual impacts caused the dam project to be investigated four times – twice by the Inspection Panel of the World Bank, the African Development Bank’s Independent Review Mechanism (IRM), European Investment Bank’s Compliance Review, The World Bank’s IFC CAO and Counter Balance. 

“These processes delayed the dam construction for about 18 years.” 

In the aftermath of the dam’s completion, many of the campaign’s claims have also proved to be extremely accurate. Though the realization has come tragically late, Obbo says the government of Uganda now accepts that the Bujagali Dam project was a major mistake in relation to Uganda’s electricity sector. 

“The government has noted that it erred in accepting advice from the World Bank on Bujagali Dam, which has turned out to be very expensive and unaffordable to most Ugandans,” Obbo says. She told us the government is now contemplating buying the project back. 

Betty Obbo
Betty Obbo

Why Rivers?

Why was Betty Obbo drawn to protecting rivers, though she’d had little experience with them growing up? 

Obbo believes that rivers have a history of supporting communities the world over since time immemorial. “I was inspired to protect rivers because of the intricate functions and web of life that rivers (water) supports.

“When we save a river, we save a major part of an ecosystem, and we save ourselves as well because of our dependence – physical, economic, spiritual – on water and its community of life.” In Obbo’s view, human survival depends on how we manage and care for water and the community of life it supports.

I asked Obbo what she sees as the biggest threats to African rivers right now. “Energy poverty in Africa and heavy reliance on energy from big dams,” she says. “Secondly, African states continue to make bad choices that threaten to ruin the very important resource the continent needs: rivers.”

Obbo says people often create false dichotomies: It’s either economic development or a healthy environment  – but you can’t have both. But if there’s one thing she learned from her years planting trees in her village, it’s that you don’t have to sacrifice the environment in the name of profit. Growing those trees revived the landscape and the community’s fortunes as well.

“Oftentimes people pit one need against another as they use rivers and lakes to meet their needs,” Obbo says. “Modern agriculture uses a lot of water, and is done in ways that send chemical pollution into water ecosystems. Industrial manufactures of products use more water than is necessary. Forests are cleared without thinking about the erosion that will wash into our rivers and lakes.”

Bujagali Falls.
Bujagali Falls.
Betty Obbo/Nape

The Future

Though Bujagali Falls were inundated a few years ago, Obbo is still working on behalf of affected people. She’s currently researching grievance mechanisms to see if they are helping communities whose properties were destroyed by large infrastructure development projects like dams. She’s also researching whether Bujagali Dam’s public-private partnership has enhanced provision of public services.

But Obbo is not just looking to the past; her vision of the future is a powerful one. “We hope to continue engaging our government and dam financiers to focus on alternative energy." She says NAPE is pushing for "pro-people options that are affordable and able to propel development in Africa.

"We also continue working to promote the conservation and protection of rivers in Africa and the world over, especially in this era of climate change.”

Thursday, October 29, 2015