World Bank Financed Dam Draining Lake Victoria

by Lori Pottinger
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

A new report by a Kenya-based independent hydrologic engineer confirms that over-releases from two hydropower dams on the Nile in Uganda are a primary cause of severe drops in Lake Victoria in recent years. The report finds that about 55% of the lake’s recent drop is due to the Owen Falls dams (now known as Nalubaale and Kiira dams) releasing excessive amounts of water from the huge lake. Lake Victoria’s natural control at Ripon Falls was removed for construction of the first dam in the 1950s. The second dam was built with World Bank funding in the 1990s.  

The lake, which has dropped 1.2 meters since 2003, is now at its lowest level since 1951. Nearly 3% of the lake’s total volume has been lost in the past three years. The receding shoreline has affected water supply systems, boat operators, fisheries and farmers. An estimated 30 million people depend on the lake for their livelihoods. The Monitor (Uganda) reported on February 27, “The low water level of the lake is sending shocks in the socio-economic and political spine in the region.”   

The new report, Connections Between Recent Water Level Drops in Lake Victoria, Dam Operations and Drought by Daniel Kull, analyzed recent reports produced for the Government of Uganda and other publicly available information. Reflecting a growing consensus of scientists in the region, the report concludes that the dams are greatly impacting the lake by releasing more water than is allowed by a legal agreement between Uganda and Egypt. This “Agreed Curve” is intended to ensure that the releases through the dams correspond to the natural flow of the river before damming.   

The government of Uganda has denied the charges, but it appears that neighboring Kenya and Tanzania intend to look into the matter. In a February 13 article on the dams’ effect on the lake, the East African Standard reported: “The secretary-general of the East African Community, Amanya Meshega, said delegates would meet next month in Tanza nia to discuss the situation and try to come up with solutions to reverse the trend.”   

Frank Muramuzi, of the Ugandan group National Association of Professional Environmentalists, said: “This dam complex is now pulling the plug on Lake Victoria, with implications for millions.”   

While this is the first time the connection between the dams and lake levels has gotten wide international media attention, it is not the first time the issue has been raised. Over a year ago, Hilary Onek, a Ugandan member of parliament and hydrologist, raised the issue of the dams releasing more water than the lake can sustain. In a March 2005 opinion piece in the Ugandan newspaper New Vision, he stated: “[Dam operator] UEGCL is currently releasing above 1400m3/sec to generate 220 MW of energy … Thus they are releasing more water than is physically sustainable. To politicise electricity issues will only sink Uganda economically and socially.”   

Possible climate change must be a major consideration in the development of more dams on the Nile. As the Kull report states, “It is unknown if Lake Victoria will recharge to the high levels and outflow experienced during 1961-2000, and if such a recharge could occur, whether it would be in the next years or only in 100 years. Viable nonhydro, or at least hydro not on the Victoria Nile, power generating alternatives must therefore be considered for Uganda.” Until the recent addition of emergency fossil-fuel plants, Uganda has been almost entirely dependent upon hydropower for its electricity needs.   

The World Bank’s Role   

The World Bank provided funding for the second dam and repair of the original dam. The project did not undergo an environmental impact assessment; indeed, the World Bank’s 1991 appraisal report for the project stated: “Extension of the existing plant at Owen Falls will have minimal environmental impact because the project will not affect downstream hydrology or fisheries.”   

This internal World Bank report also claimed that there was very little risk to the project becoming uneconomic because of changes to hydrology. Although it noted that “the hydrologic conditions are the single most important risk for an extension at Owen Falls,” the Bank and its consultant, Acres International of Canada, used limited and very optimistic hydrological data for the design of the extension project.   

The Bank’s appraisal report explains: “In the period 1961-62 extra heavy rain, which persisted across much of Central Africa, raised the lake level by more than a meter. This high lake level has more or less prevailed since that time … After a careful review of the hydrology of the Nile Basin, a reference hydrology data set was selected based on the best available flow records at the Owen Falls site, namely the 1961 to 1989 flow data set. The risk that the hydrology could revert to a condition described by the pre-1960 data is estimated by the consultants to be less than 1%.”   

Frank Muramuzi of NAPE states, “It is clear that the Bank and Acres were excessively optimistic in their appraisal of this project, and that its risks were greatly underestimated. Uganda is now paying the price, and is saddled with an expensive white elephant of a dam that not only cannot produce the power that it promised, but is doing serious harm to Lake Victoria.”   

NAPE has long pressed for development of energy sources other than more hydropower dams for Uganda, arguing that the nation’s almost total dependence on hydropower in a time of climate change is unwise. The group intends to hold a public meeting with hydrological experts from the region to discuss the issue and ways forward.   

The World Bank has also been a major proponent of the proposed Bujagali Dam, and is at this time considering involvement in the project under a new developer.