Letter to the World Bank Regarding Owen Falls Dams and Lake Victoria

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Friday, February 17, 2006

A Feb. 2006 report by an independent hydrologist revealed that over-releases from two dams on the Nile in Uganda are a primary cause of the severe drops in Lake Victoria. In this letter, NGOs are asking the World Bank, which provided funding for of one of these dams, to address the issue and take responsibility for the dam’s flawed design.

Mr. Gobind Nankani
Vice President for Africa
The World Bank
1818 H St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20433

Re: Owen Falls dams and Lake Victoria

Dear Mr. Nankani:

Enclosed is a new report, written for International Rivers by an independent hydrologist, which analyzes the contribution of dam operations at the Owen Falls dam complex to the ongoing drop in the level of Lake Victoria.

This study analyzed recent reports produced for the Government of Uganda and other publicly available information. It comes to the following conclusions:

  • About 55% of the lake’s drop during 2004–05 is due to the Owen Falls dams releasing excessive amounts of water from the lake (the rest of the 1.2 meter drop is due to drought). The report finds that the dams have been releasing more water than allowed by the "Agreed Curve."

  • Based on the current Lake Victoria hydrology, as well as observations from the past 100+ years, the Owen Falls Extension (Kiira) dam, built with Bank support in the 1990s, appears to be significantly over–sized and to have been built on the basis of seriously flawed hydrological conclusions by the Bank’s consultants. Kiira is likely to be a major economic loss for Uganda.

  • The lack of public information on dam releases, dam operations and river flows makes it difficult for independent experts to soundly judge the performance of existing and proposed hydroelectric projects on the Victoria Nile.

The lake is now at its lowest level since 1951. The receding shoreline has affected water supply systems, boat operators, farmers and others. Future climate change is expected to result in "drier conditions, lower lake levels... and lower downstream river flows,"1 which will make it increasingly difficult for Victoria Nile dams to produce their projected power. These impacts thus challenge the single–minded development of hydropower dams on the Victoria Nile for Uganda’s electrical needs – a plan that has had considerable backing from the World Bank

Several recent media reports confirm the findings of the International Rivers report. The following summarizes recent mentions of this problem in African media:

  • An article in the South African newspaper Business Week stated: "Failure by authorities to adhere to agreed rules of procedure at the Jinja power dams has been cited as a major cause of Uganda’s turbulent electricity and water supply sectors. A report from Uganda’s Directorate of Water Development (DWD) says that non–compliance with the water release policy has led to releases of water beyond the permitted amounts at the Owen Falls dam...is responsible for the adverse drop in the lake Victoria levels."2

  • The Nation reported: "Problems facing Lake Victoria came to the fore at a scientific conference in Arusha, Tanzania last November. Scientists and government officials from the three countries agreed that the lake was shrinking at an alarming rate. A Tanzanian hydrologist, Dr Raymond Mngodo, who has studied the lake’s hydrology for 20 years, has stunned his colleagues with his findings. Dr Mngodo ... says that increased power generation by Uganda at Jinja could partly be responsible for the decreasing water levels."3

  • Hilary Onek, a Ugandan MP and hydrologist, raised the issue of dams releasing more water than the lake can sustain early last year. In an opinion piece in the New Vision (March 1, 2005) he stated: "UEGCL is currently releasing above 1400m3/sec to generate 220 mw of energy. It is the above mismatch that I consider the gist of the design error and is fundamental. Thus they are releasing more water than is physically sustainable. The ministry is openly lying to Ugandans in the press that water release at the Owen Falls for power generation is only 807m3/sec and went ahead with some fictitious deductions to prove that they are not responsible for the dropping lake levels. To politicise electricity issues will only sink Uganda economically and socially."

The World Bank’s Role

In the Staff Appraisal Report for the Uganda Third Power Project (May 29, 1991), the Bank insisted that the Owen Falls Extension Project was Uganda’s "least–cost option," and that there was very little risk to the project becoming uneconomic because of changes to hydrology. Although the Appraisal Report noted that "the hydrologic conditions are the single most important risk for an extension at Owen Falls," the Bank and its consultant, Acres of Canada, used very optimistic hydrological data for the design of the extension project. The Appraisal Report stated that: "In the period 1961–62 extra heavy rain, which persisted across much of Central Africa, raised the lake level by more than a meter (increasing usable storage by 100,000 million cubic meters). 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%."

It is clear that the Bank and Acres were excessively optimistic in their appraisal and design of this project, and that its risks were greatly underestimated. Uganda is now paying the price with an expensive white elephant of a dam that cannot produce the power it promised, and is doing serious harm to a vital natural resource, Lake Victoria.

The 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. The dam poses two major problems: it will further Uganda’s overdependence on hydropower at a time when climate change appears to already be impacting Nile River hydrology, and it was not analyzed in light of the design problems now coming to light with the Owen Falls dams.

In fact, the Bank’s 1991 Staff Appraisal Report for the Third Power Project states: "The only significant risk to economic feasibility would arise if low hydrologic regime flows of the magnitude of the pre–1961 streamflow data set were to occur. In this case, the extension would not be economic ... A low flow without a change in regulation policy would also make a 270MW Bujagali installation uneconomic. The economic installed capacity at Bujagali would only be about 150 MW."

In light of this information, we believe the Bank bears much responsibility for Uganda’s current energy shortages, and should take steps to help Uganda recover from this poor investment, and avoid similar poor investments in the future. For the long–term, the Bank should urgently help Uganda develop energy projects that will reduce its dependence on hydropower.

For the near term, we call on the World Bank to lead an effort to secure the public release of all relevant information, with the goal that this information be discussed at a multi–stakeholder forum attended by representatives of governments, civil society and the private sector from the three riparian countries, the World Bank, and international independent experts. This should take place before any further decisions on energy sector development are taken. Relevant information includes not only earlier studies on the subject of Owen Falls, Lake Victoria levels, and Nile Basin hydrology, but also the current Bujagali power purchase agreement (PPA) and its hydrological assumptions.

We appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to your response.



Lori Pottinger
Director, Africa Programs
International Rivers
Phone: +1 510–848–1155
Fax +1 510–848–1008
E–mail: lori@internationalrivers.org'


Frank Muramuzi
Executive Director
National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE)
Phone: +256 41 534453
Fax: +256 41 530181
E–mail: nape@nape.or.ug


  1. WREM International Inc. "Climate Change Impact Assessment – Technical Report 10," Study on Water Management of Lake Victoria, prepared by Water Resources and Energy Management International Inc. for the Uganda Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, June.
  2. Lake Victoria levels at Jinja dam raise eyebrows, January 16, 2006.
  3. Shrinking Lake Leaves Transporters Very Worried, January 19, 2006.