Where Are Women’s Voices in Uganda's Dam Planning?

Betty Obbo

"The Bujagali Dam project will bring tremendous opportunities you cannot afford to miss! It will transform your lives - it will provide good jobs for you and your children, your houses will be lit by electricity, clean running water will flow in your bath taps, good schools for your children, modern health centers and good roads running through your community." These were the tantalizing words told to the project-affected people by the Ugandan government and the Bujagali Dam developers to lure them into accepting the project, now under construction on the Nile River.

The Bujagali dam-affected people viewed this as the kind of life they deserved in exchange for their land for the project. Without a clear understanding of the implications of the project on their longterm livelihoods, they readily surrendered their land and excitedly anticipated a better life. Little did they know that the promises made to them by the dam developers and backed by the Uganda government would be unashamedly broken, leaving them hapless, hopeless and at the mercy of fate.

All that government and the developer wanted was a hydropower project. The project-affected people were just something to deal with as quickly as possible, and in the process many shortcuts were taken. Consequently, consultations in the project development process were carried out more as a formality to secure approval of World Bank funds than to ensure that ultimately, the project delivers development to those said to be the beneficiaries of development, Uganda's poorest. The people largely remained ignorant of what was going on.

Their culture, rights, democracy, ethics and morality were not taken as critical to the success or failure of the project. Women's participation in the project development process was limited. When project developers wanted views on issues regarding land and compensation, they targeted mainly men, leaving out women who play an important role to ensure food security for the family, and are the real managers of environmental resources. Yet one of the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams emphasizes the involvement of all stakeholders as a core element for meaningful dam development processes.

Women's involvement and effective participation in all stages of project development would have ensured a more gender-sensitive development with a much higher chance of meeting the needs of affected communities.

Bujagali failed to meet the African Development Bank's policy on gender (among other areas of non-compliance with required policies at that institution). According to the independent inspection body at the AfDB, "it does not appear that there was adequate consultation with affected women or that all their concerns have been adequately addressed in the resettlement and compensation plans."

Women's experiences

Rukia Kauma, now living in Naminya resettlement village, offers a firsthand view of how people's livelihoods were affected: "As the pivot of production in my family, I now have to work for long hours on poor soils, which produce so little compared to the rich yields I used to realize from the fertile productive soils by the riverside."

"When it comes to clean water and fuelwood, I now have to walk for about two hours, through sugar cane plantations and forest to fetch water and firewood," she continues. "I expose myself to risks of rape and harassment from unscrupulous men who have made it routine to waylay women and young girls on their way from the forest. I am forced to carry a heavy bumble of firewood to keep me for a few days. Sometimes I choose to prepare one meal a day, or light foods that do not require a lot of energy to cook. Sadly, this is to the detriment of my family's health."

Bujagali resettlers had to face so many changes that were disruptive and stressful. One large group of people were resettled years before dam construction started, as the company that was then going to develop the dam left Uganda abruptly after resettlement had begun. This left about 100 families in limbo, in a resettlement camp far from their traditional lands, without many promised amenities, and living in houses that did not meet their families' needs.

One major problem for this community was the lack of primary schools in the area. Left with no option, the community turned one of the houses in the resettlement camp into a school. But this "school" could neither accommodate the growing number of children in the community nor offer a good learning environment. Florence Nyombi, the founder of the school, led the community in pushing the developer to provide a proper school.

Christine Nabwire, also affected by the project, described the difficulties: "There is no shop or market nearby. It now takes me not less than one and half hours to walk to the market. Public transport is not available in the resettlement village. Occasionally, commuter motorcycles ride through the community, but you can only be lucky to catch up with one, and the cost is too expensive for me."

"Sometimes, when I realize a good yield of tomatoes and cabbages from my small garden, beyond what my family can consume, I have to sell the excess and use the money to buy other necessities. But it is a pain to get the fresh vegetables to the market as there is no reliable transport - so I have to carry it for a long distance on my head."

"Fishing was our mainstay by the riverside, before we were shifted to the resettlement camp. My husband was a fisherman. Every day I was assured of enough fish for my family's meal. Today, the main free source of proteins for my family is no more! If we have to eat fish, we get it at a cost. My husband and I also used to support our family from the sale of fish. Now we have to devise an alternative source of income, and work double hard to make ends meet."

The Bujagali Dam has been championed by government and its construction has been overseen by heavy military gear. The project was widely criticized by civil society organizations inside and outside for its environmental, social, economic, spiritual and cultural impacts. Despite all these concerns, the Uganda government, the World Bank and African Development Bank marketed the project as the best option for the country to escape energy scarcity and spur development.

In fact, for most Ugandans, the dam is not the best option for meeting energy needs. As the project begins producing power (expected later this year), electricity prices are on the rise, and the dam is likely to lead to further tariff increases. What seems clear is that the people who were resettled for the dam will never see any electricity from it, and will continue to suffer from its poor planning process and lack of attention to benefit-sharing for generations to come.

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