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A Displaced Spirit: The Uncertain Future of Africa’s Greatest River

By Chandra Brown

“One day, every last drop of water which drains into the whole valley of the Nile…shall be equally and amicably divided among the river people, and the Nile itself…shall perish gloriously and never reach the sea.”– Winston Churchill, 1908

Sunrise above Hypoxia rapid: Hypoxia, Itanda, and Kalagala Falls will all be submerged – lost – to Isimba. (Photo: Eil Reichman)

When the Bujagali dam was erected on Uganda’s White Nile in 2011, the World Bank hired local witch doctors to relocate the river’s spirit gods. The deities that dwell in the Nile’s massive rapids were moved to cataracts on different, unaffected stretches of the river. This struck me as remarkable: the entity responsible for funding construction of the colossal Bujagali dam was also responsible for appeasing and relocating displaced river spirits.

After she tells me about the witch doctors contracted by the World Bank, Dr. Jessie Stone describes a riverbank tree that was once the dedicated recipient of local people’s offerings, a place where rural Ugandans of faith would gather to appeal to and praise the spirits. That tree is now underwater, buried beneath the impounded river above Bujagali.

Stone, a four-time member of the U.S. Women’s Freestyle Kayak Team, paddled the Nile for the first time in 2003. She went to Africa with whitewater legends Eric Jackson and Clay Wright, and she credits Jackson as the man whose misfortune catalyzed her professional trajectory forever. “EJ’s getting malaria on that trip inspired me to start an educational malaria outreach program in Uganda, which led to the formation of Soft Power Health, which continues up to the present day. With my work in Uganda, I can kayak nearly every day I am in Uganda on the Nile – which is a huge gift and really makes the rest of my work possible.” Stone’s clinic provides primary care services, family planning, malnutrition prevention and treatment, domestic violence counseling, and malaria education to communities on and near the Nile River.

Stone says that some of the country’s highest rates of malnutrition and malaria are recorded in the areas about to be flooded after the Isimba Dam’s construction, and that Uganda already has the highest rates of malaria in the world. One of the most baffling pieces of the Isimba puzzle, for Stone, is that large dams are implicit in dramatically increasing the impact of malaria on human communities near dam sites.

Africa already shoulders 90 percent of malaria cases worldwide, and it is estimated that over a million of those cases result from malaria-carrying mosquito breeding in the stagnant waters associated with the continent’s large dams. A 2016 study suggests that “shoreline sites are the most important of the various malaria breeding sites. Reservoirs create these shoreline puddles when the water level recedes; they then become ideal places for mosquitos to breed.” The same study asserts that the size of the reservoir determines the extent of the shoreline favorable to Anopheles mosquitos: “Smaller dams have lesser shorelines than large dams – so less malaria impact.”

According to Stone, “Isimba is so massive, flooding will be devastating.”

She is perplexed for a few reasons. The dam truly doesn’t need to be that big; there are better sites for Ugandan dams that would produce more power and displace fewer families; and the developers are not considering the needs of the local people. Furthermore, she says, disenfranchised or displaced Ugandans don’t have a way to present their case in opposition to the dam, and they ultimately don’t have a say in the decision to build. “Even though it has been proven that these kind of big dams are never economically viable for the countries that build them — the countries can never pay back the debt to build the dam with loaned money — these types of ‘development’ projects march forward without any real thought to long-term impact on the environment and people or real development of the country building the dam,” Stone says. “Specifically, with the Isimba dam, the poorest people are being further marginalized, and instead of helping them actually develop and have a better quality of life and higher standard of living, the dam construction and its aftermath are pushing them off the cliff of survival.”

Isimba Dam’s emerging infrastructure on the Nile (photo Eli Reichman)

I recently read an article called “The Vanishing Nile“. I thought the title was confusing: how could the longest river in the world, a superlative and storied waterway, the lifeblood of the cradle of humanity, be vanishing?

The Nile flows north, from eastern Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of a handful of rivers worldwide that defy the standard global trend to run south. It irrigates a severely desiccated region of the world; its waters fueled the advent of agriculture. From the East, the Blue Nile originates in Ethiopia and, from the South, the White Nile tumbles toward the main river from Uganda. The Blue and the White come together in Khartoum, in eastern Sudan, and from there the river runs north toward Cairo, the delta, and the sea.

Communities in the headwaters of both the Blue and White Niles are at this moment witnessing massive modifications to their river system. In Ethiopia, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is slated for completion in 2017. When finished, the GERD’s upstream reservoir will be more than twice as big as Lake Mead on the Colorado, which is the United States’ largest impoundment. The Blue Nile supplies 59 percent of Egypt’s water, and the GERD will necessarily impound much of that, depriving the downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt of much of the river water they depend on. Cause for alarm for Egypt is the fact that, while the massive reservoir is filling — which will take between 5 and 7 years – as much as 25 percent of Egypt’s fresh water flow will be cut, significantly affecting not only agriculture but the electricity-producing capacity of Egypt’s own Aswan High Dam on the mainstem Nile.

In 2016, the Geological Society of America released a study by Smithsonian Institution scientists on the future of the Nile. The prognosis was grim: “With a population expected to double in the next 50 years, Egypt is projected to reach a state of serious country-wide fresh water and energy shortage by 2025.”

And: “In addition to the GERD, Ethiopia is proposing more dams along the Nile, and a new series of dams is also planned in the Sudan. With ~400 million people living in the 10 countries across which the Nile flows, some now experiencing severe droughts and unmet energy needs, it is expected that a large proportion of Nile water now directed to Egypt, will have to be reallocated up-river.”

To make matters infinitely worse, on top of the hydrological modifications upstream, rising seas are drowning the delta itself. A 2014 geologic study concluded that a half-meter rise in sea level will shrink the delta by 19 percent. That is, astoundingly, the land area equivalent of the entire metropolis of Los Angeles.

Saltwater intrusion into the freshwater aquifer, lack of sediment transport from upstream, and submersion of coastline at the mouth of the Nile will present significant and increasing challenges to the people and ecosystems of the Nile region. The Nile, it turns out, is in fact disappearing: perishing gloriously, as Churchill so eloquently predicted.

Mistwalibi, his wife, Juliet and son, Saamilu, were forced to relocate from their land since it will be flooded when the Isimba Dam is finished. As of March 2017 they have yet to receive the compensation promised them in 2014 by the Ugandan Ministry of Energy. (photo Eli Reichman)

To the south, in Jinja, Uganda, the White Nile stares down its own slow death. Like the Grand Ethiopian project, Uganda’s Isimba Dam is expected to go online in 2018. In a country where 85 percent of the population lacks access to power (according to a 2014 estimate), it’s hard to criticize the government for their enthusiastic development of hydro — though it remains uncertain whether or not the people directly affected by dam construction will ever reap the project’s benefits, given that the neediest Ugandans cannot afford to purchase power.

The primary contention with Isimba, however, is the blatant disregard for an agreement between the Ugandan government, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and private funders of the Bujagali Dam that arose out of local protest after construction of the Bujagali Dam in 2012. In a formal contract, the Ugandan government resolved to protect a zone called the  Kalagla Falls offset area from damage by future hydro projects. The agreement’s intention is that a sampling of unique spiritual, cultural, and ecological resources might be spared and preserved on this swath of land. Opponents of the Isimba hydro project pushed for a compromise: that builders follow plans for the smaller of the proposed dam wall heights to avoid damage to the Kalagala conservation zone and limit the number of people displaced by flooding. Now, as it has been recently disclosed that Isimba will be built to the grandest possible specifications, most of the Kalagala offset area will be flooded in direct defiance of the pact. Construction is well underway and the Isimba dam, if plans are carried out, will be huge, submerging the Kalagala conservation area, displacing over 2,000 Ugandan subsistence farmers, and permanently damaging the quality of water used for drinking, washing, fishing, and irrigating.

This, on top of the stagnant water burial of the even more of the Nile’s world-class whitewater.

The White Nile has already lost many of its legendary rapids with the construction of the Bujagali Dam. The Isimba Dam will flood more, including Vengeance, Hair of the Dog, Kula Shaker, Malalu, and Nile Special. The trees on the famed Hairy Lemon Island will be felled before it is itself eventually submerged. The handful of communities and companies that subsist by sharing the river with tourists and adventurers will see their river and their lives forever transformed.

Fishermen at Itanda Falls: Impala and David check the fishing traps they set the night before. Itanda Falls will be lost to Isimba Dam. (photo Eli Reichman)

Outside the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., there are posters with photos of an African mother and child that read END POVERTY. On May 1, 2017, Jessie Stone visited the World Bank with Josh Klemm of the influential U.S.-based conservation group, International Rivers. There they met with representatives of the US Treasury, USAID, and the Environmental Protection Agency. As the African Development Bank — one of the entities funding the Isimba project, and hence one of the originators and supposed upholders of the Kalagala Offset Agreement — enters into a period of loan renegotiation with the U.S. Treasury, the World Bank has the opportunity to honor its agreement with the Ugandan government and demand protection for the Kalagala Offset area. Stone and Klemm thought the timing for their visit to the World Bank was as good as it was going to get.

They were in Washington to file and follow up on complaints with the World Bank’s inspection panel on behalf of Ugandans who cannot realistically navigate the convoluted channels of international bureaucracy. Stone shared photos of local people who live along and depend upon the Nile: her Ugandan friends and community members whose subsistence lifestyles will be obliterated by the flooding upstream of Isimba.

Placards inside the elevators of the World Bank’s posh and air-conditioned headquarters boast statistics, data-driven testaments to the Bank’s good work being done in the poverty-stricken corners of the world. Stone, for her part, isn’t buying it.

In one markedly compelling anecdote, Stone recalls her meeting with a particular Treasury employee who oversees all U.S. loans to the World Bank and the African Development Bank. This powerful individual is himself a whitewater kayaker, so Stone naturally assumed he’d be more sympathetic to the Nile situation than the average Treasury worker, simply “from a love of rivers point of view.” When Klemm and Stone sat down at his office in D.C., she says, the Treasury guy asked Klemm if he was there “again this week to tell us about yet another failed hydro project in Africa.” With that one flippant comment, the Treasury employee acknowledged D.C.’s awareness of the tenuous and severely flawed nature of big hydro development in Africa, projects funded or otherwise endorsed by the World Bank or the U.S. Treasury.

For Stone and Klemm, the Isimba story just doesn’t add up. And for now, the Isimba dam is still set to go online, fully operational and massive, within the year. “My biggest fear is that one of the most unique and incredible rivers in the world, that so few people know about or have seen, will be flooded,” Stone says. “In the case of Isimba, there are hundreds of Ugandans who have not received compensation for their land, their homes and their crops. Because they are so poor and just trying to survive, they have no means to fight for their own basic rights — things they are entitled to by law but maybe don’t even know that they are entitled to. It is incredibly sad to see that happen. And it is incredibly sad to lose something so beautiful and special as the Nile.”

Domestic violence counselor, Florence, at work in her office in Jessie Stone’s Uganda clinic, Soft Power Health. (photo Eli Reichman)

Perhaps one of our greatest modern examples of resilience in the face of environmental degradation is that of the Ugandan kayaking community.

Sam Ward was born in the UK but has lived in Uganda most of his adult life. He began working on the Nile River in 2004 and purchased Kayak the Nile, one of Uganda’s preeminent guiding services, in 2011. The first Nile River Festival was organized in 2002 and was, according to Ward, “dreamt up by the original Kayak the Nile owner, Jamie Simpson, with a group of kayakers in the bar.” It has since grown into one of the biggest whitewater festivals in the world.

The festival and the river have together seen overwhelming changes over the last two decades. The festival is no longer a simple celebration of world-class whitewater, but rather a focal point for activism, an international rally for conservation of one of Earth’s most iconic rivers. Ward, for his part, continues to show visitors the magic of the Nile as a guide and instructor. The participation of native Ugandans in river sports is also huge, in all aspects of festival and outfitter operations. As Montana freestyle kayaker Brooke Hess pointed out after she took third place in the 2017 Nile Festival, the two women who beat her — both young local Ugandans named Amina — are defying cultural norms. In rural African villages, women their age are mostly expected to raise children, bypassing professional development or education. But for safety kayakers, river guides, and tourism-related business owners, the river is a powerful source of income, opportunity, and, indeed, identity.

Here, one of two young Aminas who make their living working as safety kayakers on the White Nile. (Photo: Lisa M. Butler)

The Ugandan Freestyle Kayak Team – -comprised of Sam Ward and four native Ugandans from the White Nile town of Jinja — has qualified to compete at the Freestyle Kayaking World Championships in November 2017 in San Juan, Argentina. The Team’s individual members depend upon the Nile’s whitewater industry, working as safety kayakers and making a viable living in a country where a majority of the rural population subsists on $1.50 a day. “The Nile River Festival plays a vital role in allowing progression of the freestyle kayak scene in Uganda,” says Hannah de Silva, the Ugandan team’s manager. “I imagine this will be even more important in the future, by promoting kayaking in the region as the river changes following the dam.”

Sam Ward’s tone is surprisingly even-keeled — and perhaps necessarily optimistic — when he says the festival will persist after Isimba is finished, as some rapids will remain unaffected by the dam. There’s a sense of resignation in the conversation: the dam is going in no matter what, and like the landscape and biotic communities that it will affect, Uganda’s kayaking community will adapt.

According to Jessie Stone, the Nile River Festival was originally “a three-day festival and five-day party to bring local and international paddlers together to celebrate the Nile and all it has to offer. Today, it continues in the same spirit but with much more urgency to get people to participate, enjoy the river, and get involved to help save the river, since the Nile’s damming will be completed in just over one year.”

Sam Ward and other members of the Ugandan Freestyle Team cheer on their comrades at the 2017 Nile River Festival. (Photo: Marcus Farnfield)

 After the 2018 Festival, the Nile Special wave — home of the festival’s infamous big wave freestyle event — will be drowned. “We already have plans on where we can move the freestyle competition,” Ward says, “and the rest of the competition will remain relatively unchanged. The festival will live on!”

The community will adapt.

Both Stone and Ward believe that the festival and the collective struggle to save the Nile comes with a huge commitment to education. “In Uganda for example,” Ward says, “awareness of environmental issues is very low.” He says that specialists and activists “can really help bring issues to light and help educate communities about the long term, and more global impacts of what is happening around them.”

For now, Stone and Ward invite paddlers to attend the next Nile River Festival, in January 2018, to see the river before it is altered further, and forever. If more people can see the river in all its magnificence, maybe the movement to protect it, the pressure placed on international developers and U.S. financiers, the collective spirit of conservation, might be greater. Power in numbers, strength in unity, human transcendence of borders and political boundaries.

“Looking after the environment and our rivers begins like so many things: at home,” Ward says. “Next time you go to your home run or play sport, start with the small things of ensuring that rubbish goes in bins, nothing goes in the river that’s not supposed to be there, and that you don’t trample or destroy any of the wildlife around the river banks.”

And if we are lucky enough to travel in the coming year, we should perhaps dream of finding ourselves on the banks of the Nile, paying homage to drowned offering trees and displaced river spirits, remembering how this legendary waterway has shaped the African continent, revering its power and recalling where we come from, as a species and as a global community.

Sam Ward on Nile Special Wave, which will be drowned after Isimba. (Photo Marcus Farnfield)

On the spectrum of necessary evils involved in energy production, hydroelectricity is lumped, often erroneously, with other sources of “clean” energy. But dams, despite some recent international interest in removing old ones, despite modern acknowledgement of their antiquated nature, cannot ever truly be unbuilt. The damage of damming rivers cannot be undone. The effects of dams on ecosystems and communities are immediately irreversible, regardless of “restorative” actions taken years or decades after their construction. In developing countries, hydro is driven by the need to identify new sources of low-cost renewable energy to meet a growing population’s growing demand for electricity. The price per megawatt hour of the initial construction of a dam is relatively low compared to other sources of renewable energy, but the cost to maintain and operate the project is tremendous. When developers build budgets for hydro projects, it’s rare that all the costs are included in the list of project expenses. The true costs of long-term damages to ecosystems and communities are rarely, if ever, factored into the budgets for hydro projects.

Do your research and learn about the motivations of dam builders, the development organizations that fund them, and the true effects of big hydro on local communities. For more information about the Isimba dam, visit savethewhitenile.org and isimbadam.org. Sign the petition. Write the World Bank. Contact Jessie Stone or Sam Ward as soon as possible to see how you can get involved in the movement to reimagine the future of the Nile.

Bound for the river: Nile River Festival, 2017 (Photo Marcus Farnfield)

Chandra Brown is an Alaska-born writer, Grand Canyon river guide, and educator. She is currently based in Missoula, Montana where she teaches Spanish and shares adventures with her canine companion, Arlo. Chandra has worked within the realm of river conservation and communication since her 2010 Fulbright grant to Ecuador. She founded the Freeflow Institute in 2016 and is dedicated to the fusion of creative and natural narrative in the name of thoughtful preservation of wild spaces.

Comments

  1. Francois
    Canada
    November 8, 5:09 pm

    Hi Chandra,

    This is a very informative article, and very original as well with the reference to the kayaking community. It is true that so few people know about the importance of large rivers in the world.

    I have a few comments/questions though:
    1) What do you think is the main control of those big hydro-projects? If economic reasons don’t make sense, what is it then?

    2) What about micro-dams? It seems to be working in southern Asia. Is it something that could be generalized?

    3) “It is one of a handful of rivers worldwide that defy the standard global trend to run south.” Really? When looking at different global hydrological network data, e.g. Hydrosheds, no such thing is visible. Can you provide a reference?

    Thanks!

  2. Sigrid kendall
    USA
    November 2, 9:01 pm

    Thanks to all who try to save the future
    Of the planet!
    I was fortunate to have seen Luxor and Assuan
    Before the Dam was build and the Nile was the
    Nile.

  3. Sigrid kendall
    Greenwich, ct 06830
    November 2, 8:55 pm

    In 1953 I spend part of my honeymoon in Egypt,
    One week in Kairo, one in Luxor and one
    in Assuan long before the Dam was build!
    So beautiful, so serene, so life giving.
    It’s devastating and criminal to destroy the earth for our our grandchildren and the future of the planet

  4. Helen Clay Chace
    USA
    October 31, 5:14 pm

    I first saw the Nile at Luxor, Egypt in the 1960’s, before the completion of the Aswan Dam. It was grand, beautiful and beneficent, with air cleansing, earth fertilizing floods every spring. How sad that this great, life giving river is under constant threat. Congratulations to world class kayakers like Jessie Stone and others who attempt to raise the consciousness of many about this impending tragedy. Thank you, HC Chace

  5. Shaun Mc Adams
    Missoula Montana
    October 30, 9:41 pm

    Thank you Chandra for writing and sharing this with us. All caring people need to hear this story. This however just brings another tear to my eye. Only when we stop the race to overpopulation will we feel the need to save all that is left.