KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda has lifted its objections to a South African firm conducting a study for a hydropower dam at a site on the River Nile where spectacular waterfalls and wild game have been a major tourist draw, the tourism minister said on Thursday.
Plans by the firm, Bonang Power and Energy, to develop a 360 megawatt (MW) plant at the site of Murchison Falls were first announced by Uganda’s state-run energy sector regulator Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) in June.
The announcement quickly stoked outrage from tour operators, nature enthusiasts and even the government’s own wildlife protection agency, keen to protect one of Uganda’s last great wilderness areas.
Critics argued the project would ruin the falls and blight tourism activity around them.
A decision was subsequently taken by cabinet to ban the project, including carrying out any feasibility studies for it.
The government has changed its position and will now allow a study to be conducted, state minister for tourism Godfrey Kiwanda told Reuters.
“Cabinet has now agreed to a feasibility study on the project and the study will give us a way forward,” he said.
“We need to conserve our natural environment but also we need electricity because if we don’t produce more power, people may end up cutting trees for fuel and destroy the environment.”
Tourists have been flocking to the site to see the falls located on a section of the Nile between the lakes Kyoga and Albert. They also visit the area to view favored game like lions and elephants in a 3,900-square kilometer national park that surrounds the falls.
Kiwanda said if the study found a way of developing the project that limits adverse impact on the environment and disruption to tourism activity “then the project will be allowed to be developed.”
The government of President Yoweri Museveni has been eager to boost inflows of private sector investment into the country’s energy sector to help ramp up generation capacity, power an industrialization drive and cut reliance on wood fuel.
Uganda’s total generation capacity is expected to hit nearly 2000 megawatts when a 600MW Chinese-funded hydropower dam, also on River Nile, is commissioned next month.
Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Omar Mohammed and Toby Chopra