Construction of the Karuma dam has deprived hundreds of people in Uganda’s Nile delta of their land, homes, and livelihoods. Many people have been waiting a decade for relocation, with some left to live under high voltage transmission lines for lack of safer alternatives.
From a height above the riverbank, you can watch the massive concrete dam harness the powerful waters of the Victoria Nile River. When the hydropower plant is completed by Chinese company Sinohydro Corporation Limited, it is expected to produce 600 megawatts for the Ugandan electricity market.
The hillside upstream of the river is one of the few places where you can see the whole power station. The transmission substation and part of the riverbank are fenced off and guarded by the military. Two tall surveillance towers have been built to keep intruders outside the area.
After the construction work started ten years ago, the people in Awoo village lost most of the land they had cultivated for generations, and access to the river where they fished. Out of desperation, some of the villagers started to produce gravel from a large mound of rocks excavated from the river basin and dumped next to their homes during the dam’s construction. Men and women make the hazardous 30-meter climb up the deposit to collect the stones, which are then cracked manually with hammers and sold to construction companies.
A report by Both ENDS describes how land evictions from Awoo village were forceful, with bulldozers bringing down houses, fruit trees and other properties as the community watched. A family was reportedly forced out of their house, which was then set on fire. After that, the community had no choice but to accept the limited compensation offered to them and determined by the Ugandan state.
Today, those who do not make a living from cracking stones have few options other than doing hard labour for the power company. Normally they earn UGX 8000 a day (about US$2) for cleaning or heavy concrete work, according to the interviews by Just Finance International. This salary is only enough to buy food, they claim.
When the project first started a decade ago, they were promised relocation to somewhere better and fair compensation for their land. This has not happened. We observed several families living under the high voltage transmission line that connects the power station to the grid which is both hazardous for the health and risky. Still, people claim they have nowhere else to go, a failure that has been flagged as a weakness by Uganda’s auditor general.
Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro started construction of Karuma in 2013, as well as three high-voltage transmission lines. The infrastructure is a keystone project in the government’s plan to electrify Uganda, where only 22.1 percent of the population have access to the grid. The Karuma hydro plant is expected to power homes, industry, and public buildings such as schools and hospitals.
The project has been delayed several times, forcing the government to start paying off the $1.7-billion loan to the Export-Import Bank of China before any electricity was produced. The hydro plant is now generating power but not at its full capacity.
The communities around the dam had high expectations when construction started. The government promised well paid work, roads, a school, a health center, access to water, electricity and a fishpond.
However, community members interviewed by Just Finance, claim that little has been completed. Not even the promise of healthcare access was fulfilled. The closest hospital is in Gulu, 65 km from the village. Another health center was constructed by Sinohydro in the town Masindi, 112 kilometers away from the villages. This investment is claimed to benefit the communities affected by the dam, but according to Just Finance sources, it serves the military and not the general public.
Furthermore, the promised water supply is still missing and the garbage collection center for Karuma township has also not been completed.
A church has been built. A primary school has been renovated. And a mosque is being renovated although the building has been rejected by the Muslim community because of its poor build quality. The communities still have no access to the roads and, ironically, no one in the communities visited by Just Finance, had access to electricity.
In Ayuda village, not far from Awoo, the situation is desperate. Despite all the promises from the government and the Chinese company, living conditions have deteriorated. Many families in the village can no longer afford school fees, and they have to walk a long distance to fetch water from springs in the jungle.
“Our life has been overturned”, a woman told Just Finance.
According to the villagers, more than 100 acres of land have been taken from them, with just one acre remaining. The community say they were offered 6 million UGX (1600 USD) for the land, an amount they all thought was far too low, but nobody listened, and they had to take the case to court. The process is ongoing after 10 years.
One woman told Just Finance that she used to sell her harvest on the market and earn good money, but now she has nothing to sell. To survive, they have to work for the Chinese company. It is hard labour, and her salary of UGX 8000 per day is only enough to buy food, she said.
The Ayuda village had more than 150 graves in the project area. Construction works have destroyed many of them, according to people in the community. No one got any compensation to move the graves.
“It is an evil omen when the graves are destroyed. It will affect our community mentally for generations to come,” one woman said.
The community members find it difficult to communicate with people from the Chinese company. There are no translators, and the government does not help them. This has caused misunderstanding and mistrust.
One woman claimed she had 8 acres of land before the hydro plant was built, of which 5 were farmland. But when her land was evaluated by the government, they wrote that she only had 3 acres.
“It was a fraud, and somebody else got the money. I have no money left and I have no land anymore. Instead of creating development this has worsened our situation and destroyed our community,” the woman said.
Just Finance International has contacted Sinohydro Corporation Limited and Ugandan electricity company, Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL), but to date they have not yet provided a response.