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The dam is finally turned on

by Dan Griffin

After several false starts and missed deadlines, the inundation from the Isimba Dam finally started in November. I visited Uganda in January 2018 to write about how the dam was going to affect the country and its kayakers.

A 50 or so kilometre stretch of the river contains a multitude of massive, roaring whitewater rapids. In the 1990s commercial whitewater rafting companies began running trips down the river for thrill-seeking tourists. After a while, local Ugandans started getting their hands on kayaks and equipment.  Then they started to get jobs with the rafting companies as river guides or safety kayakers. It created for a unique micro-economy around the Bujagali area where the river and its rapids supported the livelihoods of thousands of people.

In 2009, a large hydropower dam wiped out many of the rapids on this stretch but enough remained for whitewater rafting to still be a viable activity. But then it was announced that another dam would be built further downstream, wiping out yet more rapids including the famous Nile Special standing wave, a river feature which attracts kayaks from around the world and which has been a training ground for some of the most talented Ugandan paddlers.

The wave has been such a fixture for kayakers in Uganda and around the world that the idea of it ceasing to exist was something that many could not believe until it had actually happened. And now it has. The wave was flooded in early November. Kayakers had rushed to experience it in its final days as news of rising water levels spread.

It is strange to read the elegiac posts on social media showing images of a flat lake where once there was a huge, thrashing rapid. As a woman who lives near the spot with her husband and son said, the wave meant a lot of different things to different people. For some it was a very significant piece of water. It would be like surfer in Hawaii losing the Jaws break, never to get it back.

The inundation also flooded the nearby Hairy Lemon island, until recently an idyllic campsite and well maintained river ecosystem. As the waters rose some of the local kayaker wet on a mission to save the island’s monkeys. The flooding presumably made little sense to the animals either.

Fund recipient Dan Griffin was supported to travel to Jinja, Uganda, where he reported on the effects of a newly installed dam on the local population. Dan’s piece appeared in The Irish Times and can be read here