Flooding cuts power in Uganda

Uganda has a power problem. Two of its biggest plants, the 180-megawatt Nalubaale and 200-megawatt Kiira plants outside Jinga, are being battered by rising flood waters and floating papyrus.

On April 14, a floating mass of papyrus mats (used across Lake Victoria and now cast afloat like islands) crunched into the dam wall. Bits of papyrus were sucked into the turbines. The country was plunged into a blackout as around 20% of the grid’s capacity suddenly went offline.

The story of that moment started six months earlier, in October, when it started raining in Uganda. It hasn’t stopped since. Lake Victoria’s levels have risen by 1.3m and are just 8cm away from their highest-ever level. Similar downpours filled the lake in the early 1960s and mid 1990s.

With 23 rivers feeding the lake and only one exit, past Jinga and into the Nile, Lake Victoria is perfect for hydropower. To help alleviate the pressure, the amount of water being released at Jinja has more than doubled.   

But this isn’t just an issue of too much rain. Human expansion has played a large role.

In a press release detailing the government response, Uganda’s water and environment minister, Sam Cheptoris, said a loss of forest cover as well as encroachment on wetlands and river banks meant that there was more silt in the lake and fewer natural barriers to fast-flowing flood waters. Towns and roads also mean more cement and tar, so rainwater doesn’t soak into the ground and instead goes straight into rivers.     

The higher water levels have meant jetties and landing sites being submerged, leading to a halt in ferries. The floating mats have also become a hazard to other shipping; so vital to local economies. Resorts, hotels and homes have been flooded. The flooding is also affecting Lake Kyoga, with flooding at a much lower level in Lake Albert.  

Cheptoris noted that drinking water and sanitation systems have also been affected by the deluge, with a likely increase in water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, malaria and bilharzia.

In response to the crisis, Cheptoris said the government will “remove” anyone encroaching on water bodies and forests. Chiefs who have not taken “action against encroachers” will also be dismissed.

Practically, this affects people within 100m of river banks, 30m of wetlands and 200m of lake shores and forest reserves.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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