In the absence of safer housing options, several families are forced to live beneath the high voltage transmission line. The construction of the Kerugma dam in Uganda’s Nile delta has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of people, leaving them without land, homes, or means of livelihood. These individuals have been waiting for relocation for a decade, with some resorting to living in hazardous conditions under the high voltage transmission lines due to the lack of alternatives.
From an elevated position along the riverbank, one can witness the imposing concrete dam harnessing the mighty waters of the Victoria Nile River. Once the hydropower plant, undertaken by the Chinese company Sino hydro Corporation Limited, is completed, it is expected to generate 600 megawatts for Uganda’s electricity market.
The hillside upstream provides a vantage point to observe the entire power station. However, the transmission substation and a section of the riverbank are fenced off and protected by the military. Two tall surveillance towers have been erected to deter trespassers from entering the area.
When construction work began a decade ago, the people of Awoo village lost a significant portion of their ancestral land, along with their access to the river for fishing. Desperate to make ends meet, some villagers resorted to extracting gravel from a large pile of rocks excavated from the river basin and dumped near their homes during the dam’s construction. Men and women undertake the perilous 30-meter ascent to collect these stones, which they manually crack with hammers and sell to construction companies.
A report by Both ENDS highlights the forceful nature of the land evictions from Awoo village, with bulldozers demolishing houses, fruit trees, and other properties while the community watched helplessly. There are reports of a family being forcibly expelled from their home, which was subsequently set ablaze. Faced with limited compensation determined by the Ugandan state, the community had no choice but to accept their fate. Today, those who are unable to earn a living from stone cracking have few options aside from engaging in labor-intensive work for the power company, where they earn a meager wage of UGX 8000 (approximately US$2) per day, barely enough to sustain themselves.
Initially, when the project commenced, the villagers were promised relocation to better living conditions and fair compensation for their land. However, these promises have yet to materialize. As a result, we have witnessed several families residing beneath the hazardous high voltage transmission line that connects the power station to the grid. Despite the associated health risks, these families claim to have no alternative options, which the Ugandan auditor general has identified as a failure.
In 2013, the Chinese state-owned company Sino hydro initiated the construction of the Karuma dam, along with three high-voltage transmission lines. This infrastructure project is a crucial element in the Ugandan government’s plan to bring electricity to a larger portion of the population, as currently only 22.1 percent have access to the grid. The Karuma hydro plant aims to provide power to homes, industries, schools, hospitals, and other public buildings.
However, the project has faced numerous delays, compelling the government to initiate loan repayments of $1.7 billion to the Export-Import Bank of China before the plant could generate any electricity. Presently, the hydro plant is operational but not at its full capacity.
The communities surrounding the dam had high hopes when construction began. The government promised well-paid employment, improved roads, schools, healthcare facilities, access to water, electricity, and even a fishpond. Unfortunately, according to community members interviewed by Just Finance, little progress has been made. The promise of improved healthcare access remains unfulfilled, with the nearest hospital located 65 kilometers away in Gulu, and a health center constructed by Sinohydro in Masindi, 112 kilometers from the affected villages, purportedly serving the military rather than the general public.
Furthermore, the promised water supply is yet to materialize, and the garbage collection center for Karuma Township remains incomplete. While a church has been built and a primary school renovated, a mosque’s renovation has been met with dissatisfaction from the Muslim community due to its poor construction quality. The affected communities still lack access to proper roads, and ironically, none of the communities visited by Just Finance have access to electricity.
The situation in Ayuda village, located near Awoo, is dire. Despite all the promises made by the government and the Chinese company, living conditions have deteriorated. Many families can no longer afford school fees, and they must travel long distances to fetch water from springs in the jungle.
“Our lives have been upended,” lamented a woman interviewed by Just Finance.
According to villagers, over 100 acres of land have been taken from them, leaving them with only one remaining acre. The community claims they were offered a paltry sum of 6 million UGX (approximately 1600 USD) for their land, a woefully inadequate amount that they collectively believed to be unfair. However, their pleas fell on deaf ears, compelling them to resort to legal action. The court case has been ongoing for the past 10 years.
Another woman told Just Finance that she used to sell her harvest at the market and earn a decent income. However, after the construction of the hydro plant, she has been left with nothing to sell. To survive, she and others are forced to work for the Chinese company, engaging in labor-intensive tasks. Despite their efforts, the meager daily wage of UGX 8000 is only enough to cover basic food expenses.
The Ayuda village, previously home to over 150 graves, has seen many of them destroyed during the construction works, according to community members. Shockingly, no compensation has been provided to relocate the graves.
“When graves are desecrated, it bodes ill for our community, affecting future generations’ mental well-being,” expressed one woman.
Communication between community members and the Chinese company is challenging due to the absence of translators, and the government has not offered any assistance, leading to misunderstandings and a sense of mistrust.
One woman claimed that she originally owned 8 acres of land, of which 5 were farmland. However, when her land was evaluated by the government, they recorded her ownership as only 3 acres.
“It was a fraudulent act, and someone else profited from it. I am left with no money and no land. Instead of bringing development, this project has worsened our situation and destroyed our community,” she lamented.
Just Finance International has attempted to contact Sino hydro Corporation Limited and Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL), but as of now, they have not received a response from either party.