Sustainability for Uganda’s big infrastructural investments: A case for the Isimba Dam

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Discussing sustainability of Uganda’s big infrastructural projects or investments could be sufficient content for a reasonably big book.

To narrow it down, I will examine the Isimba dam project. I will attempt to highlight some broad issues, and ask questions that might give pointers to what we must look out for when talking about sustainability of big infrastructural investments in the Ugandan context. I will also support my arguments with references. These references might not be entirely academic and empirical, but I’m prepared to engage in any questions or concerns about what I’m documenting here.

Key infrastructural areas that governments worldwide invest heavily in include energy, land use, transportation and waste management among others. The term sustainable infrastructure refers to the designing, building, and operating of structural elements in ways that do not diminish the social, economic and ecological processes required to maintain human equity, diversity, and the functionality of natural systems (CRC Research, n.d).

The economic, social and environmental elements are critical whenever we talk about sustainability. There are hosts of assessment indicators that could be derived in each of these areas of economic, social and environmental dimensions. These dimensions are akin to the triple bottom line (TBL) or 3P’s (profits, people and planet), that are becoming common catchwords in both public and private sector today. In fact, many global corporations and even some governments are already taking keen steps along this line.

When we talk about sustainable development, we are considering cornerstones such as economic viability, non-degradation of the environment, social acceptance and appropriateness of the technology and overall investment. Moreover, meeting current needs of the people should not jeopardize the ability of future generations in meeting their needs. Economic capital has to be balanced with natural capital and social capital stocks (FAO, n.d). Perceived economic benefits make more sense if they are coordinated with the people and ecosystems. Certainly, these are far reaching issues that many times do not get the due importance and process that they deserve, with sometimes conflicting interests and objectives that have to be reconciled. The effects of current global warming are gradually opening our eyes to the realities of fighting or endangering Mother Earth.

Well thought-out, properly planned and implemented infrastructural projects generally have various positive effects on the economy and beyond the economy to the people and environment. This is where the sustainability elements of profits, people and planet come in handy. The global minds that came up with these ideas after decades of research are not simply gainsayers, and they have a point. Unfortunately, in many cases leaders intentionally and objectively misinform the largely ignorant public, and only paint the pictures they desire to be portrayed. Occasionally this public betrayal is so dynamic and well packaged that it easily passes for good intentions, real desire for economic growth and development, and even patriotism.

However, sometimes this misinformation is unintended simply because the proponents themselves are clueless and they have lots of grey areas in decoding sustainable development. The understanding of what constitutes public good is another dilemma.

Some questions that we would ask arise. Can we assume that leaders always act genuinely in public interest and with the common good of the people in mind? Do the people, and more importantly decision makers understand the various elements of sustainability enough to objectively critique propositions made for such projects? Are we balancing scientific data with requisite non-scientific data while assessing sustainability of infrastructural investments? Can we guarantee objectivity and sanity at both the executive and legislative decision making levels when it comes to such heavy investments, very costly to the economy and people, which are made in the name of economic growth and development? Do we understand that economic growth does not automatically guarantee economic development? Can we tell whether such investments make sense or are simply sheer waste of public resources to achieve political agenda and personal ego of a few?

Let’s now take a casual glance at Isimba Dam investment (Isimbada.com; VOA News.com). This $568m investment in energy infrastructure, 85% funded by the Chinese and 15% by the Uganda government, has a capacity of 183 MW. We have the Nalubale & Bujagali dams both on the Nile, and then comes Isimba just about 44km north of Bujagali hence already raising questions by environmentalists about several issues, and you cannot blame them as they are entitled to their expert opinion. Accusations by certain local and international stakeholders indicate that the government defaulted on the Kalagala Indemnity Agreement became apparent. The World Bank was accused of ignoring serious concerns, hinged on the fact that they were not involved in financing, etc. Moreover some people argued that minor adjustments requested in the height of the dam to reduce very adverse environmental impact, were ignored. Who can confirm these?

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