Competition for the Nile: how Uganda is challenging Egypt’s dominance

By Diana Taremwa Karakire - 7 October 2015 at 10:49 am

AP Photo/Courtney Bonnell

A $1.7 billion towering dam at the headwaters of Uganda’s spectacular Karuma falls is the latest example of how the competition for utilization of Nile waters is gaining steam as countries in the Nile basin move to challenge Egypt’s decade long dominance over the World’s longest river.

In addition to Karuma, Uganda is developing two more hydro-power dams, the 600 MW Ayago hydro -power plant to be developed in two simultaneous stages and the Isimba power plant  to provide a further 185 MW.

These power stations are meant to provide the power necessary to help boost Uganda’s and possibly other regional economies such as DR Congo and South Sudan.

Economists say that much more investment in energy infrastructures is desperately needed along the Nile basin, which is home to a half of the continent’s total population. But Egypt, which relies on the river for nearly its entire water needs, is not relenting, stirring tensions with its upstream neighbors.

A 1929 colonial treaty between Egypt and Britain’s East African protectorates gives Cairo exclusive ownership of the Nile waters. But in recent years, several countries in the Nile basin have been pushing back. Egypt and Sudan have particularly been unhappy with Ethiopia over the $4.2 billion Renaissance dam because of fears that these projects would reduce the flow of the river.

Of the country’s spearheading the fight for the waters, Uganda appears to be taking the lead.

“We need these dams to develop our economies, and we must build more” Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni said in July. “Egypt and some chauvinistic groups must respect our rights”

The Sub Saharan Africa nation, which is the biggest exporter of coffee on the continent, typically generates almost half of its electricity output from Hydro-power dams along the Nile river.Bujagali hydro power plant, commissioned three years ago, is the largest power station in the country and supplies most of the power to the grid.

Building hydro-power plants has been the most preferred source of modern energy as the country steps up efforts to redeem its ailing power sector that has for years been dogged by chronic power shortages, high power tariffs, load shedding, and low levels of power penetration across the country which has historically stymied economic growth

Uganda’s finance ministry projects that investments in power generation projects will transform Uganda into a middle income country by 2020.

According to Uganda’s Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda Karuma venture is one of the major power generation projects in the country whose construction started in August 2013 and is expected to be commissioned in December 2018.

China is providing up to 85% of the financing of the two dams through concessionary loans leaving government to borrow the remaining $680m.


“In order to exploit the huge hydropower potential of the region sustainably, it’s necessary that countries cooperate, and mainstream environmental and social considerations in   the development of the water resources”, said Mr. John Rao Nyaoro, executive director of the Nile Basin Initiative, established in 1999 to oversee the negotiation process and enhance co-operation between the Nile Basin countries.

But in building the various power projects, government of Uganda also says it wants to strike a delicate balance between the ecosystem and environment.

“The Power project must not destabilize the game park next to it as tourism is one of Uganda’s foreign exchange baskets. Therefore, the environment must remain intact and our people must directly benefit from the five year project” said Irene Muloni, the energy and minerals minister.

Earlier in June during the state of the nation address , Museveni voiced his frustration with the high cost of Bujagali—which hit nearly $1 billion and said that the power generated from both dams would be far cheaper  than Bujagali’s with Karuma’s costing 5 U.S. cents while Isimba’s would cost 4 U.S. cents per kilowatt hour,

Museveni said his government had made a mistake by agreeing to buy the power generated by Bujagali at 10.1 U.S. cents per kilowatt  which he said was too high and was partly responsible for the high cost of electricity in the country.

Currently access to electricity in Uganda is estimated at 16%nationwide and only 7% in rural areas. The growth in electricity demand in the country is estimated at about 10%,a figure that hardly matches the rate at which the country generates electricity.

Uganda is grappling with significant power shortage and the completion of Karuma dam and other power projects over the next few years is expected to provide some relief.

Diana Taremwa Karakire

Diana Taremwa Karakire

Diana Taremwa Karakire is a freelance journalist based in Uganda.

She specializes in reporting on energy issues, minerals and climate change. She writes on a freelance basis for the African Business Magazine and the Heavy Lift & Project Forwarding International magazine. She can be reached on +256700898537 and, @TaremwaD

Twitter: @AfiegoUg

3 Comments so far

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  1. Avatar

    Given that the historical unfair nature of Egyptian lion’s-share demand to the nile river, the only viable option for nile source countries to be united and be assertive in their quest for a just and right share of water.
    One minor comment: would be great for the writter to crosscheck the accuracy of some of the facts. e.g. Uganda is not the largest coffee exporter or producer in the continent according to the international coffee organization

    1. Editorial Board

      Thank you for your feedback. Our team is going over the piece.

    2. Avatar

      Thanks for the observation but from the recent data from ICO and respective coffee bodies. Uganda has been ahead of Ethiopia in coffee exports over the past three seasons.
      Final data for the 2014-15 season is not yet out but last season, in terms of volume Uganda exported 3.52 million bags (around 210,000MT) while Ethiopia 191,000 tons. Yes Ethiopia produces nearly double what Uganda produces but round half of this is consumed locally on the other hand, Uganda exports nearly its entire production.

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