A Displaced Spirit: The Uncertain Future of Africa’s Greatest River

Read about the strength of the global river community and the worsening fate of the Nile.

Freeflow Institute instructor Chandra Brown’s piece, A Displaced Spirit, is currently featured on the Patagonia and National Geographic blogs.

Hypoxia and Kalagala Falls on the White Nile. PHOTO ELI REICHMAN


Sometime in 2018, the massive Isimba dam project is expected to go online. And like the Bujagali dam before it, Isimba will flood an area with unique spiritual, cultural and ecological resources: a “protected” swath of land called the Kalagla Falls Offset Area. Construction is well underway and the Isimba project, if carried out according to plan, will be huge, submerging Kalagla Falls, displacing over 2,000 Ugandan subsistence farmers and permanently damaging the quality of water used for drinking, washing, fishing and irrigating.

On the spectrum of necessary evils involved in energy production, hydroelectricity is lumped, often erroneously, with other sources of “clean” energy. But dams, despite some recent international interest in removing old ones, despite modern acknowledgement of their antiquated nature, cannot ever truly be unbuilt. The damage of damming rivers cannot be undone. The effects of dams on ecosystems and communities are immediately irreversible, regardless of “restorative” actions taken years or decades after their construction.

In developing countries, hydro is driven by the need to identify new sources of low-cost renewable energy to meet a growing population’s growing demand for electricity. The price per megawatt hour of the initial construction of a dam is relatively low compared to other sources of renewable energy, but the cost to maintain and operate the project is tremendous. When developers build budgets for hydro projects, it’s rare that all the costs are included in the list of project expenses. The true costs of long-term damages to ecosystems and communities are rarely, if ever, factored into the budgets for hydro projects.

If more people can see the river in all its magnificence, maybe the movement to protect it, the pressure placed on international developers and US financiers, the collective spirit of conservation, might be greater. Power in numbers, strength in unity, human transcendence of borders and political boundaries.