The construction of the Rusumo Falls hydroelectric plant destroyed wildlife and the environment, then reduced access to water. Displaced populations in Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania are demanding better compensation.
“On this hill, the animals were visible. Many tourists liked to visit our region to contemplate them. Their habitat destroyed, these animals have taken refuge in Tanzania where they do not feel threatened”.
These words of Jean Népomucène Hakizimana, met in Nyankurazo near the town of Rusumo, in eastern Rwanda, border region with Tanzania, reveal the harmful effects of the construction of the hydroelectric power station of Rusumo Falls between the Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.
To build this infrastructure, which should provide 80 megawatts of electricity to networks three countries, an area of at least 24 hectares has been destroyed for the construction of pylons and substations, according to an assessment by the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP).
The destroyed expanse was home to farmland, pasture and the Nyankurazo savannah in Rwanda. Before the construction of the plant, this savannah was the refuge of monkeys, gibbons, chimpanzees and birds.
Gaspard Bikwemu, specialist in environment to NELSAP, estimates that 10 hectares of wooded savannah are lost in Kirehe district in Rwanda, on Nyankurazo hill where the dispatching center of theElectricity supply.
Moreover, only the electricity pylons are visible on this hill. However, before the construction of this center, this savannah was rich in fruit trees, which attracted monkeys.
The environmental specialist at NELSAP prefers to minimize these losses, emphasizing that "you can't have an omelet without breaking the eggs".
The power station is built at Rusumo Falls on the Kagera River, along Rwanda's border with Tanzania and about three kilometers downstream from the point where the two countries share a common border with Burundi.
In Ngara, in the north-west of Tanzania, precisely in Karagwe, a village of several hundred inhabitants, the construction of the dam has seriously affected the supply of water, supports Jean Baraka Habonimana, 37, a resident of the village.
“The water supply is going from bad to worse. It looks like we are an abandoned village,” he says.
The latter claims that before the construction of the hydroelectric dam in Rusumo, the inhabitants had unlimited access to drinking water and other natural resources such as medicinal plants and firewood.
Now the region's water and the natural resources on which it depended are contaminated with metals and oil from the workshop of the Rusumo hydroelectric project.
Residents of Kirehe in Rwanda, Muyinga in Burundi and the Kagera Valley in Tanzania claim that they no longer have "streams to draw water to drink".
“This company promised to build standpipes to help us access drinking water. However, tap water rationing is about once a week. On other days we are forced to use the waters of the Kagera River. At the moment, no measures have been taken to supply our villages with clean water,” said desperately Rachid Mbaraka, a resident of Rusumo village.
Some are forced to walk two kilometers to find water to drink. For the rest of the domestic activities, they use dirty water from the Kagera River.
According to the expert in health environmentalist, Scarion Ruhula, who also works for the Disabilities Relief Service – Tanzania in Kagera and Kigoma, there is no direct impact that could be caused by the presence of a dam if it is built more than 100 meters from the water source used by the surrounding population.
However, the Rusumo project is located in this buffer zone where there is drainage into the river within 100 meters. What needs to be done, he explains, is to ensure that the water from the dam does not flow directly into the river.
Due to violations of environmental regulations, the National Environment Management Council (NEMC) issued a warning to the project management authorities. Further action would be taken against NELSAP if it did not reform its système waste management.
In Nyankurazo, in the district of Kirehe, the populations are worried about galloping deforestation. Dadju Uwanyagasani, a resident, fears that agricultural plantations will be washed away by erosion due to the disappearance of trees and grasses which were of great importance for the protection of the soil.
While Jean Nduwamungu, teacher and researcher at the University of Rwanda – Soil and Environmental Management Department, recognizes that the construction of the Rusumo Falls hydroelectric dam is of interest to partner countries, he admits that this project has impacts on the environment and social economies.
He estimates that before the construction of the Rusumo hydroelectric dam, recherches further investigation was needed to protect the region's ecosystems. For the teacher, the NELSAP should restore the destroyed ecosystem.
Janvier Murengerantwari, adviser at the Burundian Office for the Protection of the Environment (OBPE) underlines for his part that the execution of any project has impacts on the biodiversity and the well-being of the population. However, what needs to be done in this case, he argues, is to mitigate these impacts.
He recalls the law which stipulates that under the lines of electric transmissions, there must not be trees. Undoubtedly, he indicates, the consequences on the environment are inevitable, because the trees absorb greenhouse gases, the impacts are fatal, but lesser compared to the interest of the country, he says.
January Murengerantwari reveals that the impacts of the project on the environment on the Burundian side have not taken place. However, he said that the OBPE is doing its best to protect the environment as it is its primary mission.
In the three beneficiary countries of the hydropower plant, people have been forced from their homes and plots of land for the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program to install 417 pylons that will carry 26 MW of Rusumo Falls from Tanzania to the posts of Gitega, Kobero and Muyinga in Burundi.
Each household within a radius of 15 meters around the pylon received compensation for a plot equivalent to that which was withdrawn from them, in accordance with the law.
But some residents believe that the compensation received is insufficient. This is the case of Antoine Ndayisaba, a farmer from the village of Mugutu, in the province of Gitega.
According to his explanations, “the rural allowance received on the plot occupied by a 15×15 meter pylon, i.e. 200 Burundian Francs (000 USD), is insufficient to buy another plot as a replacement”.
He therefore asks that the Rusumo project revise this amount upwards so that he can acquire a plot of the same size as the one from which he was dispossessed.
The members of the family of Antoine Kamwenubusa, sixty years old, residing in the urban center "Ku Mazi" in the commune of Nyabikere, province of Karusi, also did not appreciate this compensation "and ask the commission to redouble its efforts in finding them land commensurate with what they had before”.
Faced with these complaints, Janvier Murengerantwari, adviser at the Burundian Office for the Protection of the Environment (OBPE), recalls that "the Burundian law which governs compensation stipulates that people displaced following works of public interest receive funds which help them to live again life before”.
However, he continues, “it is difficult for a displaced person to find land that is made like the one he has just spent years tilling. This is why the State, relying on the law on compensation, is doing everything possible by giving support funds to make life easier for the displaced”, he specifies.
However, the populations affected by the construction of the Rusumo Falls hydroelectric plant are not only complaining about compensation, they are also asking for capital from the government in order to be able to feed their families.
“Before, we had banana plantations. To install the pylons, they were all decimated, which was the cause of the reduction in our sources of income”, maintains one of the sons of Antoine Kamwenubusa.
Patricia Uwingabiye, a resident of Kirehe district, indicates that the population of Nyankurazo lived on culture sweet potatoes, beans and peas harvested from the Rusumo swamps. "But she no longer has access to her fields because of the flooding of the Kagera River," she adds.
Flooded fields due to water level fluctuation due to hydroelectric dam construction activities.
This report was produced with the support of the Rainforest Journalism Fund and Pulitzer Center. It was published on the French version of SciDevNet.