JINJA, Uganda -- Bujagali Falls, roaring and frothing just downstream from where Lake Victoria flows into the Nile River, has long been treasured as a resting place of ancestral spirits, a thrilling rapids for whitewater rafters and a spectacular feature of the natural landscape.
It will be a memory.
Construction began last week on a $772 million hydroelectric dam that will turn the falls into a reservoir. The project, financed by the World Bank, is intended to reduce the acute power shortages that have badly hampered this East African country's development.
But environmentalists warn that the 98-foot- high dam could be a costly disaster. They question whether it can generate the expected electricity without harming an already-sick Lake Victoria. Other concerns include the steep price, damage to the tourism sector and disrespect to those who revere the water-dwelling spirits.
"We are not saying no to dams," Frank Muramuzi, executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, said at his office in the capital, Kampala. Rather, he argues that other areas along the Nile make more sense, as do alternatives to dams such as geothermal energy.
World Bank officials dismiss concerns about the project's impact on the lake. And the dam's developer, which is half-owned by the U.S. firm Sithe Global Power, says the benefits to Uganda will outweigh any negative impact on rafting operations and others with links to the falls.
"It's the same with any development, whether it's a road, a block of buildings, an industrial development: Somebody has to be giving up their land or sometimes their livelihood," said project manager John Lockwood. "What is in the greater national interest?"
As for other dam locations, Lockwood said that the critics' preferred site -- a place called Karuma -- needs to be built in addition to Bujagali. "It's not either/or," he said.
The Bujagali dam is part of a wave of hydroelectric projects planned across Africa, from Nigeria to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The World Bank has embraced water power as a cleaner way of tapping an abundant resource to promote economic growth.
The Bujagali dam is projected to yield 250 megawatts on completion in 2011, nearly doubling Uganda's power generation. Lockwood said that will help ease "desperate" shortages, notably in Kampala, where frequent outages make businesses reliant on diesel generators and hinder needed investment.
The dam will be the third erected on this stretch of the Nile. Just five miles upstream loom two connected dams that are part of what used to be called the Owens Falls complex. Today the dams have separate names, Nalubaale and Kiira.
The hulking concrete structure of Nalubaale dominates the view in parts of Jinja. Its construction in the 1950s submerged Ripon Falls at the source of the White Nile, which flows north to Sudan, where it joins the Blue Nile for the rest of the journey through Egypt and into the Mediterranean Sea. The smaller Kiira dam was added as an extension in the mid-1990s.
The World Bank has approved $360 million in loans and guarantees for the Bujagali project. Of the remaining cost, $169 million will be borne by the developer, a joint venture of Sithe and the industrial development arm of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development. The African and European development banks have also committed to help finance the dam.
The biggest debate about the dam involves its possible impact on Lake Victoria, the world's second-largest freshwater lake and a lifeline for millions of people who live near its shores in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.
"The problem is there is not enough water in the river and the lake," Muramuzi said. He noted that the existing dams are operating far below their combined capacity of 380 megawatts. For Bujagali to work as planned, he said, it would require more water than the lake can handle, and "the lake will decline further."
The developer, Bujagali Energy Ltd., denies this, saying the Bujagali dam will recycle water passing through the two upstream dams.
"We're just using the same water a second time around," said Lockwood, adding that the new dam will be more efficient than the existing ones.
But Daniel Kull, an independent hydrologist who has consulted for the International Rivers Network, a vocal dam critic, said it is not that simple. He said that because water intake will be set to ensure Bujagali's performance, there will be an unavoidable impact on Lake Victoria.
"I can't say it's a positive or negative impact, but it is an impact," he said. The lake is already "pretty sick" because of pollution, an infestation of water hyacinth plants and an invasive fish species known as Nile perch. Unknown is what impact global warming might have on lake levels.
An analysis by Kull last year concluded that dangerously low lake levels seen recently were only partly due to a drought. A bigger cause, he found, was that dam operators were pulling in so much water that the flows exceeded the "Agreed Curve," a series of agreements meant to mimic natural flows and to ensure enough water reaches Egypt. Levels have risen this year.
The World Bank would not make officials available for an interview. But in a letter to Lori Pottinger of the International Rivers Network, a bank official cited an analysis indicating that Bujagali will not adversely affect Lake Victoria.
"In fact, in most years, lake elevation would be slightly higher" than that expected under the Agreed Curve, wrote Michel Wormser of the bank's Sustainable Development Department.
This is not the first Bujagali Falls dam proposal. In 2003, a different developer's plan, also with World Bank backing, was scrapped -- after years of planning -- in a corruption cloud.
The Bank Information Center, a watchdog group, asserts that the World Bank has focused on the Bujagali dam to the exclusion of other options, including smaller-scale hydro projects that could benefit many poor Ugandans who are not hooked up to the power grid.
"This project, given its long and tumultuous history, raises some serious questions about the priorities of financial institutions like the World Bank," said the center's Nikki Reisch. Even though construction is beginning, an independent World Bank inspection panel has not issued its own findings on questions raised by critics.
At one point, the price tag for the Bujagali dam was put at $550 million, and critics say the 40 percent increase to $772 million raises questions about its affordability, given that costs will be shared by the government and electricity users.
"Either way you're straining the taxpayer and the ratepayer," said Henry Bazira, Muramuzi's associate at the environmentalist association.
Ugandan officials did not respond to requests for comment, but a British consultant hired by the World Bank predicts that Bujagali will, in fact, cut electricity rates by up to 10 percent.
While environmentalists worry most about the hydrological effects, Nabamba Budhagaali has a different objection to the Bujagali dam. The aged spiritual leader of members of the Busoga ethnic group said a dam would disturb spirits that have resided there for generations.
"This is no kind of activity that can take place in that area," he said one afternoon between puffs on a large tobacco pipe during a religious ceremony. "Spirits were created from that spot. That is their home."
Budhagaali, whose spelling is a variation on the name of the falls, said the previous developer paid him to perform a ceremony to ask the spirits to move to a new home. But the ceremony never reached a conclusion, so to him the dam cannot proceed.
But the current developer says new ceremonies have begun under the auspices of the kingdom of the Busoga people. "I think it was a bit of an error or oversight to deal with an individual," said Kenneth Kaheru, deputy project manager. "Here [we are] dealing with the entire kingdom."
Besides flooding Bujagali Falls, the dam will destroy two other class-5 rapids in an 18-mile stretch that has increasingly lured whitewater rafters. As a result, the dam seems likely to hurt what has become Uganda's second-biggest tourist attraction after the mountain gorillas.
Nile River Explorers, the largest rafting outfit, sent 1,000 people down the river in July -- more than are allowed to see the gorillas in a month. Another stretch of river below the new dam will be open to rafters, and activities such as water-skiing are planned for the new reservoir.
But "you'll lose the heart of the rafting," said Jon Dahl, who owns Nile River Explorers and employs 80 people. "It's a bit sad."