How Rusumo Falls Hydropower Project Affected Biodiversity, Environment and Residents’ Daily Life
By Annonciata Byukusenge
The Regional Rusumo Falls Hydroelectric Project (RRFP), implemented by the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP), is a mega project set to benefit three countries, including the east Rwanda, north Burundi and the western part of Tanzania.
The three governments entered the joint development through a Tripartite Agreement signed on February 16, 2012, with completion scheduled for 2023.
Notably, the project is located at Rusumo Falls, which has a shared border with Rwanda and Tanzania on River Akagera is expected to cost $340 million and produce about 80 megawatts of electricity.
However, residents who spoke to Rwandanews24 lamented that although the project has several benefits, its construction has disturbed biodiversity in the area, leading to the loss of some animal species alongside accelerating human-wildlife conflict.
“Before the construction of the current Rusumo hydropower plant, there existed several animal species such as ‘Inkubi’. It has disappeared,” said Patricia Uwingabire, who lives near the Rusumo Falls in Nyankurazo cell, Kigarama Sector in the Kirehe district.
The forest that used to accommodate such animal species, she narrates, covered an area of more than 15 square meters.
“Some animals have escaped and are no longer there because they lost their favorite habitat. The fruit trees were also cut down and they would have died of hunger if they had stayed there. They had to go somewhere to find food,” she said.
Apart from the animal species known as Inkubi, she noted, most of the monkeys have vanished.
The Impact On Residents’ Daily Life
Furthermore, the destruction of habitats has resulted in human-wildlife conflict, with most animals scavaging for food in residential areas. Jean Népomscène Hakizimana from Bwesige Village reiterated that farmers are the most affected by displaced monkeys targeting maize and bananas.
“We always collide with them on our farms when we go to harvest. They are not leaving because after cutting down the forest where they used to get food, they started to destroy plants,” he said.
In addition to destroying the crops, those who rely on fishing have also been hit hard.
“Fish have disappeared and are no longer found in the river. There are other aquatic species that have disappeared and others died due to the construction of the Rusumo Falls hydropower plant. As a resident of Rusumo, we used to harvest fish and earn income as a business, but we have lost it,” he said.
As a result, the fish price has increased fivefold.
Dr Gaspard Bikwenu, the Environmental Officer in the Rusumo hydropower project, said that the water level decreased only in the part where the plant was being built.
“The water will decrease at a distance of 1km from the waterfall even if it will not continue because it will decrease at the rate of 10%, but not the entire water of Akagera River. Fish will also decrease, but at a distance of 1km. You understand that what they say that the fish have disappeared because of the construction of the falls is not true,” he said.
“It is planned that after construction, we will dispose of the equipment used in various construction works. We will establish a perfect garden and forest that is attractive to tourists. We will do it better than what we found there.”
He noted that the animals that used to live in the forest are expected to return once nature is restored.
What Do Environmental And Ecosystem Experts Say?
It is worth mentioning that, before construction works start for a mega project, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is first carried out. The assessment highlights how the project will minimize the negative impact on the environment and biodiversity species in the habitat.
According to Prof. Jean Nduwamungu, a Lecturer at the University of Rwanda and an expert in protecting the environment and ecosystems, animals escaping the construction site is no surprise.
“Seeing animals running away from such construction sites makes sense as they live in the wildland, yet the forests, which are their habitat, have been cut down. The developers should have considered how the impact would be mitigated by planting trees near the falls and buildings wherever possible. I hope they will probably replant the forest after the construction,” she said.
He noted that more trees should be planted to prevent soil erosion from the hills and avoid washing away neighbours’ land.
According to Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze, a Burundi Environmental Protection Authority specialist, some animal species that were living in deforested areas will no longer be able to survive, including rabbits, snakes, frogs, and other species.
“Some of the wild animals will totally disappear as their habitats have been cleared. Some will seek refuge in other areas in the Akagera River Valley, while others will starve to death,” Niyoyabikoze said.
According to the expert, if nothing is done, the project’s activities may permanently impact the environment, such as the loss of vegetation, including trees and shrubs in the right-of-way of transmission lines, which will lead to the destruction of terrestrial animal habitats.
According to Dr Ange Imanishimwe, the Chief Executive Officer of BIOCOOR — Biodiversity Conservation Organization in Rwanda, the animals that used to be placed in construction sites will not return because there are animals with problems when their habitats are destroyed, and they will not come back.
“It is good that the forest will be replanted so that the species can appear again in this area, but some will not come back and new ones will be born because there are suspicious animals that cannot return to where they came from because they are destroyed,” said Dr Imanishimwe.