Thousands of trees and plants have been bulldozed down to create what in some sections seems like a six-lane highway. It is no longer a similar experience to navigate to the top of the falls through the potholed hair-raising ridges through the park, writes Tobbias Jolly Owiny.
At first glance, the experience in and around the new Paraa Bridge inside the Murchison Falls National Park is edifying. With the calming waters of River Nile and the unfamiliar sight of the Nile crocodiles down the bridge, it is sure to lighten up your day.
Less than 100 metres from the bridge are two ferries formerly operated by the Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra). They are intended to ease access by tourists and other passengers on both the north and southern banks of the river.
Currently, a beehive of construction works is progressing inside the park. On the freshly tarmacked road from Tangi Gate to what formerly was the Paraa ferry crossing, giant earthmoving trucks and labourers working on the roads can be seen mingling with the wildlife while works progress.
It is remarkable how much of the work has been completed in the past three years, with numerous diversions around culverts and bridges undergoing finishing.
Thousands of trees and plants have been bulldozed down to create what in some sections seems like a six-lane highway.
It is no longer a similar experience to navigate to the top of the falls through the potholed hair-raising ridges through the park.
The escarpment down Pakuba airstrip to Paraa Lodge, which used to be a tough section to navigate, has changed beyond recognition. It is now a smooth curve, with steep embankments.
The finished sections of the road now boast of smooth and neatly flattened tarmac; although many stretches are still actively being flattened and packed with murram and gravel.
Before establishing the bridge, travellers and visitors inside the park scampered on both banks of the river not to miss the tough 6pm timeline when Unra staff clock out.
Unveiling Paraa Bridge
Built with a lifespan of 120 years, it will take road users approximately one and half hours to cross through the bridge from Masindi (town) District to Tangi Gate (Pakwach town), reducing the travel time by five hours.
In a February 1 tweet, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) posted the first video of the new bridge. It declared the bridge open for public use, adding, “the view of the new and now operational Paraa Bridge, which replaced our ferry service across the River Nile in Murchison Falls National Park.”
The tweet further offered: “Paraa Bridge under construction, [connecting Nwoya, Anaka, Masindi, Buliisa, Pakwach, Nebbi], will ease movement of tourists between the north and south banks of the Nile River daily than on specific times as it is currently with the ferry.”
The bridge across the River Nile now connects Masindi District (Bunyoro Sub-region) in western Uganda to the West Nile and Acholi sub-regions, with currently no more queues for the ferry but a simple drive across the bridge to either side of the river.
With joint funding from the Exim Bank and the Government of Uganda, Unra contracted China Communications Construction Company Ltd (CCCC) to start upgrading the Masindi (Kisanja)-Park Junction Road and Tangi Junction-Paraa-Buliisa roads from gravel to paved (bitumen) standard in April 2018.
The development includes the Kisanja-Park junction (72km); Paraa-Pakwach (24km) Buliisa-Paraa (38km), and the Sambiya-Murchison Falls Road (12km)—costing $218.8m (approximately Shs845 billion)—also includes the 37km Wangkwar-Paraa road.
These all go through the Murchison Falls National Park. Others are the Masindi-Biiso road, which has a 3km section that traverses the Budongo forest. Another 5km section cuts through Bugoma.
Besides Paraa Bridge, government has over the last three years constructed two other bridges across River Nile—Source of the Nile Bridge in Jinja District and the Isimba Public Bridge in Kamuli District, linking Kamuli and Kayunga districts.
Change is evidently coming to Murchison, although Unra and UWA are quick to clarify that this is not at a price.
Environmental activists and conservation groups have in the past years warned and castigated the government for upgrading major roads inside the park in the name of oil prospect development.
Mr Wilson Kagoro, the park’s warden in-charge of community conservation, in an interview, says UWA is optimistic to reap more revenue following the establishment of the new roads.
“The coming of these roads is a huge boost for us as UWA in terms of rising numbers of visitors who will now prefer to come to the park due to the good accessibility within and around it,” he said, adding, “This boost in numbers of visitors is what translates into increased revenue for us through park fees and it all means a big boost to the associated hotel and tourism infrastructure developed operated by the private sector players in and around the park.”
Mr Kagoro says visitors can now choose to access the park through the new Masindi-Paraa road, cutting the distance from a five-hour drive through Karuma-Tangi access by nearly four hours.
In the 2018/2019 financial year, the tourism sector fetched Uganda $1.6b (about Shs5.8 trillion), making it the country’s leading foreign currency earner. The Annual Tourism Sector Performance Report for Financial Year 2018/2019 noted that this was the fifth consecutive year the feat was being pulled off.
In fact, the revenue rose from $1.45billion (Shs6.1 trillion) recorded in the 2017/2018 financial year when 1,402,409 tourists were registered (compared to 1,505,669 the following year)—accounting for 7.7 percent of the national GDP and 6.7 percent of total national employment.
Murchison Falls National Park alone, in the 2018/2019 financial year, generated Shs11 billion, a 10 percent increase from the previous financial year as per Mr Kagoro.
The revenues, however, added Mr Kagoro, dipped rather sharply to near zero once Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant two-year lockdown kicked in.
“Now that the sector is fully open and new access roads have been created, we are very sure the revenues could progressively even double,” he says.
As the country edges towards its first oil, reportedly in 2025, several other new road networks are developing inside this critical conservation corridor that lies within the Albertine Graben. Many of them will, however, be closed to the public.
“There are several roads also being tarmacked inside the park right now which will strictly be limited for the oil development and inaccessible to tourists and other road users, while, of course, these other feeder roads will not be tarmacked because we can’t put tarmac everywhere,” Mr Kagoro said.
“The roads connecting Masindi to Paraa until Tangi gate (Pakwach town) will be accessible to both tourists and passengers (non-tourists), although each one has to pay an access fee, while there is a new road connecting Paraa and Wangkwar that will be used by tourists,” he added.
Uganda’s tourism industry has made significant strides in the past three decades. There is, however, work to be done. The World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2019 report indicates that the direct impact of tourism expenditures in Uganda amounted to 3.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) compared to Tanzania (4.8 percent), Madagascar (5.7 percent), and Kenya (5 percent).
The government of Uganda is keen on increasing the economic benefits derived from Uganda’s tourism assets. These assets include the national parks, wildlife (a unique mixture of plains, game and mountain gorillas), and landscapes.
Notwithstanding the pandemic, several challenges—including the underdeveloped specialised skills of the sector and limited development, as well as investment by government and private sector players in the country’s national parks and other protected areas—abound.
In August 2021, the Tourism ministry told Parliament that the foreign exchange earnings from the tourism sector dropped threefold in 2020 from $1.6 billion earned from foreign tourists in 2019 to $500m (Shs1.9 trillion). Foreign visitors to Uganda plummeted by 69.3 percent to 473,085 from 1,546,620 visitors reported in 2019.
Criticism of projects
Unra, UWA and their partners had to make some tough choices to zero on this investment. The two public authorities have not ceased to face backlash from conservationists over roads in national game parks.
Questions surrounding the impact of road construction and oil exploration activities being undertaken within the Murchison Falls National Park and the greater Albertine Graben have in the past years sparked controversy.
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) claim that the effects of road construction and oil exploration in the Albertine Graben are growing and influencing land use patterns, poaching, human-wildlife conflict, land degradation, and the spread of invasive species.
Besides facilitating access for hunters, the CSOs also contend that the roads also provide market access and reduce transportation costs. This, they further add, may have sustained the trade of bush meat and illegal wildlife trafficking.
From the outset, the activities were feared to become an obstruction to sensitive animals like elephants, while others argued that increased traffic in the park by building new roads possibly increases mortality among wildlife.
In 2017, a consortium of local conservation organisations warned against constructing heavy traffic tarmac roads through Bugoma Forest and parts of Murchison Falls National Park.
The conservationists petitioned Unra to consider finding an alternative plan, as well as verify if comprehensive environmental impact assessments had been done for the roads.
On Wednesday, Mr Allan Ssempebwa, the Unra spokesperson, said that all the necessary protocols prescribed to them by the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) to preserve critical flora and fauna within the park had been followed.
“Before any project is done, we conduct an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment to identify all the sensitive flora and fauna and we work towards conserving them, and the damaged one, we ensure we restore,” Mr Ssempebwa said, adding, “The approval was granted to us in 2017 by Nema.”
According to him, along the finished sections of the roads, all the animals have returned to their previous habitats, while the plants have grown back to their former status.
“The works have gone on smoothly, in some areas the animals have come back, we have put for them rails, passages to cross and the flora and fauna are coming back to their previous habitats, while flora is growing back, like in Bugoma and Budongo forest reserves, all the canopies have grown back.”
Mr Ssempebwa said oil roads were ‘ecologically designed’, subjected to multiple assessment criteria and that mitigation measures were solicited from key stakeholders and have been implemented throughout the project cycle.
As oil exploration is set to start, the government is undertaking key infrastructural projects in the Albertine region, including the Albertine Graben, which holds the largest stock of the rarest flora and fauna of the East and Central Africa regions.
“It is important to have the necessary infrastructure to support the oil works, which is why you see the roads, airports, and other projects,” Mr Ssempebwa said, adding, “As we do that, some traverse sensitive ecological landscapes and there are requirements to undertake to note the sensitivity of the areas.”
Mr Bashir Hangi—the UWA spokesperson—said safeguards enshrined in the contractor’s environmental impact assessments have been put in place and are agreeable to both UWA and Nema.
“You understand that mobility is very important, and the roads will boost mobility in the national park and enhance the tourism experience by easing movement and access from one place to another,” he said, adding, “In the past, people would pay for the ferry once they reached the Paraa area to access the south and north banks of the river, but now it is over. It makes the park more accessible and it also brings down the cost of our operations.”
To ensure safety among the motorists and the wildlife, Mr Hangi says: “We are going to have enough humps and signage and we are already imposing fines on offenders. This is not a new road, these roads were there long ago to connect the south and north banks and they were paying money and they will continue to pay.”
While in Kampala, TotalEnergies Uganda in mid-July signed several agreements with key companies and CSOs aimed at boosting the implementation of its commitment to biodiversity, environment, road safety, and cultural protection in their areas of operation.
The provisions of the agreements aimed at controlling, minimising, or preventing negative effects on the ecosystem and the general human livelihoods in the areas of Bunyoro, Acholi, and Alur-land.
With the development phase, which we are currently in, there are going to be a lot of logistical movements for the entire infrastructure that will be required to build the oil and gas facilities.
“This partnership is being extended to include specific activities designed to help reduce human pressures and increase ecological resilience of the park, one of the pillars of the Tilenga Biodiversity Program that we recently launched,” Ms Anita Kayongo, the corporate communications manager, TotalEnergies, told the media.
She said the activities will involve supporting the existing efforts of UWA to increase the effectiveness of patrolling activities focused on reducing illegal activities within the park, as well as rolling out a series of anti-poaching campaigns within the communities within this area.
“TotalEnergies has made clear commitments towards ensuring its activities are conducted in line with best environmental and social practices,” she said, adding, “It has to do with the support for the improvement of patrol effectiveness in the park, part of the company’s effort to achieve measurable conservation outcomes for biodiversity and communities.”
Rationale for roads
Elsewhere, in Hoima District, the new (oil) roads have significantly improved the transport network between the district of Buliisa and Hoima City.
In January, President Museveni commissioned the Hoima-Butiaba-Wanseko road and the Kigumba-Bulima road in Hoima District. Both are part of the government’s 10-year rolling Road Sector Development Programme aimed at improving road access to socio-economic facilities.
The construction of the 111km Shs665 billion oil road project, which was started in 2018 by Chongqing International Construction Corporation (CICO), stretches from Hoima City and drills across the sharp cliffs of the Albertine region to the shores of Lake Albert in Buliisa District.
While it previously took more than two hours to travel from Buliisa to Hoima Town, the roads have reduced the cost of transport between the Lake Albert communities in Buliisa and the entire Bunyoro region.
The Kabwooya (oil) road that connects Tooro and Bunyoro is already paying off in terms of boosting agriculture and tourism, with residents already cashing in on tourism following the government’s commissioning of the 408-kilometre stretch in February to connect the areas.
At least nine of the 65 tourism roads mapped out under the tourism infrastructure development in 2012 for development by the government have been completed. More than 16 of the roads—stretching approximately 900kms—are under construction, according to the Tourism ministry.
Unra has over the last four years been supervising the building and upgrading of about 700km of the oil roads, which are critical for the commercial exploitation of the barrels of oil still under fallow in the Albertine Graben.