Rwandan farmers hopeful for irrigation gains from Rusumo Hydropower project, despite pollution concerns

Modern irrigation machine (Photo: Given by RAB)

BY Annonciata BYUKUSENGE

Farmers in the drought-stricken Kirehe province are hopeful that the construction of the Rusumo falls hydropower project will soon provide new irrigation opportunities to boost their agricultural outputs. 

The prolonged drought in Kirehe district, eastern Rwanda, caused severe damage to more than 36 thousand households, according to the Minister of Environment Dr. Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya. Starvation increased as farmers’ harvests failed, and the government stepped in to provide emergency food services to residents in December 2021 and January 2022. 

Bertin Rwagatore, a farmer living in Rusumo village, said that the area has a problem of water in general. 

“Due to the lack of water, we draw water from the Akagera River located in Eastern of Rwanda at the Rusumo border between Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi. Both domestic and drinking water. [With better irrigation] we would not have lacked drinking water and to find irrigation water for our plants,” the resident of Kiyanzi cell, Nyamugari sector in Kirehe district said.

Now, farmers are hoping for an improvement in agriculture after construction of the Rusumo project will be finalized in 2023, due to the development of new dams to help them irrigate plants even in the dry season as Dr Gaspard Bikweru, Environmental Officer at Rusumo Hydropower project mentioned.

The Regional Rusumo Falls Hydro Electric Project (RRFHEP) implemented by the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP) is to benefit the three neighboring countries of Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi at the border of Rusumo in the eastern part of Rwanda, western part of Tanzania and northern part of Burundi. 

It is estimated to produce about 80 megawatts of electricity on the Kagera River at the Rusumo Falls located on the border between Rwanda and Tanzania under a Run of River scheme  (confluence of rivers). After the three governments signed a tripartite agreement on 16 February 2012, construction activities began in 2017 and the project is expected to be completed in 2023

Dr. Bikwemu said the project will contribute in various sectors to the people near the Rusumo project in Kirehe district, including in education, health, business and agriculture. 

The farmers will also get enough water in dams for use in irrigation in order to increase their crops. There are two existing dams in Kirehe district, Nyamugari sector. In November, the Rusumo Project started to build two dams that were completed this year in February, called Mahama1 and Mahama2. According to the Rwanda Agriculture Board, in Rwanda there are 28 dams used by 16,342 farmers. 

Laurence Uwamariya, a farmer in Rusumo village, said that they expect to benefit from the Rusumo project to increase their crop production. “Our hope is based on the dams we will have after the activities of building Rusumo Hydropower. These dams will have enough water and will help us in irrigation,” she said.

Bertin Rwagatore, a resident of Rusumo Cell, said that as farmers they have a chance to improve their farming. “We expect to be rich in five years through agriculture as our main resource. During the dry season we will cultivate and use irrigation differently than in the past, because in the past we used to cultivate only during the rainy season. It would stop falling and we would not get enough produce, but now we will always be producing enough water for irrigation.”

Challenges of lack of water in dams

In 2017, farmers in Rusumo village built a series of dams to help them irrigate, but after a few months, the dams dried up. Some of their irrigation machines were also damaged due to inactivity because the water in the dams was dry. Because of this history, they are worried about the drying up of dams after construction of the Rusumo Hydropower Project.

However, Dr. Gaspard Bikwemu, Environmental Officer at Rusumo Hydropower Project, said that there is no concern about the drying up of the Rusumo dams, because the waterfall will carry a huge amount of water that will not allow the dams to dry out. The waterfall is 13 meters wide and 20 meters high.

Residents of the Rusumo border communities say they have not yet received irrigation services from the government to deal with the drought. However, the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) through Rwanda Agriculture Board says the irrigation program has improved even though it has not yet reached the farmers, because the area under farmers’ irrigation has increased. 

The Rwandan government through MINAGRI has developed strategies to increase agricultural production through reducing dependency on rain-fed agriculture. It has initiated marshlands, hillside and small-scale irrigation projects to achieve the national set target, which is 102,284 farmers using irrigation in 2024.

According to Audece Hirwa, the Communication Specialist in Rwanda Agriculture Board, the total land currently under irrigation is 67,100 hectares, which is composed of 37,273 hectares of marshlands, 9,439 hectares of hillside and 20,388 hectares of small-scale irrigation technology. Small-scale technologies developed include solar irrigation and mobile farm irrigation system equipment and pumps.

Marshland and hillside irrigation are 100 percent funded by the government, but for the small scale irrigation technologies, MINAGRI decentralizes the budget to the districts, which provide 50 percent subsidies to the farmers.

The machine will filter water to falls (Photo: Annonciata Byukusenge)

According to the 2020 Rwanda Irrigation Master Plan produced in 2019, the irrigation potential in Rwanda is 501,509 hectares, including 52,100 hectares from dams. This means that currently, Rwanda is only irrigating about 14 percent of its total potential. But the irrigation achievement in 2020-2021 is 493,050 hectares.

A big challenge in the irrigation program is that farmers’ associations that use the irrigation systems are still small. Many farmers do not understand the importance of teaming up to irrigate, because it requires more capacity than a non-entrepreneurial farmer.

Capacity building of farmers and technicians to gain skills to use the watering machines is another issue. Other challenges include heavy maintenance, especially when there is flooding or heavy rains, and financing for small scale irrigation technologies to raise the 50 percent local contribution.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rwanda Agriculture Board will work with district and sector agriculture officers, agricultural assistants and local leaders in campaigning to encourage farmers to form cooperatives, so that they can benefit from the 50 percent support on the cost of irrigation machines, according to Audece Hirwa, the Communication Specialist in Rwanda Agriculture Board.

Negative impacts of the project: loss of livelihoods, biodiversity

There are 27 households who are expected to be affected by the construction of the Rusumo hydropower project in Rwanda, along with 40 households in Tanzania. While there are expected local benefits such as the development of irrigation infrastructure, there are also several negative impacts, including the loss of residential structures, business structures, loss of employment, loss of agricultural land, loss of marshland use, and others.

All of the affected people live within Kirehe District in Rwanda and Ngara District in Tanzania, including 67 households entitled to the livelihood restoration program from Kigarama and Nyamugali sectors of Kirehe district and 103 households in Tanzania. These include people who suffered economic losses due to displacement caused by construction activities. All people received compensation in 2015 before the beginning of Rusumo construction in 2017.

In Tanzania and Burundi, people will be able to rebuild their homes next to their old home, but in Rwanda the people left the affected area and now live in other areas.

An environmental health expert, Scarion Ruhula, who also works for the Tanzania Disabilities Relief Service in Kagera and Kigoma, said that there is little direct impact that can be caused by the presence of a garage or human settlement if it is built between 50 to 100 meters from the water source. However, the Rusumo project is located within this buffer zone, with drainage into the river.

What is needed is to ensure that water from the residence or garage does not flow directly into the river, Ruhula said. He called on government authorities to conduct regular inspections in the project area to control the possibility of outbreaks of pollution-related diseases.

Rusumo Energy Station (Photo: Annonciata Byukusenge)

In March, the Tanzania Environmental Management Council (NEMC) sent inspectors from the Lake Victoria region and the Kagera River Basin to inspect the Rusumo power project site following complaints of pollution. 

Inspections revealed that the contractor had violated environmental regulations by lacking a proper waste management system in the garage. Water, metals, and oil were found to be flowing into the construction site and into the Kagera River. 

The inspector from NEMC, Benjamin Dotto, said that due to violations by project management authorities, NEMC had issued a stern warning and that further action would be taken against NELSAP if they failed to reform their waste management system. He did not want to name any of the fines they had inflicted, although reports from within the Ngara, Tanzania district council stated that 20 million Tanzanian shillings (about USD $8,600) had been levied as fines for the violations.

The construction of a sewage treatment plant in Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda will not be part of the Rusumo project, unless governments find it necessary to do so, said Dr. Gaspard Bikweru from the Rusumo project.

In November 2021, more than 40 households on the Tanzanian side found themselves in danger after being flooded with water in their homes, while some of their houses were damaged by explosions aimed at breaking rocks. The explosions used to create water canals for the power project have also led to the collapse of toilets, leading to sewage flows into the river. In an exclusive interview, the E.D. of NEMC, Samuel Gwamaka, acknowledged the environmental and human impact of the Rusumo power project.

Gwamaka acknowledged that the blasting of thorns to create an underground canal has caused some local homes to be damaged. He also said floods were caused by the construction of a water barrier on the Kagera River. 

This hole is a path of water to falls and falls located in Tanzania (Photo: Annonciata Byukusenge)

How the project will impact wildlife

According to the Multinational – Rusumo Falls Hydroelectric Project – ESIA Summary, a total of 1,041 pylons (towers for carrying electric cables) will be built for the entire line – 334 in Rwanda, 414 in Tanzania and 293 in Burundi). Each will require 10.4 hectares of land for foundations. 

In addition, five new substations will be built, each taking up 2.3 hectares of land. One substation located in Gitega, Burundi, will be expanded. The pylons and posts will therefore occupy a total of 24,081 hectares that will be lost as agricultural and forest land or as pasture. 

According to Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze, a specialist in the Burundi Environmental Protection Authority, the project itself is beneficial for Burundi in that it will contribute to the availability of electricity in rural areas. 

However, some wildlife living in deforested areas will no longer be able to survive, including rabbits, snakes, frogs and other species, he said.

“Some of the wild animals will be missed. Their habitats have  been cleared. Some will seek refuge in other areas so far off the Akagera River Valley, while others will starve to death,” Niyoyabikoze said.

According to this specialist, if nothing is done, the project’s activities may have permanent impacts on 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.

The Rusumo Project was built on an area of ​​about 800 square meters. According to Dr. Gaspard Bikweru, an Environmental Officer at Rusumo Project, the aquatic organisms were disturbed, but not too much because the project was built at a high altitude of 13 by 20 meters.

“The biodiversity like fish, frogs, and snakes will move to other places, because water will be reduced in that area. Fish production will be reduced as fishers move to a nearby area where the [project] is being built as the existing species also migrate to other areas,” Dr. Bikwemu said.

Prior to deforestation and Rusumo project construction, there was a need for more in-depth research to protect the ecosystems in the area, according to Dr. Ange Imanishimwe, the Chief Executive Officer of BIOCOOR – Biodiversity Conservation Organization in Rwanda.

He said that “there are some things that have not been done well. For me, it needs advocacy deeply because there are living organisms; there are some affected by the noise of the machines used in the construction…

“Fish ponds are being built and I think the government will help fishers to raise modern fish without losing their jobs or livelihoods because their livelihoods have been replaced by infrastructure. In the new dams to be built it is possible that they will add fish, but the good thing is that they are looking for other modern breeding methods because the water used for irrigation is often so polluted that it does not contain organisms,” Dr. Imanishimwe said. 

He continues that the new species that can be found in dams are frogs, mosquitoes, large aquatic insects, aquatic snakes and other wildlife species.

The environmental impact assessment conducted by SNC Lavalin International under the NELSAP project states that the construction was expected to cause flooding in an area of 17,000 hectares and a change in water level by 1,700 hectares. However, adequate precautions were not taken despite the construction of a water barrier, leading to the flooding of human settlements.

There was no community awareness created to enable them to prepare for water overflows, and no bumps were built to prevent water overflowing from the river to the farm and houses as well, according to Ntiba Alfred Bilaba, the chairman of the beneficiary committee of the Rusumo hydropower project.

Biodiversity experts say that before building infrastructure in existing forests, reforesting wetlands or building dams on rivers, a study should be conducted to allocate space for affected wildlife to move.

“Before the deforestation in Rusumo village and the erosion of the Rusumo [project], they had to leave about 30% of the area where the wildlife and the fugitives would find a place to move, but there is no place for wildlife to move. Now there are some species that we will never see again that lived in the Rusumo forest like foxes (locally known as Imbwebwe), squirrels (locally known as Umukara), rabbits, snakes and more. The [project] was built on the banks of the Akagera River with dead species including fish, snakes, frogs and other aquatic organisms as the 800-meter area is said to be the source of the extinction,” Dr Imanishimwe said.

Rusumo Border, in the confluence of Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania (Photo: Annonciata Byukusenge)

He recognizes the full value of every species in an environment due to the interconnected nature of ecosystems that makes biological species exist in symbiotic relations, directly or indirectly benefiting each other. Citing an example of some crops that humans depend on such as maize, sorghum, beans and mangoes, Imanishimwe says these are pollinated by insects like butterflies, bees that live on the banks of rivers, swamps and forests — all in one ecosystem. 

About the loss of some animals, Dr Gaspard Bikwemu said: “The aim of Rusumo fall construction is not to move animals in this area, but is to increase infrastructure to the residents of three countries (Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi) in order to boost energy transition in these countries.” 

This article edited by

This article was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa, funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation.

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