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Rusumo Falls dam construction project victims left stranded by water and food shortages

The erection of pylons for the transport of electricity has caused significant damage. Photo credit: SDN / F. Mbonihankuye

[BUJUMBURA] “On this hill, the animals were visible. Many tourists liked to visit our area to see them. Their habitat destroyed, these animals have taken refuge in Tanzania where they do not feel threatened. ”

These words from Jean Népomucène Hakizimana, who met in Nyankurazo near the town of Rusumo, in eastern Rwanda, a border region with Tanzania, reveal the harmful effects of the construction of the Rusumo Falls hydroelectric power station between Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.

To build the infrastructure, which is expected to provide 80 megawatts of electricity to the power grids of the three countries, an area of at least 24,081 hectares was destroyed for the construction of towers and substations, according to an assessment by the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme (NELSAP).

“Before, we had banana plantations. In order to install the pylons, they were all decimated, which was the reason for the decrease in our sources of income. ”
A victim in Burundi

The area destroyed was farmland, pasture and the Nyankurazo savannah in Rwanda. Before the plant was built, this savannah was home to monkeys, gibbons, chimpanzees and birds.

Gaspard Bikwemu, an environmental specialist at NELSAP, estimates that 10 hectares of wooded savannah are lost in Rwanda’s Kirehe district, on Nyankurazo hill where the electricity dispatching centre is currently being built.

In fact, only the electricity pylons are visible on this hill. Before the centre was built, this savannah was rich in fruit trees, which attracted monkeys.

NELSAP’s environmental specialist prefers to play down these losses, stressing that “you can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs”.

Contaminated sources

The power plant is built at Rusumo Falls on the Kagera River, along Rwanda’s border with Tanzania and about three kilometres downstream from the point where the two countries share a common border with Burundi.

A map of the Rusumo basin where the two rivers meet influences the construction of the hydroelectric plant for three countries

In Ngara, north-west Tanzania, specifically in Karagwe, a village of several hundred people, the construction of the dam has seriously affected the water supply, says 37-year-old Jean Baraka Habonimana, a resident of the village.

“The water supply is getting worse and worse. It looks like we are an abandoned village,” he says.

He says that before the construction of the hydroelectric dam in Rusumo, people had unlimited access to drinking water and other natural resources such as medicinal plants and firewood.

Now, the water in the area and the natural resources on which it depended are contaminated by metals and oil from the Rusumo hydroelectric project workshop.

The water drainage system of the Rusumo hydroelectric dam causes waste to flow directly into the river

The people of Kirehe in Rwanda, Muyinga in Burundi and the Kagera Valley in Tanzania say they no longer have “streams to draw water for drinking”.

“This company promised to build standpipes to help us access clean water. However, tap water is rationed about once a week. On the other days, we are forced to use water from the Kagera River. At the moment, no measures have been taken to supply clean water to our villages,” says Rachid Mbaraka, a resident of Rusumo village, in despair.

Some are forced to walk two kilometres to find water to drink. For the rest of their domestic activities, they use dirty water from the Kagera River.

According to environmental health expert 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 metres 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 metres. What needs to be done, he explains, is to ensure that water from the dam does not flow directly into the river.

Scarion Ruhula has also called on government authorities to carry out regular inspections in the project area to monitor the possibility of epidemics and pollution-related diseases.
Due to violations of environmental regulations, the National Environmental Management Council (NEMC) has issued a warning to the project management authorities. Further action would be taken against NELSAP if it did not reform its waste management system.


In Nyankurazo, Kirehe district, people are worried about the rampant deforestation. Dadju Uwanyagasani, a resident, fears that agricultural plantations will be washed away by erosion as trees and grasses that were important for soil protection disappear.

According to information published on Global Forest Watch, in the countries that share the Rusumo Falls hydroelectric dam including Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania, forest loss is high in 2021: “the tropics have lost 11.1 million hectares of tree cover in 2021.”

The same data shows that in 2021 Rwanda has lost 1.31 kha of natural forest, Burundi 2.27 kha of tree cover and Tanzania 165 kha of natural forest.

While Jean Nduwamungu, a teacher and researcher at the University of Rwanda – Department of Soil and Environmental Management, acknowledges that the construction of the Rusumo Falls hydroelectric dam is of interest to the partner countries, he admits that the project has impacts on the environment and social economies.

He believes that before the construction of the Rusumo hydroelectric dam, more research was needed to protect the ecosystems in the region. For the teacher, NELSAP should restore the destroyed ecosystem.

Janvier Murengerantwari, an advisor at the Office Burundais pour la Protection de l’Environnement (OBPE), stresses that the execution of any project has impacts on biodiversity and the well-being of the population. However, what needs to be done in this case, he maintains, is to mitigate these impacts.

He recalls the law that states that underneath power lines, there should be no trees. Without doubt, he says, the consequences on the environment are inevitable, because trees absorb greenhouse gases, the impacts are fatal, but lesser than the interest of the country, he says.

Janvier Murengerantwari reveals that the environmental impacts of the project on the Burundian side have not occurred. However, he says that OBPE is doing its best to protect the environment as this is its primary mission.


In the three countries benefiting from the hydropower plant, people were forced to leave their homes and plots of land so that the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme could install 417 pylons that will carry 26 MW from Rusumo Falls in Tanzania to the Gitega, Kobero and Muyinga stations in Burundi.

Each household within a 15-metre radius of the pylon has been compensated with a plot of land equivalent to the one taken from them, according to the law.

However, some inhabitants feel 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 compensation received for the plot of land occupied by a 15×15 metre pylon, i.e. 200,000 Burundian francs (USD 98), is insufficient to buy another plot of land to replace it.

He therefore asked that the Rusumo project increase this sum so that he could buy a plot of the same size as the one he had been dispossessed of.

The family members of Antoine Kamwenubusa, in his sixties, residing in the urban centre ‘Ku Mazi’ in Nyabikere commune, Karusi province, also did not appreciate this compensation ‘and ask the commission to redouble its efforts by finding them plots of land proportionate to those they had before’.

Banana plantations

Faced with these complaints, Janvier Murengerantwari, an adviser at the Burundian Office for the Protection of the Environment (OBPE), recalls that “the Burundian law governing compensation stipulates that people displaced as a result of public works receive funds to help them return to their former lives.

However, he continues, “it is difficult for a displaced person to find a piece of land that is made like the one he has just spent years ploughing. This is why the state, based on the law of compensation, is doing everything possible by giving support funds to make life easier for the displaced,” he says.

However, the people affected by the construction of the Rusumo Falls hydroelectric power station are not only complaining about compensation, they are also asking the government for money to feed their families.

“Before, we had banana plantations. In order to install the pylons, they were all decimated, which was the reason for the decrease in our sources of income,” says one of Antoine Kamwenubusa’s sons. ”

Patricia Uwingabiye, a resident of Kirehe district, says that the population of Nyankurazo used to live from the cultivation of sweet potatoes, beans and peas harvested in the Rusumo marshes. “But they no longer have access to their fields because of the flooding of the Kagera River,” she adds.

Fields flooded due to fluctuating water levels caused by the construction of the hydroelectric dam.

This story was produced by Ferdinand Mbonihankuye with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund and the Pulitzer Center.



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