By Oweyegha-Afunaduula

Long ago, when President Tibuhaburwa Museveni was convinced the way forward for Uganda’s development was to build big dams for hydroelectricity to power industries, but also to sell electricity to other countries in the Nile Basin, the official reasoning was that the focus in the energy sector was enhancing accessibility to electricity, not only in Uganda but also the Nile Basin Region.

A UMEME employee- FILE PHOTO

We environmentalists were of a different view. We reasoned that as far as Uganda was concerned, the issue is not accessibility but affordability. We were concerned that Government was already borrowing a lot of money to build hydro dams just to increase accessibility.

So when we reasoned that the electricity would become expensive with the passage of time, as Government concentrated on raising money by taxing electricity consumers to pay back the loans, apart from calling us saboteurs, President Museveni said that if Ugandans would not afford the electricity, he would sell it to outside countries.

However, the countries he had in mind soon started to build their own hydro dams, all funded by Chinese loans. Moreover, with passage of time, electricity in those countries became much cheaper than electricity in Uganda.

It became increasingly unaffordable for individual consumers, institutions, factories as well as government itself. It became clear that a lot of the electricity was being consumed illegally because of its unaffordability.

Electricity production has the added disadvantages of silting and raising temperatures, Where the dams are built, environment is destroyed either by removing forests and associated wildlife, or displacing human population through flooding. These phenomena, have something to to with the worsening climate change situation in the country.

However, we ignored the truism that to every good thing there is a bad thing, and failed to put in place effective strategies to combat ensuing high rise prices of electricity, poverty and climate change.

We environmentalists were not surprised that Ugandans were stealing electricity to light their houses and power their enterprises. However, we had vigorously advocated for solar energy to address the rising unaffordability of hydropower and to light up the country cheaply. We said solar power is the poor man’s source of electricity, and asked Government and the World Bank to support solar power.

Unfortunately, Government and World Bank initially opposed us and advised that if we wanted solar power we should go to other funders. We were happy that later on, belatedly, Government and World Bank started to support solar power.

Today almost 38% of electricity now consumed in the country is solar power. All indications are that as hydropower continues to become even more unaffordable, more and more Ugandans and Institutions will turn to solar power.

Government should be working to ensure that solar power equipment is cheaper by removing the heavy taxes imposed on them so that even the poorest of the poor can have electricity.

Solar power remains unaffordable to many because solar equipment is still expensive, especially for the poor.

Surprisingly, Government so many years later, does not perceive the reason why electricity is increasingly being lost to illegal consumers. Government “thinks” electricity is being lost to illegal consumers because there is no strong law to punish them. That is why we are hearing that the Minister for energy is fidgeting with initiating legislation that will result in such a law.

What is likely to happen is that either the law will become ineffective as people and institutions ignore it, or more and more people will turn to the more affordable solar power.

It is true Government needs money to pay back that which they borrowed and invested in big dams. However, the issue of affordability of electricity has never been any greater than it is today because it has been largely ignored. The more it is ignored the more electricity consumers will either continue to steal it or popularize solar power through proliferating its consumption.

The debate continues: Accessibility or Affordability?

Affordability is winning. Illegal consumption of electricity is the people’s way of telling government that it has become so expensive that they can no longer afford it.

For God and My Country

The writer is a Ugandan Scientist and Environmentalist

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