JINJA, Uganda -- Bujagali Falls, roaring and frothing just downstream from where Lake Victoria flows into the Nile River, has long been treasured as a resting place of ancestral spirits, a thrilling rapids for whitewater rafters and a spectacular feature of the natural landscape.
It will be a memory.
Construction began last week on a $772 million hydroelectric dam that will turn the falls into a reservoir. The project, financed by the World Bank, is intended to reduce the acute power shortages that have badly hampered this East African country's development.
But environmentalists warn that the 98-foot- high dam could be a costly disaster. They question whether it can generate the expected electricity without harming an already-sick Lake Victoria. Other concerns include the steep price, damage to the tourism sector and disrespect to those who revere the water-dwelling spirits.
"We are not saying no to dams," Frank Muramuzi, executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, said at his office in the capital, Kampala. Rather, he argues that other areas along the Nile make more sense, as do alternatives to dams such as geothermal energy.
World Bank officials dismiss concerns about the project's impact on the lake. And the dam's developer, which is half-owned by the U.S. firm Sithe Global Power, says the benefits to Uganda will outweigh any negative impact on rafting operations and others with links to the falls.
"It's the same with any development, whether it's a road, a block of buildings, an industrial development: Somebody has to be giving up their land or sometimes their livelihood," said project manager John Lockwood. "What is in the greater national interest?"
As for other dam locations, Lockwood said that the critics' preferred site -- a place called Karuma -- needs to be built in addition to Bujagali. "It's not either/or," he said.
The Bujagali dam is part of a wave of hydroelectric projects planned across Africa, from Nigeria to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The World Bank has embraced water power as a cleaner way of tapping an abundant resource to promote economic growth.
The Bujagali dam is projected to yield 250 megawatts on completion in 2011, nearly doubling Uganda's power generation. Lockwood said that will help ease "desperate" shortages, notably in Kampala, where frequent outages make businesses reliant on diesel generators and hinder needed investment.
The dam will be the third erected on this stretch of the Nile. Just five miles upstream loom two connected dams that are part of what used to be called the Owens Falls complex. Today the dams have separate names, Nalubaale and Kiira.
The hulking concrete structure of Nalubaale dominates the view in parts of Jinja. Its construction in the 1950s submerged Ripon Falls at the source of the White Nile, which flows north to Sudan, where it joins the Blue Nile for the rest of the journey through Egypt and into the Mediterranean Sea. The smaller Kiira dam was added as an extension in the mid-1990s.
The World Bank has approved $360 million in loans and guarantees for the Bujagali project. Of the remaining cost, $169 million will be borne by the developer, a joint venture of Sithe and the industrial development arm of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development. The African and European development banks have also committed to help finance the dam.
The biggest debate about the dam involves its possible impact on Lake Victoria, the world's second-largest freshwater lake and a lifeline for millions of people who live near its shores in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.
"The problem is there is not enough water in the river and the lake," Muramuzi said. He noted that the existing dams are operating far below their combined capacity of 380 megawatts. For Bujagali to work as planned, he said, it would require more water than the lake can handle, and "the lake will decline further."
The developer, Bujagali Energy Ltd., denies this, saying the Bujagali dam will recycle water passing through the two upstream dams.
"We're just using the same water a second time around," said Lockwood, adding that the new dam will be more efficient than the existing ones.
But Daniel Kull, an independent hydrologist who has consulted for the International Rivers Network, a vocal dam critic, said it is not that simple. He said that because water intake will be set to ensure Bujagali's performance, there will be an unavoidable impact on Lake Victoria.
"I can't say it's a positive or negative impact, but it is an impact," he said. The lake is already "pretty sick" because of pollution, an infestation of water hyacinth plants and an invasive fish species known as Nile perch. Unknown is what impact global warming might have on lake levels.