A hydroelectric power plant brings together the population of Bwisha and Virunga national park

Dec 28, 2014

Hydroelectric power plant, Copyright UNDP-DRC

North Kivu, Matebe Rudahira. Five kilometres from Bwisha, on the Bunagana road in the direction of the Uganda border in North Kivu, an immense 6 hectare work site is becoming embedded in the countryside of Virunga national park: vast meshes of iron trellises, supporting stakes and wood palisades, portacabins in which men and women, wearing caps coloured yellow or blue, white and red, verify that the flow of cement is spilling out smoothly. The bird’s eye view is striking. We are 12 metres under the level of the river. It’s here that that the future hydroelectric power station will be operational in 2015 on the river Rusthuru, which gives its name to the area.

This power station is one of the concrete outcomes of the local development plan for the Bwisha chiefdom-community, in the area of Rutshuru in North Kivu, which constitutes a unifying project aiming for the improvement of the population’s socio-economic conditions and respect for the environment. “The work which is in the process of construction here is part of the fourth pillar of our local development plan 2011-201?”, indicates Théophile Mpabuka, an expert in planning and development for the Bwisha community chiefdom. “It focuses on protection of the environment and the battle against climate change. This plan was drawn up in a consultative manner and consists of three other pillars: governance, economic growth and access to basic social services. It was finalised and adopted with the support of the UNDP under the remit of its Programme of support to decentralization and local development (PADDL)”, Théophile Mpabuka again clarifies. “The power station will have an installed power of 12.6 megawatts. The energy produced will supply the populations of Bwisha and agricultural produce processing units”, he hopes. The administrative census counts the population of Rutshuru at 800,000 people.

Mobilisation of more than 20 million dollars

“The UNDP supported the chiefdom in the organisation of two round tables with donors”, explains Mwami Dieudonné Ndeze who wears two hats: that of customary chief and that of head of the Bwisha community.

“We made multiple appeals to gather the means necessary to carry out the projects contained in our development plan. We also heard and recorded the complaints of the l’Institut Congolais pour la protection de la nature (the Congolese Institute for the protection of nature – ICCN) regarding the population pressure on Virunga park, notably the cutting of firewood and the construction of cooking fires. But this pressure is not going to decrease without an alternative project which would enable the supply of energy to the population. The ICCN henceforth joined the hydroelectric power station construction project by contacting other partners to finance this work. We mobilised more than 20 million dollars to finance the dam”, Dieudonné Ndeze reveals.

The project presents multiple advantages to the chiefdom, Théophile Mpabuka claims. “Once the power station is finished, the population will be able to employ electric energy for domestic use instead of going back to firewood and cooking fires. And not least, the power station offers another advantage, that of lowering the workload of women who have to cover sometimes long distances to gather wood. It’s often during their trips in the forest that rape cases happen. This project will therefore also be able to contribute to the prevention of sexual violence in our chiefdom. We count also on the presence of the power station’s energy to attract investors to the chiefdom, notably in the domain of processing of agricultural produce”, continues Théophile Mpabuka.

Areas which have become savannah

One can better understand the negative impact of man on the environment when one travels by vehicle from Goma to Rutshuru. On leaving Goma, a new administrative entity has been constructed: the area of Nyiragongo. Alas, vegetation has disappeared to be replaced by dwellings and fields. Successive wars experienced by the region with the establishment of refugee camps and massive population displacement have left scars on the environment. The demand for energy has grown strongly with the repeated increase of populations arriving in successive waves during each armed conflict.  Unfortunately, the energy source which is most accessible to everyone is wood. It’s because of this that in Virunga park clearings are visible in the forest indicating the dark cuts carried out at the hands of man. “In the centre of Rutshuru, the same phenomenon has been observed because all of the wars of North Kivu have damaged this area”, remarks a student from the higher education teaching institute in the city.

According to Théophile Mpabuka, it is necessary to make the population aware of the merits of the protection of nature and the battle against climate change. “Some villages in the territory find themselves today as if in the savannah. Trees have disappeared. The builders of kiln ovens have now resorted to the stumps and roots of trees to burn limestone. We are making people aware of the advantages of reforestation to improve the quality of our lives”, he says. The population ended up supporting the project and mobilised so that it is successful, to such a point that they graciously gave up six hectares of land for the project on which the power station is being constructed. When one knows the bond that ties men to the land here, it was an act of community commitment. At the end of the war (against the ‘negative forces’ of the M23) and following the vulnerability of the population, the managers of the project judged it useful to give the means of subsistence to the population, who in return provide manual labour.

Rotating manual labour and social cohesion

The execution of the project was confided to the Africa Conservation Fund (ACF)-UK and the ICCN which signed a contract with the chiefdom on the use of local manual labour. It’s at this level that the involvement of the population can be seen, insists Théophile Mpabuka. “All of the communities in the chiefdom provide labour in turn. This rotation system promotes social cohesion between the citizens in the chiefdom who work for the common good. In return, manual labour is paid”, an expert in planning explains.

At the work site, hundreds of workers are at the foot of the construction work. The noise of mechanical engines mixes with the shouts of men and women. In the garage, a woman is working on an excavator. Another, specialised in welding, gives instructions to her team workers. At the point of the capture of the water, another woman runs operations to place blocks of concrete to support the base of the scaffolding. They are part of the spirit which drives the work site. Others are perched on scaffolding for the construction of the walls. The machines of the work site are branded with the logo of the ICCN. Safari Kambale, a civil engineer, runs the work site. This is his second construction after a project in the area of Lubero, in North Kivu. He is often glued to his walkie talkie to give instructions. “We have to meet the deadlines and deliver the project in 2015”, he insists, “on site, the project employs close to 200 people and around 30 permanent qualified agents among whom there are six women. The rest is formed from local labour provided by the chiefdom”.

The experience of the chiefdom in the proposal and implementation of its local development plan draws admiration from other decentralised entities in the province. “We are putting the knowledge learned thanks to the UNDP to the service of other entities who call upon us and we are proud to share it”, affirms Mwami, Dieudonné Ndeze, customary chief and head of the Bwisha community. 

Marc Ngwanza

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