In a territory rich in diamonds, gold, iron, rutile and bauxite, the ideation of Bumbuna dam was accompanied by a series of promises made by the politicians in power: jobs for everyone and free electricity, tourism and economic prosperity, monetary compensation. However, the expression ‘When Bumbuna is completed’ become for Sierra Leone’s people a way to say ‘never’[1, p.15]. The first Sierra Leone’s nation-wide hydropower inventory was financed by UNDP in 1970, which identified 22 potential sites. In 1982 the Italian Salini Costruttori (locally known as SalCost) began the construction works for a dam co-financed by the World Bank, the Government of Italy and the African Development Bank.
Between 1995 and 1997, however, a civil war erupted and the area around the dam was the centre of clashes between the various armed groups involved in the conflict: the dam became a strategic target. The construction company's directors, therefore, decided to hire mercenary troops to protect their staff, equipment and machinery . In 2002 works were resumed with completion forecast to end in 2007. After trials and the solving of a few technical problems, the 50MW turbines of the power station started up in November 2009. Since then, however, technical problems and polemics due to the frequent interruption of the station's supply have not failed to appear . Only one of the 30-year old plant`s two turbines was functioning, and roughly five percent of the population at the time had access to power, despite mining activities were running as usual. Nevertheless, the second phase of the project is planned for the increase in supply from 50MW to 350MW by 2017 ‘Bumbuna will be finished only at the end of the world’ ironically sang the well-known Sierra Leonean singer Emerson Bockarie . Mistrust, suspicion and presumption of corruption became the general feeling around the project. According to an enquiry undertaken by the World Bank, there was a widespread opinion among the inhabitants of the Tonkolili District that the works to complete the power station had been deliberately slowed down by the Italian constructors themselves - allegedly with the agreement of some corrupt members of the government- in order to have more time to secretly mine and smuggle out the gold and diamonds found during the construction of the dam . It is also interesting to note that the local population was convinced that the dam belonged to the same construction company. The latter had sought to build up over the years a relationship of ‘good neighbourliness’ with the inhabitants of the villages near the dam, making gifts of various kinds. In this way, a paternalistic relationship was set up in which the local communities “were begging the constructor instead of asking for their rights, of which they were not fully aware” . Two main communities were directly impacted by the project construction, protesting the “reckless” construction of the dam and “the lack of inclusion of the affected communities in the decision-making” . Another episode raised tensions and suspicion among the landowners along the route where the high tension pylons had been built. In 2009, about some 176 homes being demolished along this route. To motivate this operation, the authorities explained that there was a high health risk. But a local satirical newspaper questioned the scientific grounds for this explanation, describing it as an urban myth. The doubt was that the medical reason for demolishing the house might only be an excuse to ‘disturb, harry, and terrorise other people’ .
Update: In July 2020, riots broke out in Makeni over the decision of the government to relocate a standby generator, which is supplied by Bumbuna Dam. During a two-days violent protest, five people died in clashes with the police. A steady flow of electricity of Bumbuna can still not be guaranteed during the dry season. However, the Ministry of Energy and the Electricity Distribution and Supply Authority (EDSA) decided overnight to relocate the generator to the airport town Lungi .
Furthermore, Sierra Leone's Ministry of Energy has reached an agreement with Joule Africa and various Development Partners to finance and launch the construction of Bumbuna II . Bumbuna II consists of a second dam project located 32km upstream of Bumbuna in Yiben, which is supposed to add 143 to Bumbuna I. A Social and Environmental Impact study has not been conducted yet.
For more information on Bumbuna II please check: