Infighting threatens Karuma, Isimba dams completion

Saturday October 8 2016

Construction works at the Isimba hydropower project are ongoing. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI

Construction works at the Isimba hydropower project are ongoing. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI 

By DICTA ASIIMWE

Controversy threatens to derail the completion of Uganda’s Isimba and Karuma dams — two of the country’s most ambitious energy projects. The dams, estimated to cost $2.3 billion, are expected to double the country’s power output.

However, interagency squabbles for control, allegations of shoddy civil works, inadequate supervision of contractors, and corruption claims could jeopardise the projects.

The interagency fighting, which has also drawn in President Yoweri Museveni, pits the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development against the Uganda Electricity Generation Company Ltd. UEGCL was created as an independent company to oversee and manage power generation projects.

While Isimba and Karuma are to be handed over to UEGCL after completion, correspondence seen by this newspaper suggests a power struggle between the company and the ministry over who should have supervisory powers at this stage of the construction. The problem is compounded by evidence of shoddy works, unqualified personnel working on the projects and lack of clear reporting channels.

An advisory review and high level independent audit into the two dams found out that the personnel supervising Sinohydro and China International Water and Electric Corporation on behalf of the government, lacked the experience needed to handle complicated and high risk projects like Karuma and Isimba.

The fight has now spilled into parliament, where a motion has been tabled that asks Members of Parliament to push the government “to take immediate and decisive steps.”

The EastAfrican has seen documents, including internal reports, interagency correspondence and experts’ opinions that warn of dire consequences if corrective measures are not taken immediately.

In the September 27 motion, parliament asked the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development to hand over its administration powers for the Karuma and Isimba projects to UEGCL. However, it is unclear whether the Ministry of Energy will obey parliament’s directive, when senior ministry officials have already ignored several directives from President Museveni.

The EastAfrican has seen two strongly worded letters from the President to Minister Irene Muloni.

“I am aware that my directive in regard to the replacement of key project personnel on both projects has not been implemented; I demand that the ministry ask the owner’s engineer to withdraw his current project personnel,” writes President Museveni in a letter dated July 23 to the minister.

In a letter dated April 5 to Ms Muloni, the president directs the ministry to hand over full administration powers to UEGCL. But, this is yet to be done.

Full administration powers include UEGCL approving or rejecting payments for contractors, but the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development has refused to relinquish these powers that it got after signing loan agreements with China’s Exim Bank. The ministry obtained the loan from China Exim Bank on behalf of the government and hired the contractors for the Karuma and Isimba dams, but was supposed to relinquish the building and supervision of the projects to UEGCL.

Several calls to the ministry and Permanent Secretary Kabagambe Kaliisa remained unanswered, but one of their officials told The EastAfrican that authority to pay Karuma and Isimba had not been handed over to UEGCL because the permanent secretary is currently the accounting officer.

The Karuma and Isimba dams were to be ready by 2018, but with the current infighting and questionable construction that target is unlikely to be met.

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