Uganda’s energy officials trade blame over Karuma and Isimba dams

Saturday April 09 2016

Uganda’s Energy and Mineral Development Minister Irene Muloni has held crisis meetings after receiving a letter from President Yoweri Museveni in which he raised the red flag over shoddy work at the country’s flagship hydropower projects — the 600MW Karuma dam and the 183MW Isimba dam.

The letter dated March 22 came after what sources described as a tell-it-all meeting at State House Entebbe with officials from Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL) — the agency that is implementing the dam projects and own them on behalf of government — during which its CEO Harrison Mutikanga and board chairman Stephen Isabalija complained of the substandard work. 

“I have heard disturbing reports that the work being done on the dams of Karuma and Isimba is shoddy because the engineers are either not serious or they have some other issues,” President Museveni’s letter reads.

The contractors for Karuma and Isimba dams are Chinese firms Synohydro and China Water and Electric (CWE) respectively.

In December 2015, UEGCL hired two consultants, AF Consults and SMEC, to supervise the projects and report to the agency, while Indian firm Energy Infratech, reports to the ministry. All three are doing the same job, with average pay for a consultant for one month hitting $24,000.

In the letter, also copied to Vice President Edward Ssekandi, President Museveni adds: “They don’t detect faults and don’t insist on correcting those pointed out...There is something called a draft tube where the turbines are supposed to sit. These draft tubes should be assembled outside the hollow structures that are supposed to be their ultimate home and put in the hollows when they are able to align with the other parts. Instead, I am told, they are being welded in the hollow. I am told that is very risky.”


Officials from the ministry came under fire from Members of Parliament on April 4-5, over the shoddy work. The MPs have now asked one of the country’s highest funded sectors to await approval of its 2016/17 budget estimates till questions on Karuma and Isimba are answered.

UEGCL has not only accused Energy Infratech of looking on as the Chinese firm does a shoddy job, but also raised technical competence issues.

But on April 7, Velusamy Vasu, Energy Infratech's chief executive officer accused the Energy Ministry, of deliberately ignoring the red flags it has raised since 2013.

The EastAfrican has seen at least 845 emails and letters from Infratech, in which the firm raises issues including workers’ occupational and health considerations, violation of National Environment Management Authority guidelines at the two sites and deviation from the designs.

A May 9, 2014 letter to Energy Ministry Permanent Secretary Fred Kabagambe Kaliisa, titled: “Karuma Hydropower project (phase II) contract agreement regarding violation by the EPC contractor,” states: “Sinohydro is constantly violating our instructions and we are concerned that this is not a desirable situation. The supports provided by the designers in the drawings take into consideration certain safety factors in addition to various technical inputs.”

How then did the Chinese go on with the work despite these early warnings from the consultant?

Neither Kabagambe Kaliisa nor Director of Energy Resources Paul Mubiru, whose name features prominently in the correspondence, were available for comment, while Henry Bidasala, the Karuma project manager at the ministry, said he would not discuss government business with the Press, but added that the situation will not get out of hand.

The animosity in the letters speaks not only of a power struggle over control of the projects and the attendant financial rewards therein, but also a clash of egos that could cost the country its treasured energy projects.

Ms Muloni went on a fact finding mission at the sites between April 6 and 8 to prepare her report to the president.