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Uganda: Cracks in Uganda’s Owen Falls Bridge Threaten Severe Trade Disruptions Print E-mail
Monday, 14 April 2008
Following the news that cracks at the Owen Falls Bridge may disrupt one of Uganda’s key transport routes, Rajesh Advani analyses the government’s recent track record in building and maintaining infrastructure on the river Nile. Press reports last week suggested that cracks within the Owen Falls Bridge at Jinja may soon render the structure unusable, and if these reports are to be believed, the Government of Uganda cites insufficient funds as the reason for not immediately undertaking substantial repairs to extend the bridge’s usable life; strange when considering that amongst Uganda’s arsenal of infrastructure, few items rank in importance to Owen Falls Bridge and the Nalubaale dam beneath it.

Commissioned in 1954 by the British colonial government, Nalubaale dam was built to produce 150MW of electricity. Such was its capacity at the time that the colonial government locked Uganda into a contract to supply electricity to Kenya for decades to come. But by the 21st century, as the economy grew and the population exploded, Uganda’s electricity demands outstripped the dam’s supply capability, now at 180MW after rehabilitation in the 1980s, and the country was forced to turn its back on the power export agreement with Kenya. This move alone was not enough to meet the surging demand for electricity, so it was decided to artificially meander the natural flow of the River Nile and construct a new more efficient dam, Kiira, alongside Nalubaale. No doubt, cost efficiencies would accrue as a result of having two dams side by side without having to replicate the distribution infrastructure that goes with situating a new dam at, for example, Karuma Falls in Northern Uganda.

However, much to the chagrin of the engineers who conceived its design, when Kiira’s turbines started in 2003, electricity production did not double! The fall in water levels as a direct result of creating an artificial meander meant that only one dam could function at any given time, and because Kiira is newer and more efficient, Nalubaale is barely being used today. At the height of the crisis, a top politician told me that it was never intended for both dams to function simultaneously, and that because Nalubaale was old and inefficient, it needed to be replaced! Certainly replacement would make sense in a country with surplus electricity, natural resource constraints on power generation, and abundant funds to finance such a venture, but Uganda must surely rank amongst the worst in the world when it comes to producing adequate amounts of power. Why then was a dam that functioned perfectly well made derelict when it was still essential to the economy? Why was Kiira not positioned downstream so that the country continued to enjoy 200MW in addition to the 180MW being generated at Nalubaale? Is it possible that tampering with the natural structure of the surrounding area put more pressure on an otherwise solid Owen Falls Bridge, and is this a sign of things to come?


 
 
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