On Monday night, a team of Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL) operations and maintenance (O&M) engineers successfully synchronised the third unit (Unit 1) at Isimba hydropower plant onto the national grid.
The synchronisation, they said, meant that the Isimba dam was fully restored to normal generation following an emergency shutdown.
Last Sunday, the same team restored Unit 4 of the plant to boost its dispatch from 45.7MW to 76MW. The 45.7MW dispatch was released last Friday after the engineers repaired Unit 2 of the plant.
A tweet that UEGCL posted on Tuesday revealing that Unit 3 of the plant was still on scheduled outage (i.e. down and pending restoration) passed without notice. UEGCL’s acknowledgement of the outage of Unit 3 of the dam lends credence to what internal sources told this newspaper. The sources said Unit 3 has never functioned since the first flood incident struck the plant in 2019. This was before the contractor handed over the plant to the government.
On August 8, Isimba was taken off the grid following what was described as “massive flooding” in the dam’s powerhouse. This forced the dam’s O&M crew to temporarily shut down the plant. One of the O&M engineers, who was undertaking routine maintenance, is reported to have opened the wrong gates. This reportedly led to a gush of water submerging vital machines.
The powerhouse that houses generators and turbines and other electro-mechanical and hydro-mechanical equipment for electricity generation laid in the riverbed—including all the four turbine units of the plant—was severely affected.
UEGCL’s claims of an inexperienced (some accounts say ‘absent-minded’) engineer causing the latest shutdown, prompted an analysis of the quality and professionalism exhibited by government engineers during the dam’s construction in the past and operations today. The findings were startling.
UEGCL, on Monday, declined to disclose records of its (supervising) engineers during the Isimba dam’s construction period. This included details of their registration and certification details with the Engineers Registration Board (ERB). It also declined to disclose the same for its engineers who currently constitute the O&M crew.
Investigations conducted, however, show that the majority of its supervising engineers during construction of the dam were neither registered nor certified by ERB. The O&M crew currently manning the plant also don’t have the necessary ERB registration and certification.
After examining UEGCL’s annual reports, annual magazines and other system files during Isimba dam’s construction, it was discovered that only two of the 23 engineers—whose records could be traced—had been registered and certified by the ERB. The 23 included positions held by O&M engineers, control and instrumentation engineers, maintenance engineers, mechanical maintenance engineers, senior civil engineers, shift charge engineers, civil engineers, and mechanical engineers, among others.
The two engineers registered and certified by the ERB include the current project manager of Isimba, Mr Chad Silas Akita (Civil) and Mr Fredrick Wasike. Mr Akita moved from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in 2018—where he served as project manager—to UEGCL at Karuma.
Mr Akita’s deputy, Mr Nicholas Agaba Rugaba (Civil) only registered at the time he was transferred to Nyagak III Hydropower Project in Zombo District as the substantive project manager. Records from the ERB database indicate that Mr Agaba only registered with the board and got certified in August 2019. This was four months after the commissioning of the Isimba dam and his subsequent redeployment by UEGCL to Nyagak III dam.
Of the current management at the facility, we discovered that Mr Michael Esimu Elimu—the Isimba dam generation manager—is unregistered and uncertified. The ERB database also indicates that Mr Philip Lutaya—the current Isimba dam maintenance manager—who has been serving at the facility for several years, is not registered with the board.
The repeated occurrence of dam break incidents—much like the latest at Isimba—is an indication that dam safety values in Uganda have not yet been highly appreciated. This is attributed to gaps like lack of national legislation on dam safety and the dearth of a national dam safety office under the Ministry of Water and Environment to regulate dam safety practices in Uganda.
Other outstanding issues include a lack of state membership with the International Committee on Large Dams (ICOLD). Africa has 24 ICOLD member states, including South Africa, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Kenya—the only East African member state.
Isimba dam was designed to comfortably release a maximum design flood of 4,500m3/s (4.5 million litres per second). When the Isimba reservoir is filled up for operation, it will have a capacity of 170Mm3 (170 billion litres). This means in the worst-case scenario—if the whole dam were breached—when water with a height of 15 metres (about the height of a five-storeyed building) is released at the same time, it would violently sweep off most of the downstream communities. This would lead to loss of lives, property and business of the owner (UEGCL) would come to a standstill, a loss worth millions of dollars to the government.
Such a doomsday scenario wouldn’t be a first. A case of Wolf Creek Dam in the US with an embankment dam 1.2km long (same as the right embankment dam of Isimba) recommended an alternative priced about two times the original cost after observing severe hydraulic distress after impoundment.
Concerns around structural and mechanical glitches have continued to prevail over the Isimba plant starting before the contractor—China International Water and Electric Corporation (CWE)—finished the construction works. The dam’s defect liability period has since expired.
Isimba dam is run under the public-sector operation and maintenance strategy, the most common model for power sector ownership and management in developing countries where O&M functions are embodied within government-owned utilities.
Whereas UEGCL, under this strategy, retains full control over its investments and operating budget, the strategy is prone to government interference. A source at the Energy ministry’s directorate of energy resources told media that it often starves a public owner of finance for efficient O&M.
“Inexperienced and poor O&M team is potentially endangering employees and public safety around Isimba,” our source said, adding, “It has not only threatened the integrity of the facility, but is now hampering financial sustainability of the utility by compromising revenues and profits.”
The government awarded a Chinese firm the contract for the $567.7m (about Shs2.1 trillion) Isimba project. The project started in April 2015 and was commissioned in March 2019.
It was expected to generate an annual 1,039GWh (gigawatt hours) of electricity a year once it reached a substantial completion mark on March 31, 2019. A March 31, 2019 takeover certificate was issued to the EPC contractor on April 12, 2019, alongside a list of 775 documented snags and an outstanding scope of work. The government and contractor agreed that the fixing of the defects should be completed by September 30, 2019.
A review of the UEGCL’s June 2021 Status Report revealed that the Isimba dam Defects Liability Period (DLP) has continuously been extended due to the various snags and defects that were detected after the dam was commissioned in March 2019. The DLP was extended for one year from April 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022.
Powerhouse concrete cracks and roof drainage, embankment dams, floating boom installation, leakages in powerhouse roof, power firefighting system automation, tail water systems, and cabling in powerhouse and switchyard were among the major flaws.
Others included the absence of platforms to access spiral casing, Unit 3 oil leakage, standby generators, elevators and lifts to lower redial gates with defective hydraulic hoists, causing leakages of oil into the river.
Boom lines, for example, are designed to deflect or retain the floating waterweed and vegetation to prevent debris from blocking power plant intakes to achieve or maintain generation efficiency and to improve dam safety by preventing the plugging of spillways or spill gates.
Without robust boom lines, the dam will be affected by water hyacinth and floating islands, including damage to the hydraulic structures of the hydropower plant that get exposed. This results in revenue loss due to the occasioned blackouts. Last September, the government ordered CWE to rectify up to 584 defects detected at the plant before handing it over.
Onset of trouble
In September 2017, the contract for Energy Infratech PVT Limited (EIPL) expired. This was Isimba Dam’s owner’s engineer. The government decided not to renew EIPL’s contract based on that contractual premise. However, the process of procuring a new owner’s engineer was not to be a fortnightly activity by UEGCL, hence work on site could not be stopped.
The Isimba UEGCL team was thrown right into the deep end as the project supervisor for the interim until a new owner’s engineer was procured. According to internal sources, this lasted more than half a year.
UEGCL applauded itself for, reasoning that “this remains by far the true measure of the team’s competence and determination.” The period called for long working hours and persistent project supervision of the different key project installations. Insiders intimated to Mania Media that it was during this period that many defects, later discovered in the dam, developed.
Last Friday, Gen Katumba Wamala, the Works and Transport minister, tasked the country’s board of engineers and the ERB to join in the investigations. Gen Katumba was officiating at the inauguration of the 19th ERB board in Kampala when he expressed displeasure at how Isimba dam broke down in its infancy.
The Works and Transport minister’s call on the ERB to put the facility under the spotlight has triggered questions on the quality of work done and professionalism exercised by government (UEGCL) engineers during the construction and now operations of the plant.
In an interview, Mr Isaac Mutenyo, the ERB board chairperson, said that a working committee has been formed to commence investigations into the Isimba dam saga.
“Arising from the comments [of Gen Wamala], we wanted to go to the site ourselves [and conduct verifications] … we have been given a tentative day of Friday next week,” Mr Mutenyo confirmed.
From Mr Mutenyo’s explanation, the ERB that is mandated to oversee the engineers’ fraternity in the country, appears to have never attempted to inquire about professionalism exhibited in the construction and operation of the facility.
Asked whether he was aware that many engineers who participated in the construction of the facility, including those currently operating it, are neither registered nor certified, he said the board was not aware.
“I am not sure about the registration and certification status of engineers right now serving at Isimba dam. Mandatorily, all of those engineers must be registered and once we conduct our findings, we will then furnish you with all the details,” Mr Mutenyo said.
Engineers talked to said certification and registration ratifies someone into being part of the bigger peer and holds them accountable in their daily tasks.
“If I do something wrong as a registered engineer, I am very liable and accountable for my deeds,” Mr Allan Lwabi, a practicing engineer, argues, adding, “But if I am not registered, you can call me a quack because I masqueraded to do things I was not meant to do.”
Mr Lwabi, however, believes the strenuous process of seeking certification is what has discouraged many qualified engineers from being certified.
He proffers: “Whereas registering with the ERB demonstrates one’s commitment to professional standards, and to developing and enhancing their competence, the registration process itself is tiresome that is why most people don’t want to do it, but that does not mean I don’t know what I am doing.”
Besides having non-registered engineers, this newspaper also established that both the Energy ministry (UEGCL) and the ERB do not have the (legal) prerogative to certify or validate foreign engineers who come into the country to work on such significant investments.
“It is a loophole in the law, I will want to imagine, because there are no provisions for this. This has ideally encouraged many foreign engineers to come in here and pose with their experience void of professional certification,” a source at the Energy ministry’s Directorate for Energy Resources, who declined to be named said.
According to the UEGCL Human Resources Policy and Procedures Manual 2019, attention is limited to only work permits.
“All foreign applicants will be required to provide documentary evidence of their entitlement to work in Uganda before an offer of employment can be considered,” the policy says in part.
But Mr Richard Sebamala (Bukoto South MP)—a member of the parliamentary Committee on Energy and Natural Resources—says the question of quality of expertise exhibited by engineers operating the dam will be thoroughly dug into during their investigations of the facility that kicks off next week.
“As a committee, we are aware that Isimba dam had issues in its construction. That is why three months upon commission, there was a serious disaster similar to this one but was covered up,” Mr Sebamala, a trained engineer, said, adding, “Now such occurrences bring to light the questions on the quality and experience of our engineers running the plant.”
He further revealed thus: “We will put the ERB to task during this exercise and we want them to explain to us all this because they are the professional body tasked with that responsibility.”
Two Wednesdays ago, Parliament questioned the Energy ministry over the fate of the dam. It also tasked the ministry to justify why the government wants to import electricity from Kenya. A day later, Parliament ordered investigations into the dam’s closure upon listening to Energy minister Ruth Nankabirwa’s submission. Many lawmakers described the arguments Ms Nankabirwa put up as unconvincing.
Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayebwa ordered the Committee on Natural Resources to investigate the shutdown and report back to the House in three weeks.
Last week, our attempts to dig into what occasioned Isimba’s abrupt shutdown pointed to recurrent human errors and system inadequacies. Sources who spoke to this newspaper said while the O&M engineers running the dam are a fresh and young lot, they operate in isolation with limited backing of experienced engineers.
Whereas UEGCL had ample time to prepare a team to run the power plant and take them for training abroad, the system’s protocols are being flouted while the “young” engineers seem to be working in isolation, the sources added.
We has established that this is the second disaster hitting the plant due to human error in less than three years. According to one of our sources, at the time of its commissioning, the Isimba plant had more than 384 defects—both structural and mechanical snags.
The source adds that the set of engineers currently manning the plant is yet to brush up knowledge on critical maintenance strategies such as reactive maintenance (run to failure), preventive maintenance (based on machine run schedule), and condition-based maintenance (measurable optimal performance parameters).
Mr Benon Mutambi, the former chief executive officer of the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), says UEGCL still has a long way to go to address questions surrounding the experience and quality of expertise it is engaging in the operations of the dam.
“On unregistered engineers, it is incumbent upon the ERB to ensure the engineers are registered and certified. And also, it is incumbent upon UEGCL to ensure registered and qualified (experienced) engineers are the ones doing certain works at the plant,” Mr Mutambi said.
He adds: “An inexperienced engineer would not be permitted to do some work without supervision by senior engineers because it is disastrous.”
According to him, to avoid future disasters arising from human error, UEGCL (Energy ministry) must strive to ensure there are stringent measures put in place and adhered to in operating the plant.
“UEGCL could anyway be having experienced engineers, but … it all goes back to the operating protocols put in place—the dos and don’ts in certain areas,” he said, adding, “That is an engineering field and it must have strong protocols, otherwise engineers would just walk into the facility and begin tampering with stuff even when they are drunk or fatigued.”
He further said thus: “Human errors can arise not necessarily because the person is inexperienced, but probably because the protocols in place may not be that stringent enough to minimise such disasters from occurring.”
In a telephone interview, Mr Enock Kusasira, the UEGCL communications and corporate affairs manager, admitted that the dam was being run by a mix of registered and non-registered engineers. He, however, could not divulge further details of the status of the engineers.
When asked whether UEGCL had taken deliberate administrative action into the incident since it resulted from human error, Mr Kusasira said several measures were taken. He then referred this newspaper to a ministerial statement over the matter.
Elsewhere, while sources confirmed that Isimba Dam is insured, Ms Cecilia Nakiranda Menya, the director of energy resources at the Energy ministry declined to comment on whether UEGCL have made efforts to file an insurance claim following the August 8 incident, since she did not have permission to speak over the matter.
Ms Patricia Litho, the Energy ministry spokesperson, told media that she was yet to consult with the technical officials at UEGCL about matters pertaining to insurance.
The government awarded a Chinese firm the contract for the $567.7m (about Shs2.1 trillion) Isimba project. The project started in April 2015 and was commissioned in March 2019.
It was expected to generate an annual 1,039GWh (gigawatt hours) of electricity a year once it reached a substantial completion mark on March 31, 2019.
The Engineers Registration Board (ERB) was established by the Engineers Registration Act, Cap 271 in 1969. The Act defines the powers and functions of the board and also provides for the registration of engineers and matters incidental thereto. It was amended by a decree in 1977.
The functions of the board are to regulate and control engineers and their activities within Uganda and to advise the government about those functions.
The Engineers Registration Act, Cap 271, Part 5, provides that only those registered with ERB can legally use the prefix “Eng” or adopt and use the title “Registered Engineer” before their names in offering services to the public as a professionally qualified engineer.
“Any person who, not being a registered engineer— falsely pretends to be such; uses the style or title “Registered Engineer” or any other description implying the same, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine,” the law says in part.
The law also dictates that any person who is registered under this Act shall, if he or she intends to practice in his or her professional capacity, be issued (by the board) upon registration, a practising licence.
The ethics of service delivery in the engineering society’s economy demands not just more engineering graduates but that more registered engineering professionals be able to take responsibility and make decisions independently while ensuring the highest level of quality and safety.
The Engineers Registration Act, 1969 (Act CAP 271), which brings in place the Uganda Institution of Professional Engineers (UIPE), provides for the registration and reservation of work of an engineering nature for the exclusive performance by registered persons. UIPE, an institution of engineers responsible for mentoring recently graduated engineers, also registers students, graduates, technicians, and technologists.