13 March 2017

Uganda: Troubled Isimba Dam Will Miss 2018 Launch Deadline

It will be a miracle if the 183MW Isimba hydropower dam is commissioned by the target year of 2018 unless government keeps a blind eye to the ongoing sloppy works at the site.

The board of the Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited - the organization that has full administration powers over Isimba dam - inspected the dam on Friday and found violations of some basic clauses in the agreement the contractor, China International Water and Electric Corporation, signed with government.

The board, for example, found that the Chinese contractor did not have a technical engineer fully employed on site. They also found that the manufacturer's engineer was not on site to supervise the repairs of the cracks that appeared during the early days of construction of the plant.

The absence of some of these key technical staff further compromises the durability of the dam; lowers the ability of the dam to produce electricity at full capacity; and could ultimately see Ugandans pay money for a dam that falls below expectations.

"The contractor does not have some key staff on site. That is a key fundamental breach of the contractor," Gilbert John Kimanzi, one of the board members at UEGCL, said during the meeting with the Chinese and the different supervisors of the dam.

According to China International Water and Electric's plans, the company intends to embark on the diversion of the river by May. This, however, is not going to happen if the company is struggling with earlier problems such as the cracks on the dam.

For much of the visit, the officials of UEGCL struggled to cover their frustration over the visibly shoddy works, in some instances with the discussions turning into threats whenever officials of Energy Infratech PVT Ltd, the company supervising the construction of Isimba dam on behalf of UEGCL, tried to make excuses for the quality of the works.

"I have a problem with the way you are talking to us," Kimanzi told V. P. S. Chauhan, the project manager of Energy Infratech PVT Ltd, adding "do you know I am the one who pays your cheque?"

Chauhan, in reply, said: "I am sorry if I have hurt your feelings, that was not my intention," before later adding that some of the fears of the UEGCL officials were being blown out of proportion since some of the tests done showed that concrete works were strong enough to give the dam a clean bill of health.

The soft-spoken Proscovia Margaret Njuki, the board chairperson of UEGCL, also came out of her quiet shell and described some of the works as "alarming", adding that they plan to make further follow-ups and they "will not let go."

Later in the day, Kimanzi told off Chauhan: "If you want to work with us, then work with us. Otherwise, we don't know where you stand." It was the closest attempt that any of the officials of UEGCL came to hinting at a possible collusion between the contractor and the supervision - a relationship that is supposed to remain at arms-length.

To further compound the acrimony, the UEGCL officials are now struggling to come to terms with the fact that numerous letters written to China International Water and Electric Corp have been treated to a widely-noticed form of the way Chinese companies do business: they have been ignored!

Ignoring the letters is one thing, but the Chinese contractor's decision to make alterations to the agreed specifications on any of the construction works without informing the client, who is the government of Uganda, appears to have stretched the patience of UEGCL's officials to a point of no return.

Harrison Mutikanga, the chief executive officer of UEGCL, reminded officials of China International Water and Electric Corp that there were three things that cannot be changed in a contract - specifications, cost of project, and time extension. The Chinese firm has already bungled up the first point, and it will be surprising if they don't do the same with the other two.

SHODDY WORKS

The most troubling shoddy works at Isimba can be seen with the equipment that will form the gates of the dams, which will control the water flow. The gates are important because they allow how much water can be channeled into the turbines, where the electricity will be produced.

China International Water and Electric Corp is being accused of cutting corners on the purchase of the equipment, some of which are visibly corroding even before being installed.

For example, the rollers on the gates are carbon steel, and yet what appears to have been agreed in the bill of quantities was stainless steel. The same can be said of the cylinders, a critical component of the gates.

The government and the Chinese contractors agreed that just like the rollers, they would have stainless steel for the cylinders too. Instead, the cylinders are ceramic-coated, which, according to one engineer, is nearly six times cheaper than the stainless steel.

By not using stainless steel, it means that this equipment, some of which will be fully emerged in water, will be corroded and might need replacement at some time, requiring the taxpayers to come up with some money to have the problem fixed.

Officials at UEGCL questioned how the ceramic-coated cylinders made it to the site in the first place. Payment for these cylinders has been withheld, according to Chauhan.

If the contractor is asked to bring in stainless steel cylinders, it could take a year to get them into the country. Other sloppy works were noticed with the cut-off wall, a structure that is supposed to reduce any water seepages into the dam. Currently, workers at the site are breaking up the cut-off because it had been built higher than what the designs entailed.

TROUBLED DAM

For the $568 million that Ugandans are going to pay for the 183MW Isimba dam, the bill looks high and a complete rip-off. Alterations to the approved designs and a complete disregard of advice from the report of a panel of experts to fix the problems at the dam mean the Chinese contractor is bound to walk away with some free money.

With construction works at 76 per cent as at the end of February 2017, and at least $225.7 million already paid to China International Water and Electric Corp, it might be too late to correct any defects that might have been missed on the hydropower plant. Just how many defects are out there on the plant is anyone's wild guess.

Asked whether they were powerless to rein in the Chinese, Mutikanga, the UEGCL CEO, said: "We are powerful. That is why the board is going to sit and take action."

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