Cash shortage hinders road projects

Workers of Kampala Capital City Authority repair a damaged section of Yusuf Lule Road on April 20. PHOTO/FRANK BAGUMA

What you need to know:

  • Works ministry decries inadequate funding amid huge demands in roads sub-sector.

An April 2024 ministerial report has gone to great lengths to show how a deepening funding crisis is threatening to rip apart Uganda’s road infrastructure development dreams and progress.

In the financial year (FY) 2019/2020, the government formulated a five-year Rural Bridges Infrastructure Project that set out to construct 15 new bridges, 17.5km of swamp crossings, and 30 alternative bridge mechanisms. Arc bridges, footbridges, and metallic ladders, also constituted the plan that was estimated to cost Shs300b.

By April 2024, in the project’s final year, only Shs99.6b had been disbursed to the Works and Transport ministry, with only seven bridges, one swamp crossing of one kilometre, 18 cable bridges and footbridges, and two new metallic ladders in the Elgon areas have been constructed. 

The report has also detailed how the Works ministry is struggling to refurbish a significantly damaged network spread across the country as Mother Nature’s fury grows. 

Another five-year Community Roads Improvement Project designed in the FY 2020/21, targeting to rehabilitate up to 7,905km of community access roads at a tune of Shs391.6b has received less than 30 percent of the originally planned sum as it also enters the final bend. By April, only Shs127.3b had been released to rehabilitate 1,392km of community access roads, with 225km under construction. The project developed to rehabilitate community roads across the country was targeted to improve the standard of living of the rural community by improving their connectivity, accessibility to markets, and social and administrative services. 

Under the Rehabilitation of District Roads project, only Shs190.4b out of the Shs991.4b estimated cost had been disbursed by February. The five-year project, which started in July 2021, targeted rehabilitating 5,000km of district roads, sealing 420km of low-volume roads, and sealing another 175km of medium-volume roads in selected urban centres across the country. 

Through the project, the ministry introduced low-cost sealing technology, which involves the tarmacking of roads that carry less than 300 vehicles per day using locally available materials and non-conventional bituminous surfaces. It also introduced a technology called Probase, which is appropriate and applicable for the tarmacking of medium-volume traffic roads, for example, roads that carry up to about 3,000 vehicles per day. The technology had initially been sampled in the Busoga sub-region on the Kayunga-Nabuganyi road and also in Nansana on the road from Kakiri to Masulita to Mawale. 

External projects affected
In the same period, the ministry also introduced the five-year Rehabilitation and Upgrading of Urban Roads project, developed to reduce mud and dust in urban areas. The project was re-scoped in the FY 2022-2023 to include the presidential directive of tarmacking 90km of urban roads in Bukedi and Busoga sub-regions. 

This, according to the ministry, required an additional Shs465b.
“The preliminary engineering designs of the 90km were completed, but the ministry has not yet received any funds to start construction work. The beneficiary urban councils are eager to have the work started due to the likely political ramifications during the 2026 elections,” the report reads in part. 

While it targeted to tarmac 34km of roads in 10 municipal councils and another 60km of roads in 25 town councils at Shs715.5b, only Shs74.2b had been released as of February 2024. The reduction in the availability of domestic funds for road projects also affected the implementation of externally funded projects. This is because domestic funding is required for counterpart funding and land acquisition. 

Early this month, the ministry handed over the first road equipment units for the new districts. Each got a wheel loader and a grader. The ministry, however, still needs an additional Shs27b this coming FY to procure additional equipment for a full unit for the new districts.

The ministry operates four Regional Mechanical Workshops (RMWs) located in Kampala, Gulu, Bugembe, and Mbarara, whose main function is to extend maintenance support to district and zonal road equipment because they require heavy-duty equipment like excavators and bulldozers.

 The count of district road equipment has incrementally expanded, beginning with road units obtained by some districts under various projects and grants in the 1990s and early 2000s, to 1,405 assorted road equipment from China in 2012, and finally, 1,151 road equipment from Japan obtained in 2017. 
The government now needs an additional Shs100b to retool and refurbish the RMWs through debt financing and project support from development partners. 

The routine maintenance budget for road construction equipment was reduced from Shs22b in FY 2019/2020 to Shs11.6b in FY 2020/2021 due to pandemic disruptions and the rationalisation of the ministry’s budget in FY 2020/2021 to cater to special requirements under Operation Wealth Creation. 

Anthony Akol, a member of the parliamentary committees on Budget and Finance committees

Running on fumes
Other than the grant from the government of Japan through JICA that facilitated the construction of the Bugembe RMW in 1997, no development funds have been made available since then for the development and retooling of the RMWs. The routine maintenance budget was never restored, yet the road equipment maintenance regime transitioned from preventive maintenance, which is the normal service, into corrective maintenance, which requires an additional Shs23b, the report states.

“The current shortfall in road equipment maintenance funding, therefore, is Shs33b. The resultant effect of these budget cuts was the reduction in road equipment availability from 95 percent in 2017 to its current level of 30 percent,” it adds. 

Last month, Works minister Katumba Wamala told Parliament that plans are underway to revamp the RMWs. He said $70m will be needed to purchase the requisite road equipment units. This, he added, is vital since a large portion of the 59 percent paved network that was found to be in good condition in June 2023 has since deteriorated to fair condition. The minister didn’t say what has become of the 35 percent of paved network that was said to be in fair condition back in 2023. He, however, explained that the available Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) is insufficient for the completion of the ongoing commitments under the development of national roads. 

The minister  said: “My ministry is currently implementing 26 national road development projects, covering 1,249km, and 11 road rehabilitation projects, spanning 952km. In addition, construction of 27 bridges and 10 ferry improvement projects across the national road network in different regions of the country is also ongoing.” 

Gen Wamala explained that the implementation of the NDP III Roads Programme has encountered numerous hurdles, including the reduced allocation of funds to the development of roads, which has led to the limited commencement of new projects during the period. 
The inadequate releases have also led to the Government of Uganda incurring debts, with the Uganda National Road Authority (Unra) faced with the prospect of having to clear Shs1.044 trillion. 
“That debt attracts Shs350m of interest every day,” Minister Wamala told Parliament.

Saturday Monitor has also established that the ministry’s Support Services to District Urban and Community Access Roads (DUCAR) project, under which the regional mechanical workshops are run, is currently riddled with several challenges. These range from a dwindling budget, a dearth of adequate equipment, and inadequate funding for road maintenance activities. 
The Works ministry will require an additional Shs406b per year, up from the current allocation of Shs167b, per year, to effectively rehabilitate the DUCAR road networks. As Mr Amos Lugoloobi, the junior Finance minister admitted, the DUCAR roads have been grossly affected by extreme weather events and the red tape that ensues before the green light for construction is given. 
“Despite the challenges faced in the implementation of the planned NDP III projects, the government is committed to completing the ongoing projects and investing in new projects in NDP IV—just a few of them,” Gen Wamala said. 

The government also takes great pride in the fact that, by June 2023, 753km of national roads had been upgraded to paved standards. This brought the total paved stock to 6,133km countrywide. Elsewhere, 26 bridges were constructed by Unra, including the Bisina Ferry, which plies between Kumi and Katakwi on Lake Bisina (2020/2021), and MV BBB (Bubembe-Bunyama-Buggala) on Lake Victoria (2021/2022). 

“There are several challenges,” Minister Wamala conceded, adding, “We have to make amendments to the Public Finance Management Act, Public Finance Management Regulations, and Treasury Instructions to align them to programme-based budgeting. Otherwise, we are operating amiss.” 
Mr Anthony Akol, a member of the House Budget and  Finance committees believes that the Works ministry’s demands for increased funding are genuine.

“We realised that what they had planned and what we funded as a Budget Committee for the last financial year were not released,” he told Saturday Monitor, adding, “Many of the projects were signed; others were started, but were not completed; and, to make matters worse, there are others whose contracts were signed but not started.” 
Mr Akol blamed the sloppy performance of the road sub-sector on the Finance ministry’s planning. 

“Most times the Ministry of Finance gives us the budget and the source of finances, which they think is feasible, but they don’t get the money, and they end up spending less. Last financial year, we had about Shs58 trillion, but we spent only Shs43 trillion,” he disclosed, adding, “This year, they have tabled a Shs72 trillion budget, and we are worried that they may fail to even raise Shs50 trillion.”