Govt suspends Laropi ferry services amid breakdowns

Passengers board Laropi ferry at Laropi docking site in Moyo District to Adjumani District on January 10. The Uganda National Roads Authority has suspended operations of the vessel due the persistent breakdown of the vessel and and the rising water levels on River Nile.  PHOTO/ TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY 

What you need to know:

  • The distance mathematically implies that one has to drive 55km from Obongi Town to Laropi ferry crossing spot in Laropi Town where the ferry is stationed to cross and continue the 24km drive to Adjumani Town.

It presently takes a traveller an average of two hours to manoeuvre through the 79km drive from Obongi to Adjumani Town on a normal day.

The distance mathematically implies that one has to drive 55km from Obongi Town to Laropi ferry crossing spot in Laropi Town where the ferry is stationed to cross and continue the 24km drive to Adjumani Town.

However, on Thursday, the Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra) issued a statement suspending the operations of Laropi ferry from January 29, to February 5, further constraining transport between Adjumani and Moyo districts.

While the ferry is under maintenance, travellers are advised to use the Karuma-Arua-Pakwach-Koboko-Moyo road as an alternative route

Originally, the 35km distance between Adjumani and Obongi towns would be covered in only 35 minutes before the Sinyanya (Obongi) ferry crossing was also suspended by Unra.

The current distance translates into Shs15,000 and Shs40,000 as charges in a public passenger vehicle, and bodaboda, respectively, unlike the Shs10,000 and Shs15,000 previously charged on the same before the suspension of ferry operations at Sinyanya ferry crossing nearly two years ago.

In a July 9, 2020, letter to Obongi leaders, Ms Allen Kagina, the Unra executive director stopped the operations of Obongi - Sinyanya ferry due to increasing water levels, which she said posed a threat to free navigation from Obongi to Sinyanya Landing Site in Adjumani.

After nine months of the ferry inactivity, Obongi leaders wrote to Unra inviting them to send a team of experts to come and study two alternative sites for relocating the grounded ferry, that is Angaliacini-Liri or Aliba-Offu.

Unra said whereas the Aliba-Offu site was by far the best due to its short distance that enables the ferry to make at least 11 trips a day, improving it was very expensive and that they resolved to take a cheaper alternative of relocating the ferry to Angaliacini based on cost-benefit analysis conducted.

When Unra proposed to relocate the docking site elsewhere, it sparked controversy among authorities and communities in the districts in Madi area of the West Nile sub-region.

In the planned relocation, Unra officials came up with two other alternative routes, including Indilinga-Ofu and Angaliachini-Liri routes upon assessment, with a final assessment indicating that Angaliacini-Liri route was the best alternative.

Relocating the ferry to Angaliacini-Liri site would be done in a space of two months at approximately Shs200m, according to the assessment.

Whereas funding was reportedly secured by Unra to start the relocation process, a section of the business community and leaders from Obongi petitioned Unra protesting the plan.

The petitioners said the decision to transfer the ferry to Angaliacini was not unanimously agreed upon, and that it would systematically sabotage economic progress in the district.

In Obongi District, for example, water transport is a key means of transport and access to basic services by communities, from neighbouring Adjumani or Moyo districts.

Mr Abusalim Omar, a businessman in Obongio Town, said the current landing site is strategically located on a trade route connecting Juba City in South Sudan to Arua City via Obongi and Juba City to the DR Congo via Obongi central business town.

“The ferry should not be relocated to Angaliachini-Liri Landing Site but instead let the Obongi-Sinyanya site be upgraded to fit the current water level for the ferry to resume its normal operations,” the petitioners argued.

But Mr Ben Anyama, the Adjumani District chairperson, said the leadership of Obongi should to have consulted their counterparts before the petition since issues surrounding the ferry operations affected the entire sub-region.

“The ferry itself is a critical pillar of development here. If the technical engineers recommended having the ferry relocated, then it has to be relocated so that it remains to provide the service for which it was brought other than having it idle,” he said.

Instead of fighting over relocation, Mr Anyama argued that the civil and political leaders in the Madi sub-region should unite and form a force to lobby for another ferry for Obongi-Sinyanya once the current one is relocated.

In another letter dated June 17, 2021, addressed to the Obongi District chairperson, Mr John Ssejemba, the Unra acting director of road infrastructure protection recommended that another engagement meeting be held to resolve the matter.

Dr George Bhoka Didi, the Obongi County MP, said relocating the ferry was a better idea since the ferry is a national transport asset that the Transport ministry may not keep idle until the current site is improved.

“We do not know when the floods will recede, meaning the matter has to be handled with sobriety,” Dr Bhoka said.

In May 2018, the increasing volume of traffic on the Obongi-Sinyanya route left the local leaders with no option but to request for a second ferry on the route.

At this stage, the thin staff operating the four-engine ferry with a capacity of 150 passengers and four trucks at the time were not only overstretched, but the increasing traffic exacerbated by the refugee activity in the area made the situation worse.

Indeed in the April traffic report of 2018, the €2.2m (Shs8.8b) ,120 horsepower ferry had carried 63,246 passengers, 42 buses, 936 lorries and trucks, 2,240 cars and pick-up trucks, 2,714 motorcycles, 2,782 bicycles and 616 animals.

However, whereas the ferry services across the river were being choked due to overwhelming traffic, the local fish business was set for a boom.

Ms Hanifa Driciru, who was engaged in the fish business before the water levels increased one year later, said she has completely lost business due to the absence of the ferry.

Laropi ferry breakdown

The suspension of the Obongi ferry operations nullifies one of the only two alternatives to cross into the West Nile region through Madi sub-region.

Currently, the overstretched Laropi ferry crossing has also been suspended. Unra officials in an earlier interview admitted that the single ferry operating across the River Nile was also being overused with an approximate output of 200 percent.

The suspension of the ferry operation and the increase in the volume of trucks moving to Moyo piled more pressure on the Laropi –Umi ferry, forcing the ferry to operate beyond the recommended schedule, making the vessel prone to mechanical problems.

For example, on January 10, the Second Deputy Prime Minister, Gen Moses Ali, State Minister for Primary Education Joyce Moriku Kaducu, and the Deputy Chief of the Defense Forces, Lt Gen Peter Elwelu, were among several people who were stuck at Laropi Ferry crossing after the DMS 3610 model ferry broke down.

The officials had travelled for the burial ceremony of Brig Gen Mark Kodili Ayiasi, the Operation Wealth Creation coordinator for Madi sub-region, in Moyo District.

Before the breakdown, the ferry was visibly overloaded with two heavy haulage trucks and an excavator to cross from Laropi side (Moyo) to Umi (Adjumani) side.  The ferry operations were interrupted for close to four hours.

The vessel that has a capacity of 115 tonnes per trip, was initially gazetted to make 12 trips per day, but due to the heavy traffic, the ferry now makes more than 20 trips in a day.

While it is designed to carry a maximum of 150 persons and12 light vehicles on a single trip, Saturday Monitor established that the machine has been forced to work more than the standard design.

Mr Herbert Mutiaba, the head of ferry services at Unra, acknowledged that the absence of the Obongi ferry had a direct impact on the Laropi ferry operation as it was then compelled to handle the additional traffic that should have been shouldered by the absent ferry at the now dormant Obongi site.

Mr Mutiaba said Unra is still monitoring the increased water levels that halted the operations of the Obongi ferry before it can resume operations.

He also confirmed that due to the high volume of traffic, the ferry works past the stipulated hours, although he was quick to add that routine maintenance is made every week.

Ferry trip statistics

To illustrate the overwork and overuse of the Laropi ferry, this newspaper established that in 2021 alone, the ferry made 5,094 trips instead of the standard 4,320 trips per year. It also carried 76,560 vehicles and 766,776 passengers over River Nile.

In December 2021 alone, the ferry made 467 trips instead of the normal 360 trips, according to statistics obtained from Unra.

The ferry’s 2021 traffic data significantly shot up compared to 2020 due to the partial lifting of the Covid-19 lockdown. For example, the ferry made 4,075 trips in which it carried 52,054 vehicles and 507,818 passengers.

Meanwhile, in 2019, while the Obongi ferry was operational, the number of trips made by the Laropi ferry was 4,469 in which it carried 43,510 vehicles and 680,590 passengers.

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