Isimba dam defects: China flies in experts

Isimba Dam project steering commitee chairperson Badru Kigundu (right) and other Energy ministry officials enter into Unit 4 of the dam to assess the extent of damage in August 2022. PHOTO/TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY 

What you need to know:

  • Experts advise that immediate action be taken to avert a likely catastrophe.

Beijing is deploying top energy and engineering experts to assess firsthand the nature and extent of defects on the 183MW Isimba hydro dam which was shut down for days last month following a reported flooding incident.

The reported multiple errors with the plant, and investigations have illuminated concerns about the quality of engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) project largely bankrolled by China’s Export and Import (EXIM) Bank and built by a Chinese company, China International Water and Electric Corporation (CIWE).

The power infrastructure has over the years stood out as flagship symbol of Uganda-China friendship, and the reported damages have straddled beyond engineering field to rub on bilateral relations between Kampala and Beijing.

A team of experts from Beijing is expected in the country on Friday to engage with government officials, according to Ms Jacqueline Jiang, the commercial consular at the Chinese embassy in Kampala.

“We understand concerns from the Ugandan side and attach great importance to the defects issue of Isimba hydropower station. The embassy has been in close contact with the Ministry of Energy on solving possible problems,” she said, adding: “With urgent coordination, one expert group will come to Uganda for on-site assessment on September 9. We believe that through the joint efforts and friendly consultation of both parties, the defect issues will be properly resolved.” 

A high-level Uganda government meeting on Wednesday resolved to engage the Presidency, the Chinese Embassy in Kampala and Uganda’s Embassy in China to initiate top-level discussions with Beijing about the way forward over Isimba dam defects. 

The closed-door meeting convened by Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja and attended by Finance minister Matia Kasaija, Minister of State for Energy Sidronius Okaasai and Energy Ministry Permanent Secretary Irene Batebe, also directed the dam supervisor — Uganda Electricity Generation Company Ltd (UEGCL) - and the contractor, China International Water and Electric Corporation (CIWE), to find common ground.

Also in attendance were officials from UEGCL, Ministry of Works and Transport, the Uganda Institution of Professional Engineers and Engineers (UIPE), and Engineers Registration Board (ERB), among others.

Earlier last Monday, the UIPE President, Mr Andrew Muhwezi and the ERB chairperson, Mr Isaac Mutenyo, and their teams visited the dam at the parallels of Kayunga and Kamuli districts at the behest of Works and Transport minister Gen Katumba Wamala to offer their opinion.

During the meeting, sources told Monitor that the engineers offered their diagnosis of the nearly $570m (Shs2.2trillion) dam, one of President Museveni’s pet projects, and advised that immediate action be taken to avert a likely catastrophe.

The dam was commissioned in March 2019 and was still under the contractual four years Defects Liability Period (DLP) during which the Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contractor, in this case CIWE, is obliged to attend to both minor and major glitches cited in the project.

However, during the last months, UEGCL has been complaining and lamenting to whoever cares to listen CIWE’s disinclination to address the defects.

In one August assessment report UEGCL flagged 10 major defects all categorised as “high risk” which must be urgently fixed. One of the defects is the crumbling foundational concrete at the waterway gates, which images taken by underwater cameras show continues to fragment slowly towards the embankment—the large concrete barricade that holds the reservoir.

What could possibly go wrong in case of a disaster such as the embankment bursting remains an imagination but it could be disastrously costly going by dam burst experiences recorded elsewhere.

During the meeting, sources revealed that the government side nudged to CIWE to stick to their contractual obligations. Officials also read the riot act for the contractor by recapping all clauses in the EPC contract.

Mr Okaasai said we “agreed the matter will have to be discussed at Head of State level at some point.”
“Right now, UEGCL and the contractor really need to sit down,” he said. “It might also sound like learning the hard way but we also discussed that in the future, Ministry of Works should be involved in all big projects, especially on material testing.”

The construction of the two flagship Karuma and Isimba dam projects has been inundated with controversy since inception. The dams are constructed with funding from China’s EXIM Bank.

Key defects

The key defects include power house concrete cracks and roof drainage, embankment dams, installation of floating boom, leakages in the powerhouse roof, power firefighting system automation, tail water systems, and cabling in power house and switchyard.

Others are 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.