Power lines vandals cost taxpayers Shs260b

UETCL engineers disassemble a vandalised tower line inside Kakira Sugar Plantation in Jinja District on October 31. PHOTO/TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • An analysis of Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited’s  data on vandalism for the past 15 months indicates that up to 52 electricity transmission towers have been destroyed by vandals along the corridor between Bujagali Hydropower Dam and Kakira Sugarcane plantation alone.

The steel electricity transmission towers with collapsed metallic pieces and the towering sugarcane outline a stretch of nearly four kilometres, cutting through Kakira sugar plantation to its northwest.
Whereas weeds obscuring the transmission corridor tracks give the impression of an abandoned and isolated section, hardly patrolled by the plantation’s limited security, a team of technicians carefully dismantle the towers to secure them under the punishingly hot midday sun.
A group pulls up a Derrick Cork pole to the top of the tower, where four others are waiting to stabilise its weight. The group does this before painstakingly removing each member of the tower piece by piece. 
Elsewhere, another group is at the tower’s base doing the welding and enforcement works.

Securing the remaining parts of the vandalised towers is a slow and expensive exercise. An internal Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited (UETCL) report seen by this publication indicates that Shs37.87 billion will be needed to replace lattice steel towers that were vandalised in the past two years. The towers will be replaced with monopoles. A monopole is a single electric charge or magnetic pole. Unlike the towers, monopoles are not susceptible to vandalism.

A lattice tower power line. Compared to these traditional four-legged towers, authorities say the monopole tower holds a lesser weight. PHOTO/FILE COURTESY

The Shs37.87 billion needed to buy monopoles along with a Shs1.5 billion bill emanating from costs associated with the prolongation of the contractor in form of claims will knock the taxpayer sideways.
Mr Aggrey Welishe, a UETCL power line electrician attached to the Masaka Live Line Team, says technicians from Masaka, Kampala and projects live teams (welding and gassing) are now camped in Jinja to undertake the disassembling of the remaining parts of the vandalised pylons. The end goal is to secure them from further theft.

“We are making sure we recover the members of each tower safely and securely. Once the parts are safely moved, we shall take them to our central stores in Tororo for maintenance works in other sections of the transmission corridors that require replacement,” Mr Welishe said.
Upon disassembling the tower, each piece is recorded before storage. 
Joseph Baguma, another power line specialist with UETCL, told this publication that “we record them since they have their numbers and specifications.”
“It will take about six months to secure all the damaged towers on this corridor inside Kakira sugar plantation because each tower takes about four days, and to give us the total number of days it will take us to clear the line, consider the numbers of towers,” Mr Baguma added.

Towers under threat
For the past year, thieves and vandals have been hard at work, bringing down 45 functional towers. An analysis of UETCL’s data on vandalism for the past 15 months indicates that up to 52 electricity transmission towers have been destroyed by vandals along the corridor between Bujagali Hydropower Dam and Kakira Sugarcane plantation.
Fifty of the 52 towers have been vandalised in such a manner that most of their angles (members) were taken. Three of the 50 towers in question have collapsed and now require replacement.
The same data also points out that transmission cables spanning more than 16kms have been cut off and stolen by vandals. This includes, inter alia, the conductors and insulators.

While investigating the trend and impact of vandalism on the electricity sub-sector, this publication last week assessed the Kakira-Musita transmission stretch. We discovered that between Kakira sugarcane plantation and Musita, 58 transmission towers had been destroyed by vandals.
Twenty-nine of the 58 towers had fully collapsed, with the majority of their parts stolen. A dozen towers were standing on only three legs, leaving them prone to tipping over under windy conditions.
Beyond Musita towards Mayuge, conductors and insulators were found to have been vandalised in some sections.
In all, approximately 550,000 kilogrammes of tower parts have been lost in the Budjagali-Kakira-Musita-Mayuge section alone.
Speaking to this publication early this week, Mr Michael Taremwa Kananura—the acting UETCL chief executive—said vandalism has hit the company so badly for the past three years.

“[It] started hitting us from that Kakira sugar plantation side given that the corridor is isolated with no occupancy in the area,” Mr Taremwa revealed, adding that more than 55 towers had been lost in the corridor, with vandals “harvest[ing] all the conductors (cables) … in certain sections of the line which was under construction.”
Mr Taremwa fears that the taxpayer could be looking at “around 800 tonnes of lost materials”, undoing inroads achieved under the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Plan (NELSAP) project.

Cost of vandalism
The trend of vandalism against the electricity transmission infrastructure has been on the rise in recent weeks. In September, UETCL reported that it was registering a tower being vandalised every week.
The vice has also spread and developed several hotspots. For example, while Kakira is the hotspot for the Jinja area, many cases have been recorded in areas of Tororo. This includes the same corridor between Soroti and Lira, albeit at a lower scale.
This publication understands that the estimated costs exclude finances UETCL is currently seeking to expand disassembling the towers, as well as hiring a contractor to build replacement monopoles. People familiar with the subject matter say the final cost could be in tens of billions of shillings.

“That money is only the cost of replacing the stolen materials; we have not counted the cost of dismantling, transporting and the cost of the contractor redoing the same work,” Mr Taremwa said, adding, “We are now losing times two because we still need the lines. You [also] have the cost of labour to put the towers down.”
The Shs38 billion, according to Mr Taremwa, is enough to build another 10km of transmission corridor or connect an entire sub-county on electricity “if it is given to the Rural Electrification Agency.”

Mystery market
UETCL is currently grappling with a puzzle to establish where exactly stolen parts of its transmission utilities end up. Mr Taremwa told this publication that they have failed to establish if the steel parts are traded internally by the steadily growing steel rolling industry in the country, or are smuggled beyond Uganda’s borders.
“We have not yet zeroed down to a particular company buying these materials, although we are working with the security agencies to track down this vice,” he said.
Whereas hundreds of cases have been reported to the police in the past five years, no clues have come out of either prosecutions or convictions to point out where the stolen transmission infrastructure is traded.

Authorities say the vandalised towers will be replaced with monopoles such as these. 

UETCL says the police and the Trade ministry (which has officials at border points) have not done much to deal the racket a telling blow. There are suspicions that a racket ships the stolen steel abroad before selling it to internal steel smelting plants. Trade ministry officials promised to revert to this publication with a response. They, however, hadn’t made good on this promise by press time.

Bark with a bite
Mr Taremwa, nevertheless, believes that the tough law on vandalism is finally yielding dividends. The Electricity Amendment Act 2022 became operational in June 2022, and UETCL has used it to secure three convictions. 
The legislation recommends a string of tough punitive measures against vandalism. For example, Section 85, Subsection 3 of the law, states that a person convicted of having stolen materials of conductors (cables) or towers, is fined 100,000 currency points (approximately Shs2b).

The same law also provides that a company found to have purchased stolen electricity equipment be fined up to 20,000 currency points (approximately Shs400 million), slapped with a sentence not exceeding 10 years or both.
Through the Energy ministry, the key players in the electricity sub-sector—including UETCL, Uganda Electricity Distribution Company Limited (UEDCL), UEGCL and Umeme—have formed a vandalism committee. Besides providing a semblance of security in the notorious corridors, it also interests itself in tracking the markets where the vandals sell the stolen parts.

UETCL is also developing a whistleblower policy that is likely to be passed next month. This will enable it to offer financial rewards to members of the public who offer information leading to arrests of vandals or recovery of stolen materials.
Thanks to NELSAP, a 131km 220KV transmission line—boasting 402 transmission towers, which also involves the inter-connection of Electric Grids of Nile Equatorial Lakes Countries Project (Uganda)—was energized in December 2018. The double-circuit transmission line from Bujagali via the Tororo sub-station to the Uganda/Kenya border was funded by the African Development Bank (AfDB). These power corridors—or more accurately, their towers—have come under threat from vandals.
UETCL is now undertaking to replace the current stretch of 18.9km of (lattice structure) towers from Kakira Sugar Works to Musita with monopoles, as well as create motorable access roads for easy deployment of security personnel before restoring them.

Distribution affected
The interventions are timely not least because several parts of the country are now languishing in darkness following continued raids on electricity distribution infrastructure managed by both UEDCL and Umeme.
At the Kagulu Sub-county headquarters in Buyende District, a transformer that looks new is positioned on Kamuli-Buyende Road overlooking Kagulu Health Centre II to the east of the sub-county headquarters.

Despite the presence of the transformer, Mr Frances Bangi, the officer-in-charge of Kagulu Health Centre II, says the area—including the health facility—has been living without electricity for the past five months.
“When we questioned UEDCL, they told us that the transformer was broken down,” Ms Bangi said, adding, “That has been very detrimental to our operations because we have failed to operate key equipment. For example, we cannot do microscopy or use the facility’s IT equipment to do business because power is down.”
Mr Jonan Kiiza, the UEDCL spokesperson, told this publication that vandals climbed to the top of the terminating transformer and drained its oil.

“Once they drained the oil, the internal windings blew up due to overheating since the oil acts as a coolant,” he added.
Last Tuesday, five transformers of varying capacities lay idle in the compound of UEDCL’s office at Kasambira in Kamuli Town. Mr Kiiza said vandals had raided the transformers and drained more than 1,000 litres of the transformer oil and removed the copper windings from inside two of them for good measure.

Off the grid
At least 130 customers had been disconnected from the grid due to the destruction of the transformers by vandals.
“There is no relationship between vandalism and the high cost of electricity because when they vandalize transformers, steal the insulators and conductors, does that purported price of electricity come down? Mr Kiiza asked rhetorically, adding, “It does not, it instead raises operations costs and increases in tariffs.”

In a September 23 letter addressed to the chief executive officer of the Electricity Regulatory Authority, Mr Paul Mwesigwa—UEDCL’s managing director—noted that it had failed to reconnect many distribution networks across the country due to vandalism.
Mr Mwesigwa said in the letter that “UEDCL hereby brings to the attention of the Authority the above outstanding vandalised networks that require the sector support beyond the capacity of UEDCL to be able to have them restored, he further stated in the letter.”

He added thus: “Whereas UEDCL, with the support of the Rural Electrification Programme (REP) under the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD), has managed to restore some networks, there are still some outstanding cases which have not yet been put back.”
Mr Mwesigwa, for instance indicated that fixing the Bihanga-Bishozi 33kV line in Kamwenge District requires 13.7km of AAAC 100sqmm conductors (five transformers off), Kizinga Rwentobo 33kV line in Kanungu requiring 6.0km of AAAC 50 sqmm (five transformers off).
Distribution transformers were vandalised in Kamuli, Luuka, Kaliro and Buyende Districts in the centres of Buwala (three), Masanya (one), Kasanda (one), and Gwase (one) as per Mr Mwesigwa.

Mr Mwesigwa, however, said that they had found clues that the stolen transformer oils and internal copper windings were being sold locally on the black market through a syndicate.
“From the arrests and prosecutions conducted, we have discovered that the first market is the scrap dealers, who sell second-hand items in Kampala and the surrounding areas and the manufacturers (iron and copper smelting plants) who deal in steel and copper smelting,” he revealed, adding that much of the stolen distribution infrastructure was being used for saucepans, hangers, among others.

Elsewhere, the transformer oil is mostly sold to and used by welders, who put it into welding machines. There is also reportedly a new trend of selling the oil to food vendors, who allegedly mix the oil with cooking oil to enable it to burn slowly. This, Mr Mwesigwa added, is under investigation.
Shs260b black hole
The government has in the past three years intensified investments in the electricity sub-sector, including its generation, transmission and distribution operations. Despite these investments, the sub-sector continues to grapple with rampant cases of vandalism of power transmission and distribution infrastructure.

Michael Taremwa Kananura, acting UETCL chief executive officer

The assets targeted include pylons, conductors (including transmission infrastructure parts made of steel), aluminium wires, copper wires, transformers and transformer oils, poles, underground cables and related accessories.
According to the Energy ministry, the government has lost more than Shs260 billion due to vandalism since mid-2019.
At Umeme, the electricity distributor, equipment worth Shs11.9 billion has been lost over the past five years. These include overhead conductors stretching 128.3km valued at Shs1.2 billion and underground conductors stretching 126km worth Shs6.1 billion.
Others include 288 transformers across the country worth Shs4.6 billion and conductors (wires) worth Shs17 million, with the most problematic locations being Kawanda, Mutundwe, Kamuli, Tororo, Masaka, Mukono, Mbarara and Kasese, etc.

Repurposed oil
In their performance report of 2021 published recently, a copy of which this publication has seen, Umeme says it had discovered that transformer oils were ending up in restaurants to fry fast foods like chips, fish, among others. The oil, the report added, was also being used in locally-made welding plants.
“Underground copper cables are vandalised for copper. From our findings, there is a ready market for copper and it is an expensive product … aluminium from overhead conductors, when stolen, finds its way to scrap dealers,” the report reads in part, adding that the vice had persisted due to inadequate support from security organisations, as well as communities.
It also noted that the government had failed to regulate the scrap metal industry where the vandalised equipment ends up.

Monopoles or lattice towers?

Since the 1960s, steel lattice towers (pylons) have been used as structures on which transmission conductors (wires) are strung in Uganda.
However, due to persistent vandalism, the government is considering introducing transmission monopoles.
“We intend to put monopoles, one single pole standing, and we believe the monopoles are not prone to vandalism considering their design. This is pure engineering. We are looking at eight months to have the designs, the procurement, and construction and testing done,” Michael Taremwa Kananura, the acting UETCL chief executive, says.
UETCL believes the monopoles will not only help curtail vandalism, but also save costs through reduced structure weights and foundation sizes.

Compared to the traditional four-legged towers, the monopole tower holds a lesser weight. While a monopole tower base requires only a width of 2.5metres, a lattice tower base requires more space with a width of approximately 13 metres.
Hence, the necessary right of way to establish a transmission corridor is only 17.6 percent of the lattice tower.
Mr Taremwa has described replacement of lattice type structure with monopole structure as “a momentous step in the field of power transmission.” It is, he adds, easier to establish, maintain, and replace compared to the lattice towers that require so many parts and are more expensive.

Police response

Meanwhile, the police say they have recently stepped up operations in the hunt for the vandals across the country. 
On September 15, a joint security taskforce in Mityana District conducted an intelligence-led operation and arrested 16 suspects, who were allegedly involved in the malicious damage and theft of electricity power lines (conductors) in Ssekanyonyi Town Council, Mityana District between September 5 and 9.

The operation was also extended to the villages of Kajumiro, Kabulasoke Sub-county, Gomba District, where three Umeme staff were intercepted while selling electricity poles at night. A Umeme truck loaded with an assortment of electricity wires was also impounded in the operation, according to a publication by police.
The arrests, according to police, brought to 44 the number of cases of vandalism of electricity infrastructure. The suspects tally is now 62. The breakdown of cases is as follows: 18 in Kampala Metropolitan Area, eight in Savannah, eight in Katonga, five in Wamala, three in Greater Masaka, one in Busoga North, and one in Kiira.

Kampala Metropolitan’s local areas include Nsooba, Mulago, Kawempe, Kisenyi II Zone, New Taxi Park, Old Kampala, Lusanja-Kasangati, Kakajjo zone, Bweyogerere, Najjanankumbi, Kisekka market, Namuwongo, Kabaawo zone and Mutundwe.
In Katonga, the local areas are Kiyunga zone, Lufuka village, Buyaya village, Mpanga Forest Reserve in Mpigi District, as well as Kasiika and Mpunge villages in Gomba District.
The Wamala local areas are Kasana “A” in Mubende District, Busimbi village in Mityana, Ntwetwe Town Council in Kyankwanzi, Kabakanjagala village in Kiboga District, among others.