COMMENT | Samson Tinka | Last week, Daily Monitor reported an arrest of seven suspects in Rubaga found with electricity materials and gadgets worth over sh3 billion.
It was earlier reported that vandalism was rampant in Kiboga district, where electric wires, surge arrestors, polymeric insulators among other items were stolen.
Responding to this troubling community information, police through the criminal intelligence teams mounted a covert operation that led them to recovery of these huge items and arrest of seven suspects.
We all recall that on September 13th 2018, there was national power outage. UETCL attributed this outage to five towers that had been brought down on Jinja-Kla highway. Imagine five power towers brought down by scrap dealers.
This outage impacted on hospitals, industries, schools, construction firms etc. if the loss associated with this outage was quantified, it was in billions of shillings.
Vandalism of electricity equipment is and has become rampant and that it has drastically affected power uptime. The cost of replacement of vandalized materials and gadgets is huge and unsustainable. Government invested over $280m in Karuma power evacuation lines but this hasn’t deterred the bad guys from vandalizing these towers.
With no doubt, I can say up to 90% of vandalism is attributed to scrap business.
The number of dealers selling aluminum materials has gone up. This is evidenced in the number of young and old people involved in scrap business. Every trading Centre, town, village has a point or points of aluminum scrap collection centre.
Threat of scrap business
These chaps pay cash for any delivered aluminum piece. Whether in grams or 1000 kilograms, it will be paid for. Truck and trucks lining up at Steel and Tube industry in Namanve every morning shows how the scrap industry is booming. This would be ok but at what cost? What is the source of scrap? Does steel and tube industry check what has been delivered to its premises? Certainly not.
By the first half of 2018 alone, Umeme had lost more than 40 transformers to vandals, estimated at more than Shs1 billion.
Transformers cost between $10,000 and $20,000. Transformer vandalism is rampant because the vandals want its oil and copper components.
The oil is used for cooking, as an additive to cosmetics, fuel in welding machines and furnaces while others use it to treat wounds.
The vandals also target feeder pillars, ring main unit covers, circuit breakers, stay supports, substation fences, underground cables and overhead conductors (wires).
The vice is rampant in greater Kampala and it is spreading to other areas. Upcountry districts have also not been spared.
Umeme currently incurs costs running up to billions of shillings annually in the replacement of vandalized infrastructure. This is frustrating and bogging down efforts to refurbish the network for reliable supply.
The money spent in repairing and replacing vandalized equipment would have created a greater customer experience if it were injected in network refurbishment and expansion.
Secondly where is the mighty Uganda police in this equation? These vandalized items enter Kampala from many miles outside Kampala? How comes it’s not detected?
For example from Kiboga to Kampala , there are more than twenty police manned road blocks.
What’s the cost of vandalizing infrastructure equipment?
Whether it is power or road signage, vandalism is costly in many ways.
Business cost of power outage/blackout
When main grid goes off, a lot of services are impacted from government social services to industrialists, factories, homes etc. most facilities don’t have automated generators and alternative power source like solar or UPS power to mitigate power outage. Heavy equipment not on secure alternative power get damaged because of power outage. Manufacturers loose production targets, hospitals can operate at maximum because of power outage. Universities don’t teach when power go off etc. these are at times critical operations and absence of power may lead to losses including loss of life.
Replacement of vandalized items
Replacement of transmission powers is very expensive. The tower foundation and aluminum poles are both so costly in terms of physical replacement and time needed to have work done. Where temporary structure is not erected it takes a long time to have towers put back and restore power transmission.
Delayed government programs and projects
One worry currently on Karuma dam is power evacuation. This is because transmission lines are not complete either because of land issues or towers being brought down. These are highly costly government power projects which are supposed to be supported not distracted. Therefore, vandalizing infrastructure not only delays project completion but also makes it more expensive through re-works.
Is it right time for infrastructure police? Yes, even long overdue
Electricity infrastructure is security infrastructure and it should be guarded with utmost seriousness it deserves. Ideally police and other security agencies should have taken care of this. For how long will government continue to incur losses in terms of money and power down time due to vandalism.
In fact, vandalism is contributing a lot towards overall power down time. If tourism, minerals, environment have specialized police units why not infrastructure? Currently and for the last over 10 years government has committed a lot of money through national budgets to infrastructure development specifically roads and energy and it’s the same sectors that have suffered heavily with vandalism.
There is a need to fighting this crime ruthlessly. The fight should be 360 degrees, from possible sources, transportation and final selling point.
The buyers are not many in the country-factories and industries involved in final purchase of these scrap materials are known- why not deploy two policemen all time to verify items being offloaded? Why not have an MOU with scrap factories not to buy scrap of vandalized national infrastructure? Why not strip trucks carrying scraps while in transit to ascertain the contents? Why not add a responsibility of looking for vandals to PISOs, GISOs on their KPIs? Why not make noise on every radio, TV and print media on this vice? The big point here is much effort should be dedicated on fighting vandalism. It should be the right time to create and facilitate infrastructure police.
I had a chat with CEO and Manager Corporate affairs at UETCL, their biggest worry is vandalism. It draws them back in effort to evacuate power. They have on record many different incidents. Their in-house security cannot take on this task efficiently. Its big. The players in this scrap business are huge. Railway line slippers were uprooted long ago.
Therefore, its now not tomorrow, to have infrastructure police in place, and well facilitated. The dangers in vandalizing electricity lines are not only economically costly but a very serious security threat. Government security bosses should turn their eyes on this vice. Certainly, the situation can be brought under control.
Samson Tinka is a safety and security consultant | Director Matts Secure Solutions Ltd | tindsam@yahoo