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Vandalising Umeme infrastructure is costly

The vice is as dangerous as terrorism since its effect can be as severe if power is cut from security installations

COMMENT | MBAGA TUZUNDE  | Vandalism of infrastructure is increasingly becoming a challenge to the country. The electricity, water, communication, and road sectors have all been affected by the vice. Taking a look at the electricity sector in particular, the following acts of vandalism happened recently;

  • On July 31, 2021, vandals ‘pruned’ some metals off a tower along the Bujagali-Kawanda line. On the same day, vandals made away with 3,000 metres of cables from a line in Kasenyi – in western Uganda.
  • On August 2, 2021 vandals brought down a pylon in Kakira in Jinja City.
  • In 2018, unknown persons brought down electricity transmission towers in Mukono, causing a national outage that lasted hours before restoration.
  • The Karuma Transmission Evacuation line has also been vandalized on several occasions, causing huge financial loss and delaying progress of completion of the line.

Every year, many distribution transformers are vandalised and the various components used for different activities. The communications infrastructure has not been spared either with fibre being stolen, and masts destroyed, causing internet outage in different places while road signs communicating important messages have been uprooted.

Between 2016 and 2020, more than Shs20 billion worth of distribution assets (transformers, stay wires, overhead and underground conductors) have been either stolen or destroyed.

The cost of vandalism is huge and both direct and indirect. The destroyed infrastructure has to be restored and usually, the cost of such replacement is met by the taxpayer or the rate payer. In the electricity sector, the sector regulator; Uganda Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), has to provide for resources to restore such assets, usually, through the tariff.

In addition, the lives of persons within the vicinity of vandalised assets are at stake as the possibility of electrocution (even for the vandals) is high.

Indirectly, the cost of vandalism is immense. An outage brought about by vandalism of the transmission infrastructure may result into national outages that greatly impact negatively on the business sector revenues, but can also lead to loss of lives for people on life support machines in medical facilities.  Insecurity during the course of outages and terrible customer experience are some other hard-to-quantify costs of vandalism.

Government has made considerable efforts in fighting the vice. It has provided security to critical infrastructure such as substations. A special utilities court has also been set up to try those involves in vandalising utility assets.

Utility companies have also dedicated more resources to securing the assets and gone ahead to engage communities to protect these assets as their own. However, the vandals have also become more sophisticated in operation, hence the need for serious reconsideration of lasting solutions to these problems;

Deliberate efforts should be made by utility companies to constantly engage the local communities to consider these infrastructure assets as their own and guard them jealously. The local councils should make deliberate effort working to ensure that suspicious persons getting near or trying to access such infrastructure are asked to identify themselves. If they are unable to, they should be handed over to the police for interrogation.

Government should also enact harsher punishments for those convicted of vandalism so that vandals are discouraged from this vice. In some cases, vandalism is as dangerous as terrorism since its effect can be as severe such as cutting of power from security installations. Laws, therefore, should be amended to provide for heftier punishments to offenders in order to discourage others from involvement in such activity.

Markets for the vandalised assets should be identified and monitored continuously. Factories using vandalised materials should be shamed and commercial remedies sought from such factories and industries. By cracking down on users of the vandalised materials, the demand for such will subside. The Ministry of Trade would be very instrumental in this approach.

The security agencies; especially the intelligence services, should pick specific interest in vandalism and use the village structures to monitor characters that may be involved in vandalism and take necessary action.

Finally, Government could consider setting up a special police unit, the Utility Police (like it is the case with the Environment Police) to specifically tackle this problem. A cost-benefit analysis of having such a force can be undertaken to support such a decision.

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Mbaga Tuzunde works at Umeme Ltd

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