The steel railway bridge greatly reduced costs because of innovatively reducing the span (river width)
The first bridge across the River Nile in Uganda was built by British colonial engineers as part of the railway from Mombasa to Kasese in the 1900s. This had a very high Value for Money (VfM). In order to build an economical bridge that effectively and efficiently served the purpose, the span across the river was reduced by backfilling with locally available materials such as soil and stones. Any seasoned structural engineer will tell you that reducing bridge spans tremendously reduces costs and increases economy. In this case, whereas the main bridge would have been about 198 metres long, the span for erecting a costly (steel) bridge was reduced to about 30 metres only. The rest of the bridge was made out of concrete blocks with a great saving without steel! Works that began in January 1929 and were handed over on 14th January 1931 cost 70,000 Pounds Sterling only, about today’s Shs350million. Its effectiveness? It had two decks, one for the train and the other for motorcars and pedestrians.
The second Nalubaale Dam-cum-Bridge – Very high VfM
Owen Falls Dam-cum-Bridge (Nalubaale) was constructed about
400 metres downstream from the railway bridge astride the Nile from1950 to 1954. This was another very high VfM project. This is because the new structure provided power and transport at the same time. In 1950 the deck for cars was removed from the steel bridge upstream and transferred to the new dam. In 1954, the hydropower scheme was opened and power flowed to the people. The planning by the colonialist “fed two birds with one seed” by satisfying (and strategically looking ahead to) the industrial, economic and social needs of the wananchi. Are we doing the same with others?
The parallel Kiira Dam – No VfM
The controversial Kiira Hydroelectric Power Station was opened in 1999. It was expected to produce an estimated 200MW of electricity. Sadly, this was never to be! Some local experts, led by Hon Eng Hilary Onek, protested that it would be a white elephant because there would not be enough water to run a dam in parallel with the Nalubaale one, but to no avail! Subsequently, a canal, bridge and a dam were constructed. The rest is history. The Lake Victoria water levels sank to unprecedented levels. To date, this power scheme provides far less power than it was meant
- The Uganda Institution of Professional Engineers (UIPE) carried out a debate in 2003 at Makerere University on the viability of the dam. The debaters were technically competent in matters of design and construction. However, it was overwhelmingly agreed that the Kiira Dam was ill-conceived and should never have been constructed. Thus Ugandans lost resources on the uncalled-for canal, bridge, power station in addition to suffering the stress of their sum.
The Dam-With-No-Bridge at Bujagali – Average VfM
Ugandans planned and allowed foreigners to construct the 250MW Bujagali plant, about 5 km downstream beyond the aging Nalubaale Dam. The dam was inaugurated on 8 October 2012 amid national fanfare. Unfortunately, however, the planners for the future of Uganda did not allow for a road to be designed on top of the dam, failing to simply copy and paste the colonial engineers’ concept
on the Nalubaale Dam. Some Ugandan experts insisted, during the public hearing that this could provide for a Jinja Northern Bypass and a perfect international traffic route to divide up traffic by some continuing direct to Kampala via Mukono or going through Kayunga, Zirobwe and Gayaza back to Kampala. Again, their advice fell on deaf ears. Thus Ugandans again lost a great strategic chance of empowerment and development.
The Isimba Dam without a Bridge – Average VfM
The Ministry of Energy caused the design of a hydropower scheme at Izimba along the Nile to supply 183MW of electricity. This dam-spot is about one kilometre upstream on the Nile crossing between Kayunga and Kamuli districts. A ferry, a very cost-ineffective mode of transport is the one used here. “The Ministry of Transport planners ‘slept’ through this phase of planning,” said a local expert engineer. “By the time they woke up, was it too late to modify the designs to incorporate a road above the dam?” he asked. It is not too late to have this road, as the dam is currently under construction.
The Dam without a Bridge at Karuma – Average VfM
The Karuma power project was designed to have a dam for electricity, but no road crossing, yet there is the aging Karuma Bridge in its vicinity. An engineer from Northern Uganda disagreed: “Honestly, a dam and a bridge for both electricity and traffic should have been designed at Karuma. Look at the artist’s impression: One sees the ‘small road’ on top of the dam that starts and ends nowhere, yet there will soon be a cry to replace the current and aging Karuma Bridge! The strategic vision is clearly lacking. Parliament should enact a law, that any dam astride the Nile must exhibit high Value for Money (VfM) and serve as many purposes as possible, mainly electricity, roads/railway traffic routes and irrigation schemes.” Again, Ugandans are getting only a fraction of the empowerment they need, strategically losing out on the broad utility such an infrastructure would provide now and in twenty, thirty or even 50 years in future for their empowerment.
The Jinja Nile Bridge – Poor VfM
The prestigious Nile Bridge could have been cheaper and accommodated a railway crossing as well Internet photo
The famous New Jinja Nile Bridge idea surfaced. It is the most sophisticated so far, in terms of elegance, design and cost. “It is the mother of all giants,” one lady mused. It is well-known that it was conceived after a plea from leading authorities over the continued deterioration of the old Nalubaale Bridge that would delink Uganda from the outside world such as Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Southern Sudan and Eastern Congo if it collapsed. Therein is the paradox. The same leading authorities surely knew this fact even as they conceived the Bujagali project. Further, their planners should have told them the strategic location of Bujagali, and how it should double as both a power dam and a traffic bridge.
Some people the Digest talked to gave an excuse that there was a ‘security fear’ to have a dam serving both traffic and power. But Nalubaale has served both purposes since 1950. The rest is history. A prestigious Jinja Nile Bridge to cater only for traffic was designed. Planning for a railway crossing was left out. One local engineer said, “That giant bridge could have been designed to support four bridge decks, placed side-by- side to serve as a motor-way and a railway bridge! Or it could have carried a storeyed deck to incorporate these two and still be the prestigious and biggest bridge in the East and Central African region.” Another engineer complained: “Why didn’t the Jinja Nile Bridge at least kill [reduce] the span across the river by doing exactly what the bazungu did in the 1900s on the railway bridge?” He continued: “Imagine that the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) will soon ask for another bridge, further burdening the taxpayer and our economy!” Furthermore yet, a Ugandan transport engineer asked: “Did Ugandan planners and technical professionals take part in originating concept plans and designs of the Nile Bridge and the dams astride the Nile? Why did they not ensure that there are road bridges for today’s and future traffic? Look at Bujagali, Karuma and Isimba.”
It might be said that some Ugandan professionals see only the ills of poor planning and then voice their indignation. However, I think that the failure to reduce the Jinja Nile Bridge span and decrease costs and the omission to design a single structure for both motor and railway traffic using the historical information already available cannot easily be swept away.
The anticipated Dam and Bridge at Murchison Falls
The Murchison Falls Dam and Bridge is yet to come! Policymakers and planners had better learn from the past experiences and think smart. Murchison Falls has the biggest potential. Though some figures put it at 600MW, if well utilized, other gurus put it well over 1000MW. Some people prefer a no-touch (togikwatako) on this spot. They argue that the environment should be left intact for the tourist industry. A road across such a future dam would also provide a shorter route from Masindi to the north and eliminate the public transport ferry downstream from the Murchison Falls. The legendary King Kabalega of Bunyoro-Kitara actually erected the road crossing right at the falls during his conquests. It was only destroyed during the 1962 rains, which created the second lesser falls. Murchison Falls spot would be the best VfM project if both dam and bridge were put in place.
The Pakwach Bridge – High VfM
The Bridge at Pakwach was designed and erected to save costs by reducing the span through backfilling from one end. A pier (column in the water) in the middle of the river further reduced the design spans. In this way, an efficient
design using steel saved costs. The structure was so strong that during the Amin regime a railway crossing right in the middle of the bridge was installed. And it worked for some time.
The potential Masindi Port Dam-cum-Bridge
8M Construction Digest broke the story about the possibility of a 1,400MW scheme costing about $2.60bn. This was compared with the present dams at Karuma, Izimba, Bujagali and Kiira with a potential of 1,230MW but at a cost of $4.04bn! The idea was raised by the Hon Eng Hillary Onek way back in 1983. Onek is an expert in massive dam design and construction. If a fraction of the River Nile waters is diverted by a tunnel from Masindi Port to Lake Albert at Butiaba, he argued, the head of about 418m at Butiaba was
enough to generate over 1000MW of power. Depending on the amount of water diverted and power generation systems, as much as 1,400MW is possible. There is a ferry crossing at this port. A dam and a bridge would solve both problems of planning for power and traffic. It is highly recommended to do a pre-feasibility study on this potential scheme. It should be noted that spans at all ferry crossings could be reduced by appropriate backfilling and achieve reduced maintenance costs of ferries and future bridges.
Other potential spots for VfM bridges and dams across the Nile
There are other sites for the production of power along the Nile at Ayago, Oriang, Kiba and Kalagala. 8M Construction Digest contends that wherever a dam is planned to cross the River Nile, VfM designs along the parameters I have been pointing out should be incorporated. Broadness of utility should be the hallmark. Planners should think about dams for generating power and supporting bridges for inter-regional connectivity for motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians. The broad use of such dams will include irrigation schemes and controlling the flow of the Nile.
The planning and execution of infrastructure along the Nile surely needs the input of Ugandans. Only Ugandans can conceive long-term strategies on the basis of our fundamental needs and requirements, bearing on our economy. A think tank of patriotic Ugandans consisting of planners, engineers, transport economists, environmentalists and social scientists should originate concepts for the fundamental and grassroots development of Uganda using our local resources. Such concepts will be used by policy- and law-makers to bring about Value-for-Money empowerment of Ugandans.
Furthermore, Parliament should enact a law, that any dam astride the River Nile must exhibit high Value for Money and serve as many purposes as possible, mainly electricity, roads/railway traffic and irrigation schemes.