News and Views

Uganda’s water transport opportunities unexploited

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Dilapidated boats formerly of Uganda Railways Corporation docked at Luzira Port Bell recently. The ferries previously plied the Luzira-Kisumu Mwanza routes on Lake Victoria but have since stopped. photO BY STEPHEN OTAGE

As Uganda’s population takes an upward curve, currently at 33 million people, more business opportunities are opening up.

Cross-border trade is highly preferred to local trade, a development that requires a better transport network. Much as there have been efforts to improve the road network, much more is needed to improve the entire transport sector.

Water transport in Uganda is still far from being efficient yet worldwide, it is known for its big carriage capacity.

Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) Public Relations Manager Dan Alinange refers to water vessels as a major boost in supporting other transport sectors. He says these vessels act as mobile bridges to the road and rail network, connecting areas that are cut off by water. “Instead of incurring over $200m on constructing a bridge, we would rather put in place a $3m ferry to do an equally good job and that is why these ferries are free,” he told Prosper magazine in an interview.

According to the Director of transport, Ministry of Works and transport, Godfrey Wandera, Uganda’s current water transport capacity has stabilised and only awaits usage by the public.

This is a result of the revamped water system that had suffered major obstacles since 1995. Wagon ferry services, for example, ceased operation in 2005 after two of the Ugandan ferries—MV Kaawa and MV Kabalega— were involved in a mid-lake collision that left them dysfunctional. The other, MV Pamba, was also grounded leaving the country to rely on MV Kalangala and Tanzania’s Umoja ferry for over six years.

“We have been relying on Umoja from Tanzania and other small water vessels owned by private players to transport goods, especially fuel,” Mr Wandera told Prosper magazine. This left many goods stranded at the ports while many made losses in high transport costs due to the limited facilities.

Water transport then
Back then, Ugandans were relying on an external wagon ferry while the inland and passenger ferries were countable and in a dilapidated state. MV Kalangala for instance, which plies the Nakiwogo-Kalangala route was always breaking down yet it was the only national operational passenger ship.

Currently, Uganda boasts of about six inland ferries, three wagon ferries, about two private ferries operated by private companies and ships among others. UNRA’s Alinange said the operational inland ferries include the Masindi ferry plying Masindi-Lango route, Nakiwogo ferry plying Mpigi-Entebbe route, Buvuma ferry, Bukakata-Kalangala ferry, Kiyindi-Buvuma ferry and Lake Bisina in Soroti, all of which are controlled by Uganda National Roads Authority and Office of the Prime Minister.

Besides the operational six, government is yet to introduce three new other ferries. Mr Alinange says one will ply Kayunga- Mbulamuti in Busoga to connect Buganda on River Nile while the other will operate in Obongi and Moyo. “The third newest ferry which will start operations in the next financial year will ply the Nakasongola-Teso route on Lake Kyoga,” Mr Alinange said.

Other national water vessels managed by Ministry of Works through Uganda Railway Corporation (URC) include Wagon ferries—1200 tonnes capacity, MV Kaawa that was recently launched by Transport Minister Abraham Byandala after five years of grounding and is managed by URC’s contract holder, Rift Valley Railways. The other is MV Kalangala. Others that are still grounded include MV Kabalega and MV Pamba which government said are yet to be rehabilitated to increase the capacity of carriage.

“In a resolution drawn last week during a ministry of works meeting, government agreed to inject at Shs10 billion ($4m) in making repairs for MV Pamba since we have only two dependable national wagon ferries, MV Kaawa and Kabalega which trek the southern route. MV Kalangala is majorly a passenger vessel and we can not fully rely on it for cargo transportation. We need another wagon cargo to support the existing vessel and also railway transport,” Mr Wandera said.

The Minister of Works Eng. Abraham Byandala said the ferries if rehabilitated will create a water link with Tanzania as a major trading partner with Uganda and other trading partners.

With Shs9.3 billion funding from the World Bank, the ministry not only repaired MV Kaawa, but also started rehabilitating the dry dock at Port Bell in Luzira. “We used to send MV Kalangala to Mwanza for repairs and it was a very expensive venture but with new the dock at Port Bell, we shall manage our own repairs without spending too much,” Mr Wandera said.

Private players have also joined the industry. MV Amani, a passenger ferry plying the Port Bell-Kalangala route was introduced early this year to restore ferry services on Lake Victoria.

Merits of sector
With all these new developments, there is hope that sectors like road and railway will receive additional support to ease cross border trade. This is possible because a single passenger ferry can accommodate up to 14 vehicles and 100 passengers which would weigh down the roads.

With three wagon ferries plying Uganda’s waters and several passenger vessels, traffic on our waters is expected to increase. For the wagon-ferries, a single one carries 22 wagons at a go, and each wagon carries 40 tonnes. “If we have about three vessels plying Lake Victoria and each carries 880 tonnes and more in a single week, then we shall be able to transport quite big cargo,” Mr Wandera says.

Uganda’s biggest traffic comes through the Mombasa- Kampala route. The route carries about 90 per cent of traffic while Kampala-Mwanza route handles 10 per cent of the country’s cargo.

Mr Wandera says this will create business opportunities for railway transport since these wagons are transported to trading centres by train. Water transport has been challenged by the limited finances. Mr Alinange says only Shs6 billion was allocated for the inland ferries services this financial year yet the minimum needed to maintain these ferries in operation is Shs10 billion. “Our ferry services are free. So we meet both operational and fuel costs and rehabilitation fees,” he said.

Limited storage and parking space at Port Bell in Luzira and Jinja is the other challenge. To this effect, Mr Wandera says the ministry plans to put up new warehouses and cranes to handle cargo.

Future plans
There are also plans to repair the already existing 300 wagons that currently the ministry owns while 100 are grounded. These, Mr Wandera said, will be returned on the road next month (November). The wagons are used as storage containers while transporting cargo.
The ministry is also undertaking yet another development venture—the New Kampala Port. This is a joint venture the government is undertaking in collaboration with the Tanzanian government to develop a port to serve Arusha , Musana and Bukasa.

“We developed the idea in 1967 but it was revived just two years ago and in June last year, we signed a Memorandum of understanding (MoU). Tanzanians have started the preliminary designs while Ugandans are at the stage of land purchasing.”

If all these projects are successfully accomplished, water transport may become the next big thing to support the overwhelmed road transport.



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