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Govt construction materials testing lab decays

While mega construction projects in the country are on the climb, a key government facility supposed to test the quality and safety of building materials has degenerated into an obsolete edifice.

The government’s materials testing laboratory, built during the colonial days, is now dilapidated, understaffed, underfunded and very poorly equipped.

This unit under the ministry of Works and Transport is supposed to test the quality of building and road construction materials to assure the integrity of whatever they build. However, its main laboratory in Kireka is a national embarrassment.

But that is before one comes face-to-face with the even poorer upcountry branches in Mbale, Mbarara, Fort Portal, Arua and Gulu. Industry insiders fear substandard building materials continue to be used leading to shoddy works and even loss of lives.

In 2016, a building in Wandegeya collapsed due to poor engineering and use of wrong materials, killing one person and injuring scores. This underscored the crucial part materials testing plays in building works.

This building in Wandegeya collapsed due to poor engineering, killing one person in 2016

In an interview with The Observer last week at their main office in Kireka, the assistant commissioner for Materials Testing and Research, Tony Mugenyi said that out of the 75 staff required, only 53 are present.

“This, together with inadequate funding, has hampered the operations of the unit. Whereas we need Shs 6 billion to operate well each year, we receive just Shs 1 billion,” the engineer said.

Lack of cash aggravates teething problems, including inadequate field and laboratory equipment, lack of protective gear and transportation means. The laboratory looks derelict from the outside.

At least $7 million is required to refurbish the building and equip the place with modern tools. A glance at the offices gives one the worrying impression that not much important activity is going on inside its old walls. Some staff in their blue overalls, with clearly little to do, sit idly under the tree near the gate, while others perch under an old structure near an equally old drilling vehicle.

“The upcountry laboratories simply do basic tests. They cannot, for example, test the strength and chemical properties of soil. They send them here but we also still lack a few state-of-the-art testing equipment for things like steel, bitumen, concrete and geotechnical,” Mugenyi said.

The head of the unit, Wilfred Okello, during a recent visit by the minister of Works and Transport, Monica Ntege Azuba, said that over the years, this important institution has been starved of resources; in fact, almost forgotten.

“This establishment is only remembered in a technical crisis especially when there is a building that has collapsed or when there is a dispute over shoddy works,” Okello said.

The engineer in chief at the ministry, Samson Bagonza, fears the department risks providing substandard work even when “we are working within our means to deliver quality.”

“It has been a very big struggle. Efforts have been made to secure more government funding but without success. Unless those budgets are increased, the department will continue underperforming,” Bagonza told The Observer.

According to Bagonza, top leadership in the ministry have not been identifying with the department, given its isolated location away from the ministry headquarters in the city centre. Minister Azuba, during her first visit to the place since she joined cabinet, was surprised by the state of both the buildings and equipment.

“I was here 30 years ago as a student but I noticed that some of the equipment that was here then is still here,” she said recently.

Chances are high that most of the technology in use is similarly obsolete, possibly incompetent to answer modern-day challenges. The minister implored the staff to be more innovative to attract attention and more funds.

While management worries about staff shortages, Azuba wonders whether they really need more people. As a compromise, she asked the human resource department to review and “see if we need them; if we do, let’s have them.”

Expensive venture?

As a necessary requirement for construction works, a contractor interviewed for this story said that it gets expensive for them to find a laboratory fit to test their materials.

An engineer working with the respected Roko Construction Company said that while they can take certain materials to Kireka, they have to incur costs of flying out samples to countries like USA and Kenya with better laboratories.

“There are also private laboratories here but they are either less equipped or very expensive. So, for the small contractors who might not have that money, they opt to build without testing, which causes problems,” he said.

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