Flirting with disaster

By Vision Reporter

There are many fuel stations within the city centre and there seems to no clear guidelines concerning their establishment. There are also no designated areas for fuel reservoirs and this raises concern over the safety of thousands of people who live within the proximity of the reservoirs

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There are many fuel stations within the city centre and there seems to no clear guidelines concerning their establishment. There are also no designated areas for fuel reservoirs and this raises concern over the safety of thousands of people who live within the proximity of the reservoirs, writes Charles Etukuri

Three weeks after a fuel tanker caught fire at Namungoona, causing massive loss of property and over 40 deaths, the area residents are still in shock. People are still flocking the area to see what happened. Robert Muhwezi, one of those who watched the events unfold, has made it a habit to go back to the area at least twice a day. “I lost three of my close friends and several other people I knew,” he says.


On the fateful night, 29 people lost their lives at the scene of the accident, while several others who were burnt were rushed to Mulago Hospital, where they succumbed to injuries. “Some of the victims were reduced to charred skeletal remains. Some bodies were pulled from the nearby swamp,” says Muhwezi. As firemen pulled out body after body, residents attempted to guess their identities. “There was one which we even thought was a burnt cat,” Muhwezi says. Despite a public outcry, with several suggestions being made to avoid similar incidents in the future, everything seems to have been forgotten and we are back to business as usual.

A survey by Sunday Vision indicates that Kampala and other major towns are seated on a time bomb and a disaster is looming if the authorities do not act in time to regulate the construction of fuel stations, reservoirs and filling stations. There are real fears that a fire from one of the stations could trigger off fires at different stations, as a result of the closeness of some fuel stations and reservoirs that are mushrooming right in the middle of the city centre. The large fuel reservoirs of some multinational oil companies like Shell, Total, Mogas and many others are located in the middle of slums or busy highways, posing a big threat to motorists and slum dwellers, since they stock thousands of litres of flammable fuel and highly explosive gases.

Even with the possibility that a disaster could easily happen if the fuel tanks burst, there is no indication that something is being done to ensure this does not happen. More worrying is the fact that all these fuel reservoirs and stations are operating with full clearance from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the energy ministry. Some fuel stations are located so close to one another, making Kampala city one of those with the highest number of fuel stations in the world. Sources in the energy ministry told Sunday Vision that Uganda has the easiest oil licensing laws. The Petroleum Supply Act 2003 gives the commissioner of petroleum the power to license oil dealers in the country.


BUSINESS AS USUAL
The residents in these areas go about their business unbothered of the looming danger. In Banda and Namuwongo suburbs in Kampala where some of these reservoirs are concentrated, we met several residents who claim they had nowhere to go and had resigned themselves to fate. Sheila Babirye, a single mother who resides in the makeshift structures just behind Mogas Oil reserves in Banda, says she has lived in the area for the last five years. She runs a small restaurant, which is popular among the boda boda riders. About 20 metres away, a Mogas tank containing 865,763 litres of petrol stands. She is aware of the risks, but is not about to relocate. “They found me here and I do not see why I should be forced to move,” she says. But Babirye is not the only one. Several makeshift structures surround the fuel reservoir, which has four tanks, each with a capacity of over 900,000 litres of fuel going on with their business normally.

The slum near the Mogas fuel reservoir in Banda


Residents complain
Some residents say the Government has neglected them, and they are only waiting for something to befall them before they can act. “It is like we are not citizens in our country,” says Samson Obbo, a 45-year-old businessman who has been living in Banda for the last 12 years. The trucks that bring in fuel also park dangerously close to the roadside as they wait to offload, exposing
the residents to more danger.

But what is more worrying is the group of youth in the area who have also made it a habit to empty the remaining fuel in the trucks after they have been offloaded, which they sell cheaply. Some of this emptied fuel is kept in jerrycans and stored in the shanty houses surrounding the reservoirs. “All these houses in the slum surrounding the reservoirs keep fuel emptied from these trucks and pose a real danger to the residents,” says George Kitaka, a boda boda rider at the Banda stage.

In the slum, there is a thriving underground trade, with several people making a quick buck from selling stolen fuel, not aware of the danger they are putting themselves in. For instance, it is common to see untidy men, some drunk, hanging around the reservoirs waiting for cheap stolen fuel, which is then sold to the boda boda riders and other motorists. Jimmy Kagwa, a resident of Namuwongo, has been actively involved in the same trade for over six years. He proudly talks about his exploits. “I have been in this business for six years, but no accident has ever occurred.

How do you tell me this is risky?” On the day we visited, some youth were even smoking and several food vendors were cooking from open-air kitchens. Residents in Banda who cannot afford electricity have resorted to illegal connections and the sight of power lines dangerously hanging makes the area prone to fire outbreaks. Experts put the blame on the mushrooming reservoirs and fuel stations and lack of proper planning.

The Banda slum, which is home to about 15,000 people, mainly provides labour to nearby industries and also offers cheap accommodation to the students of the nearby Kyambogo University. Many residents behind the Mogas reservoirs live in squalid conditions in shanty houses, mainly constructed of timber and iron sheets. Initially planned as an industrial area, rapid and unplanned growth of the area and little effort by both the local and central government to streamline construction and development, has seen the area grow into a big slum.

As many people flock to Kampala in search of jobs, there is pressure on accommodation, making many of them live in informal settlements. A local councillor in the area told Sunday Vision that past attempts to remove the settlers have failed because the Government did not provide the poor residents with alternative settlements.


The Total fuel reservoir on 7th Street Industrial area


Mogas speaks out
Mogas managing director Partha Ghosh says they had attempted to resettle people who were living on property which belonged to the company, but that new claimants keep on coming up. “We have settled those within 15 metres to our boundary and the road reserve, but some had refused to move away,” he says.


Reservoirs don’t measure up Officials from the energy ministry told Sunday Vision that one of the requirements for one to set up a petrol station is ability to put in place modern fire fighting equipment. But of the five oil reservoirs spread across Kampala, some storing millions of litres of fuel, a few have a recommendable fire fighting system in place. It was only Mogas depot at Banda that had one of the best fire fighting equipment. The others have only installed small fire extinguishers and rely on the Uganda Police Force fire fighting department in case of an emergency.


“We have a high quality fire fighting system installed just in case something went wrong. We have a 250,000-litre water tank, a fire and explosion proof tank and a water engine pump,” Ghosh says. They have also installed a special anti-fire foam, which, in case of an emergency, flows and seals off the top of the fuel. “It blocks off the air from touching the fuel and as a result the fire cannot spread.” They also have the sprinkler system.

In case the fire starts burning from the top, the sprinkler system automatically ejects water at a high speed and reduces the temperature. On Thursday last week, the Jinja Police Road district Police commander, Westley Nganizi, visited the Mogas reservoirs to survey the situation. Details of the discussion the team had with management were scanty by press time. But sources said the Police were on a fact finding mission on the preparedness of the depot in dealing with a disaster should it happen.

Fuel stations too many, says NEMA
The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) a body tasked with the granting of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has said the number of petrol stations concentrated in major city centres is worrying. In an interview with Sunday Vision, Dickson Lufafa, the authority’s environmental audit and management officer, said the urban planning authorities are to blame for the rising numbers.

“Certainly, the truth is that there are so many fuel stations close to each other, which should not be the case. Under the former Kampala mayor, Ssebana Kizito, NEMA and the then authority had an understanding of controlling the licensing of new stations. The new leadership ignored the understanding we had. Sometimes when they send us an application, indicating that they have allocated land, they request that we carry out an EIA.

We are left with no option.” He says before issuing out the EIA, they usually consult other stakeholders. “We send the copies to the other stakeholders like the Ministry of Energy and Uganda National Roads Authority asking for their opinion and whether it conforms to their planning provisions.

In most cases, they get back to us with their review comments and we have cases where some applications have been rejected because they are located in black spots or a road reserve.” Kampala Capital City Authority public relations officer Peter Kaujju says they have halted the licensing of new fuel stations in Kampala. He says the authority was working closely with the energy ministry, Uganda National Bureau of Standards, NEMA and other stakeholders to come up with standards defining the distance between petrol stations and the type of construction.

Flirting with disaster