KAMPALA, UGANDA — The midmorning calm in the Makindye-Lukuli community on the outskirts of Kampala is violently jolted, first by an explosion, then by towering flames and a toxic black plume.
Parents who had just dropped their children at a nearby kindergarten rush back to the scene. They are relieved to learn that the school is safe, but they are alarmed to discover that the fire is coming from a covert paint-processing facility tucked between homes and an alley next door.
Such fires are all too common in Kampala and across the country. Uneven enforcement of prevention and preparedness laws, inadequate regulation of new construction, a shortage of adequate firefighting equipment and a lack of basic safety awareness have all contributed to a proliferation of fires.
In the first five months of 2021, 600 fires were reported in Uganda, setting it on course for a more than 40% increase over 2020. Deaths from fires made a similar jump, from 18 deaths in the last six months of 2020 to 50 deaths in the first six months of 2021.
“There is more population, more vehicles, more workshops, factories, gas-selling outlets. And most important, more careless people who don’t take safety seriously,” says Joseph Mugisa, director of Fire Prevention and Rescue Services for the Uganda Police Force. “The ravaged spaces are slum areas, schools, shops, factories and homes.”
Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda
In the case of the paint processing facility, fire crews quickly exhausted the prepared foam chemical that is required to fight a fire caused by paint thinner, a highly flammable liquid. They rushed to replenish their supply when, suddenly, they were overcome by a searing ball of fire — provoked by a spurt of water from an unknown source.
“This caused a stampede as we tried to escape through the floating fire,” says Raymond Bwambale, a firefighter with eight years of experience who suffered third-degree burns on his face from the May blast. “Our job is so risky. We can die anytime.”
Crews struggled for hours to bring the stubborn flames under control.
The fire “floats on the liquid, and adding water makes the fire rage more,” Bwambale later says from his hospital bed. “It was an accident in an accident.”
In September 2020, the iconic Ivory Tower at Makerere University in Kampala, one of Africa’s oldest and most prestigious universities, was gutted by a fire that took two days to quell, causing more than $5 million in damage and destroying student records and university archives. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda
Such challenges are not limited to Uganda. Ninety-five percent of all fire deaths and burn injuries occur in places with shoddy construction and lax regulation, according to a 2020 World Bank study of urban areas in Kenya, South Africa and six other countries.
The study found that “overall, the combination of inadequately constructed and highly combustible buildings, large fuel loads, and extensive sources of potential ignition leaves these areas susceptible to more frequent, larger, and more impactful fires as compared with urban areas that have formal planning and building regulation, appropriate electrical infrastructure, good regulatory enforcement, and adequate fire service resources.”
In Kampala, some efforts are underway to improve fire response, including a plan to require the installation of fire hydrants with all new construction in the city, says Richard Rubagasira, supervisor for occupational fire safety at the Kampala Capital City Authority, or KCCA. A lack of fire hydrants at Makerere University required the fire brigade to leave the site to secure water more than 10 times while fighting the fire, he says. Funds also are being allocated to extend firefighting outside the city.
Nationally, the country’s annual budget of 8 billion Ugandan shillings (about $2.3 million) for firefighting and rescue, which went into effect in July, will be used to extend fire services to regions where services have been lacking, to purchase more firefighting trucks and water tankers, and to raise awareness on fire prevention, Mugisa says.
But much more must be done to truly improve fire resilience in countries like Uganda. According to the World Bank study, the “incidence, impact, and causes of urban fires” in low- and middle-income countries “are largely neglected as a policy issue.” This neglect stems from the lack of consistent data about fires and their consequences, as well as limited resources to address the problem.
A 2018 study by Makerere University professor Kenneth Ssemwogerere and student Ivan Mbiggo, published in the Journal of Civil and Environmental Research, made additional recommendations that are focused on mitigating fire risk for the “over 60% of Kampala’s population living in slums.” Those recommendations include keeping a minimum of 1 meter of space between structures, using motorized bikes in fire brigades for difficult-to-reach areas, and educating residents on fire safety.
“The slums are not accessible by fire vans,” Rubagasira says. “The fire is usually fought with mere water cans by a few people, and many homes burn.”
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The May explosion that destroyed the paint facility was set off when a welding spark landed in one of multiple drums that, together, stored a total of 1 ton of paint thinner. Owner Frances Lubega had recently stocked the paint thinner at a cost of about $280,000. All of it went up in flames, along with Lubega’s equipment.
Though regulations nominally prohibit the presence of such facilities in residential areas, enforcement is weak, says Tony Achidria, spokesperson for the National Environment Management Authority. “Private landowners will always seek to develop their land as they wish, for as long as the local authorities permit it.”
Lubega, the paint company owner, says the authorities knew he was there because he was paying taxes. Now, he says, the future of his business is uncertain.
These incidents happen because tensions exist between regulations and creating work opportunities in a country with chronically high unemployment, Rubagasira says. If fire enforcement pressed the point, “we would be attacked for harassing investors who are hiring people.”
Sweeping reforms, such as those recommended in the studies, go beyond what Kampala leaders are able to accomplish without substantial additional financial support, he says. “We may not have the mandate to do that.”
Edna Namara is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.