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Published on: 15/08/2019

Caretaker of the Kasenda piped water system, Kabarole district, Uganda

Proofreading the proceedings of March's All Systems Go! symposium (available later this year) I was struck by the identification of 'utilitisation' as an emerging trend in rural water. The write-up of the symposium's sessions on safe water maps a landscape in which people (outside of major cities) are served by themselves (self-supply or community management); by traditional urban public utilities (expanding their services into rural areas); by formal and informal private suppliers and by an emerging new group of rural utilities.

This mix is very recognisable from IRC's partner district, Kabarole in Uganda. Within Kabarole some piped water schemes are run by national water, others by an emerging rural water utility, and still others by a mix of private providers and communities. Added to which of course are many community-managed boreholes, private shallow wells and other sources. This sort of ragbag mix of formal and informal, regulated and unregulated services is immediately familiar to anyone who knows rural water supply - and not just in Uganda. It is a mix that is fundamentally expensive, unsustainable, unaccountable and difficult to finance.

At the heart of the district-wide approach that IRC and others, including our partners in the Agenda for Change collaboration, are promoting is that we need to reduce the complexity of this mix of models (by defining, standardising and professionalising).  By considering the entire district, its different populations, their needs and what each model offers, we aim to achieve an optimum and sustainable mix across the entire district.   

District master plans

I write and talk a lot about systems strengthening for WASH.  Often this can sound frustratingly abstract.  Yet as we drive forward this district level work, based on locally owned master plans (Asutifi North, Kabarole, Banfora) I am increasingly encouraged that we are seeing the emergence of a set of relatively concrete and tractable actions. 

Prominent among these are: standardisation and systematisation of the permissible range of service delivery models; professionalisation of service provision (through the engagement of existing public utilities and the creation of rural utilities); and establishment of a solid regulatory framework that covers all the different service models within the district (public, private or community).  While delivered at the district, this often requires change in national level policy and regulation (for example, to enable private sector provision of services). 

In parallel to this work, I’m also following with interest the discussions between development banks, governments and public utilities around financing.  Here there’s an emerging consensus that through a constrained and replicable series of utility (and regulatory) reforms public water utilities can be made attractive to financiers.  Blended finance plays a potentially important role here – public finance bringing in investments from the private sector. 

Putting these two together, it seems to me that the secret of leaving no one behind lies, essentially, in smart blending.  Of finance, but also of service delivery models within a district.  The sort of ultra-basic services provided by rural handpumps will never be sustainable if their entire life-cycle cost needs to be recovered. They simply provide too low a level of service at too high a cost.  But, as part of a district (or national) level package that includes more expensive (and profitable) household services, and as a temporary solution that provides basic services as a stop-gap until something better is put in place, they can be made viable. 

In practice, and in the sort of discussions that we see happening around our district master planning processes, this blending or packaging of different service models remains largely implicit.  “The district will provide handpumps and boreholes because national water will deal with the towns”.  While this marks a real step forward, it remains inefficient. For me the challenge for IRC and our partners – the next step in our district work - is to truly integrate planning and delivery of services across the district: from private wells to rural handpumps to household taps in towns as elements of one coherent package.  If we can achieve that, I am convinced that we’ll also find that we’ve solved the finance problem.


Acknowledgements: thanks to Angela Huston and Jane Nabunnya Mulumba for rich and insightful discussions around the recent partner meeting in Kabarole that contributed to this piece.  The assumptions (and errors) are all mine!


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