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O&M: a persistent challenge cutting across Ethiopia and Uganda

Published on: 11/07/2019

Sustainability of water supply services remains an uphill challenge cutting across many countries, with several factors undermining the effectiveness of Operation and Maintenance (O&M).

Hand pump mechanics from Kabarole District, Uganda

This was the key observation from a recent exchange learning visit where officials from the Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) visited their Ethiopian counterparts to exchange information and lessons about O&M.

Every year, government and non-government actors in Uganda and Ethiopia invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the construction of new water supply facilities: all working towards the global and national targets for access to safe water. Each one of those schemes needs to be operated and maintained.

“Africa is under construction, not only for water supply but for all sectors. But we are giving less attention to operation and maintenance,” Nurdeen Mohamed, Director WDC, Ethiopia said as he addressed the visiting officials from Uganda.

In Uganda, the annual Water and Environment Sector Performance Report shows that a UGX 131 billion (USD35,806,320) was invested in new improved rural water supply facilities in 2018. A total of 982 new boreholes, 70 piped water systems and 167 protected springs were constructed. Additionally, 751 rainwater harvesting tanks were installed and 30 new solar powered mini-schemes were established. The average per capita cost was UGX246,663 (USD68), compared to UGX114,295 (USD32) in 2017. Annual investment in Ethiopia is also known to exceed 500 million USD per year and is rising.

Amidst such enormous investment, the functionality of rural water supply facilities has stagnated at 85% in Uganda. The percentage of water points with functional water and sanitation committees was estimated at 89%, just one percentage point up from 2017. Currently, access to safe water is estimated at 70% - meaning that 30% of Uganda’s rural population remains unserved. However, the population that is counted as served also stands at risk of losing access to safe water.

 “Sustainability is an uphill challenge cutting across many countries. We in governments assume that we are serving people. We report coverage with good statistics, but we forget to issue a disclaimer that owing to non-functionality of facilities, there are some unserved communities,” observed Sentumbwe Ahmed, head of the Infrastructure, Operation and Maintenance (IOM) Division in the Ministry of Water and Environment.

The IOM Division in the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) is charged with overseeing maintenance and rehabilitation of infrastructure. Benchmarking and learning are key aspects of IOM’s approach to improving sustainability. In the May 2019 exchange learning visit to Ethiopia, officials from the IOM Division identified key issues and lessons about sustainability of rural water supply, and made recommendations on how to address them:

The maintenance challenge: Due to years of neglect, infrastructure is falling apart and there is a maintenance backlog . Take Ethiopia, where there are now 200,000 water supply schemes. Over the years, the maintenance requirements have escalated from mere nuts and bolts. There’s need for major rehabilitation, which requires major investment. But without a detailed assessment of rehabilitation needs, it is not clear the amount of resources required for such an investment. Levels of maintenance should be better defined to ascertain how the required costs can be shared between government and the community.

Funding/financing O&M: The level of financing available for O&M is far from adequate. In Ethiopia, while government allocation for O&M is improving, much of the funding goes into capacity building. The government still wants user communities to cover 100% of the cost of O&M, but with government as a backup. While WASHCOs exist for many schemes, not all collect user fees. Communities cannot cover the full cost of O&M because they cannot raise the required funds in situations which call for major repairs and rehabilitation, and that is where government steps in. In Uganda the rehabilitation programme at the national level is funded by the government. This is done through conditional grants allocated to local governments, 2% of which must be used for rehabilitation of facilities. Government efforts are complemented by funding from NGOs and money generated from user fees. It is also important to learn from other public goods and how their maintenance is financed.  For example, how is road maintenance financed?

Community based management system: When water sources are commissioned, they are handed over to Water User Committees (WUCs) in Uganda, and WASHCos in Ethiopia. These committees take over the responsibility of O&M. However, the committees are not legal entities, so it is difficult to hold them accountable. Legalizing and professionalizing the committees would improve their capacity and empower them for example to open bank accounts and improve financial management.

Role of private sector actors like Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs): Small and medium enterprises play a key role in providing O&M services. In Uganda the district Hand Pump Mechanics Association (HPMA) carry out assessments and repairs of water supply facilities. In Ethiopia, SMEs operate spare parts shops. But questions arise on how these small-scale private sector actors are regulated and how they can possibly operate as viable business entities. There’s also the question of who regulates the spare parts business, and how they manage to provide appropriate parts for widely varying systems and technologies. Different contexts provide different answers to all the outstanding questions. To bring the private sector effectively on board, it is essential to create an enabling environment and incentives that will convince the private sector that it is profitable and worthwhile to invest in O&M.

Innovative approaches to O&M: Sector actors are always introducing new innovations to improve O&M of water supply facilities, especially in rural areas. It was noted however, that there tends to be too many innovations which end at pilot stage, raising but not meeting community expectations.

Water quality monitoring: It is important for water quality to be fitted in functionality and sustainability monitoring. In Uganda, the Directorate of Water Resources Management (DWRM) ensures that every commissioned source passes the water quality test. Currently, there’s greater focus on water quality monitoring, and sources that don’t comply with the standards are decommissioned. For example, the construction of shallow wells was suspended because they were easily contaminated. The MWE is now focusing on deep sources which are more reliable and less prone to contamination.  With solar pumping, these deep sources can even serve more people.

Decentralisation and institutional set up: To strengthen institutional set up, the Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment has established ad hoc structures particularly Technical Support Units (TSUs) and Water Management Zones (WMZ), which address key water supply issues at regional level. A TSU covers a cluster of up to ten or twelve districts and is managed by specialists in the areas of public health, community development, social scientists and water specialists. These are supported by lower cadre staff. They do the monitoring and verification for all the sources that have been reported within their areas of jurisdiction. It is important for governments to set up structures that ensure that monitoring of service delivery occurs closer to the units of implementation.

After the two-day learning visit, both the Ethiopian and Ugandan teams committed to take specific actions to address outstanding issues and improve O&M:

Uganda:

  1. Redefine functionality of water facilities to include water quality and quantity
  2. Legalise water source committees to point water sources
  3. Create an enabling environment for the private sector to engage in water sustainability activities
  4. Strengthen and review the profile of the regulation department within the MWE
  5. Develop a capacity building strategy for all actors in the O&M chain
  6. Investigate technical options on how to implement shallow well suspension
  7. Address climate change issues that affect the water resources. Promote the catchment protection approach
  8. Address the spare parts supply chain
  9. Address the quality of installation materials of the WASH infrastructure
  10. Advocate for increased funding towards O&M activities and improve coordination of all actors to address challenges of limited resources

Ethiopia:

  1. Strengthen institutions to give more attention and allocate finances to sustainability of water supply facilities
  2. Ensure a good and enabling environment for the private sector e.g. access to credit and reduction of taxes
  3. Regulate private sector especially in respect to price of services and spare parts
  4. Review the cost of O&M currently covered by the community
  5. Mainstream water quality in O&M activities
  6. Develop a national guideline for the legalization of WASHCos
  7. Address water users’ unwillingness to pay for water services. This should be part of O&M
  8. Develop a capacity building strategy and clearly define the necessary logistics

WASH sector actors continue reflecting upon and generating ideas to improve O&M and water service delivery. In an effort to crystalise and operationalize the commitments made in Ethiopia, the IOM Division of Ministry of Water and Environment will on 12th July host a national dialogue on rural water O&M. In partnership with IRC Uganda Country Programme, the IOM Division will provide a platform for partners to share experiences, learn from each other and adopt recommendations for sustainability of rural water services.

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