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Bridging the gap between districts and communities

Published on: 30/07/2012

In Uganda, new water and sanitation boards at sub-county level are designed to remedy the problem of lack of capacity in water user committees—making local management more professional and effective.

District authorities that took responsibility for rural water services in Uganda as part of the decentralisation process have developed thousands of improved water points, but not yet solved the problem of how to keep them functional. Part of the problem has been a management and governance gap at the very local level.

District water officers work with councillors and communities to respond to local need and to coordinate provision by civil society groups and government. But most districts have only two water officers, often without adequate transport, to support thousands of water supply sources and a rural population of 300,000-400,000 people spread over a dozen sub-counties and small towns.

The community-based management system (CBMS) is a cornerstone of rural water supply in Uganda: water point committees collect user payments and ensure that taps and pumps are clean and well maintained. While the best do their jobs well, research carried out by  Triple-S suggests that many volunteer water user or tap committees fail to collect money regularly or use it to keep water flowing.

Attempts are being made to bridge the gap between the district and the community and to transform support for local services. The major role will be filled by the sub-county layer of local government (LC3) that exists midway between community user groups and the district authority (LC5). Sub-county authorities have elected chairpersons and councils comprising of parish councillors. The executive arm is headed by the Senior Assistant Secretary (SAS), supported by health, agriculture and community development extension workers. Each sub-county can call on hand pump mechanics as independent contractors.

Sub-county is “strategically located”

Paul Nyeko Ogiramoi, principal engineer in the rural water planning and development department of the Ministry of Water and the Environment says the sub-county water boards are emerging as a critical resource to reduce pressure on district water officers. “We have a big gap between the district local government and the people who are supposed to receive water services at community level. The sub-county is strategically located in the sense that it is very close to the community and it has the legal instrument as the government to interact with the community and to provide services.”

Triple-S is working to strengthen the capacity of sub-counties and is supporting moves to establish Sub-county Water and Sanitation Boards to work directly with water user committees and district water officers. Six boards have been established In Kabarole District and they are also being introduced in other districts of Uganda.

Martin Watsisi, Triple-S learning facilitator for Kabarole, says the aim is to make local management more professional. “Water user committees look after water systems with very limited capacity and need overarching support. The sub-county water supply and sanitation boards will be monitoring, building capacity and overseeing the way water users committees look after water points. At each sub-county there are at least two hand pump mechanics and there is need for someone at sub-county level to contact, contract and engage their services.”

Martin Watsisi, left, talks to community members at Magura shallow well in Karambi sub-county, Kabarole District.


The sub-county chief executive acts as secretary to the water and sanitation board, which elects a chairperson from the water user committees, and includes the Community Development Officer, extension staff, parish councillors and representatives of the water user committees. The plan is to appoint an engineering assistant in charge of water who to support the board and supervise water user committees day-to-day.

Robert Otim, Triple-S learning facilitator for Lira District, says that, in the past, a lack of dedicated staff has hindered the development of robust local services. “We have sub-county health assistants attached to the district health office. We have the assistant community development officer attached to the district development office. We don’t have any extension staff attached directly to the district water officer. If that gap is addressed seriously, I think we can see some direct improvement in terms of capacity.”

Boards will focus on technical expertise

The Commissioner for Rural Water Supply and Sanitation, at the Ministry of Water and Environment, Engineer Aaron Kabirizi, , sees water boards as a way of focusing technical expertise in each sub-county, supervising the work of the handpump mechanics, gravity flow scheme attendants and other artisans. “By bringing them together we can support them and build their capacity so that they can work better. We think that maintenance will be better done at sub-county level,” he explains.

Ogiramoi points out that the boards already exist for piped water schemes in 80% of sub-counties. Their brief will be extended to cover all water points and sanitation, and they will get support. “We are going to build on existing strengths. We already have water boards that take care of the piped water supply and now we are saying we need to increase their role. We need a support management mechanism that can gear us towards professionalising the community based management system.”

Once the boards are fully functional, part of the district water and sanitation conditional grant from government will be devolved. This has the capacity to provide each sub-county with an annual rehabilitation fund of approximately UgShs 2.8 million (US$ 1,080). In addition to this, if each household pays a monthly fee of UgShs 500 (US$ 0.20), water point committees will collect about UgSh 36 million (US$ 13,870) a year in each sub-county, part of which will be passed to the water boards. This would provide sufficient resources to pay the water technician, to hold board meetings and to rehabilitate 18 water points each year. Ogiramoi says that the district Hand Pump Mechanics Association and the new engineering assistant will provide the board with day to day technical capacity, while the sub-county officials will provide managerial experience. Board members will receive facilitation for transport and meals to attend meetings, but will not be paid.

Eng. Aaron Kabirizi, Commissioner for Rural Water Supply and Sanitation, checks the water from a protected spring in Rwebijooka, Buheesi in Kabarole district.


Origamoi said that the boards will manage services on behalf of the community, but contract a private operator for day to day operations. “The role of the board will be to manage these private operators so that the water is flowing, fees are collected, minor maintenance is carried out and preventative maintenance is carried out. The technician will supervise the private operator. Because the hand pump mechanics are currently the most experienced technicians known to the community, I think the board would be well advised to start with the hand pump mechanic as the private operators.”

Ogiramoi said that the boards would strengthen user committees and not replace them – they would have a shared role in keeping services functional. The boards would address those areas that had proved difficult in the past for user committees to manage – giving support for record keeping, financial management and contract management. Water user committees will still play the leading role in mobilising communities to pay fees.

Peter McIntyre 

Please see the links below for related videos.  Eng Aaron Kabirizi, the Commissioner for Rural Water Supply and Sanitation in Uganda explains how sub-county water boards will make a difference to water services and functionality and Paul Nyeko Ogiramoi explains how water supply and sanitation boards at local sub-county level can make community management work.