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Published on: 16/06/2013

Pius Mugabi has seen huge increases in people’s expectations and demand for water in his eight years as District Water Officer in Kabarole, Uganda.

“In the past, a single source was enough for virtually 200-300 households”, he recalls. “Many people had to walk 2-3 kilometres with a few jars to collect water for drinking. They would use ponds and rivers for washing and wash their clothes in the streams and even go home with water for drinking from these sources. Now people expect water within 500 metres of their homes.”

Mugabi was a pioneer of community management, taking part in the first training of water point committees in Kabarole. But today the community management model is showing limitations. People expect more, and better, but do not necessarily want a ‘do it yourself’ solution or to cover the costs themselves.

The district water office steps in when water points are hit by major failures – as when rockslides in Rwenzori took out part of the gravity pipe system in Buheesi sub-county in November 2012– but cannot do it all. Pius Mugabi has one assistant and they don’t even have a car to travel across this rural district of 380,000 people in Western Uganda.

Rising demand and higher expectations

John Kusemererwa chairman of the Busoro sub-county agrees that rising population and increased demand is testing resources to the limit. “The water sources are not enough to cater for the big population both for human consumption and for production. We need water for animal consumption, and even irrigation. Water tables keep changing because of human activity. You will find you have sunk a well somewhere and the neighbour comes and plants trees which consume a lot of water. You also have animals come and tramp on the water sources.

“Everyone wants water in his compound and we are finding it a bit difficult because of the resources we have. Even then, we still have some villages which do not measure that yardstick of being one kilometre from the water source.”

Rising demand is, of course, a sign of successful development, as Sylvester Katesigwa, hand pump mechanic in Kicwamba sub-county, testifies. “People used to fetch water from open wells which were contaminated and sometimes suffered from worms or typhoid. Now people are living a better life. People have washed their clothes and washed their bodies. They look smart and their homes have changed.”

A double challenge: expanding coverage and maintaining services

Engineer Aaron Kabirizi, Commissioner for Rural Water Supply and Sanitation, at the Ministry of Water and the Environment, sees a double challenge – expanding services to the people in Uganda who lack access to safe water and ensuring that systems are well run and maintained. “We have done quite well in raising the coverage, although it is not yet where I want it,” he says. “But the major challenge now is functionality.”

Pius Mugabi agrees. He says that water point committees are often poorly organised and fail to collect user fees. “People are reluctant to pay and because there are many [informal] water sources when the borehole breaks down they move on to the next one and then the pumps get vandalised.”

This is highlighted in Buheesi sub-county by two water points scarcely a kilometre apart. Committee members at one 40 metre borehole with handpump have no problems in collecting the 1,000 Ug sh. (US$ 0.38) from each of 70 households every four months, and have saved 70,000 UGX (US$ 27) in case of breakdown. However, at a nearby gravity pipe tap only 12 of the 42 households pay the 200 UGX (US$ 0.80) monthly fees. Sarah Kanatunga, vice chair of the water point committee, says that the other 30 households tell them: “The Government gives this for free and we should not have to pay.”

This view is also common in Lira District in Northern Uganda where the Lord’s Resistance Army terrorised the area for more than a decade, forcing communities into refugee camps. After the rebels were driven out, the sector struggled to establish itself. Triple-S district learning coordinator, Robert Otim, says that the sense of ownership had vanished as communities were dependent on humanitarian aid.

Jimmy Otim, Lira Assistant District Water Officer, says that during the emergency NGOs worked without reference to local government. “There was no a restriction on what they did. NGOs gave committees money to maintain the water, as NGOs had a lot of money and wanted to show that they were doing something good. When all these people went, there was no longer any money. The community says why should I continue to look after this?

“When you call a meeting they expect you to give them some money and that is a big problem for us. You are talking to someone for five minutes and they tell you they need transport. We have to change people’s minds and that is taking us a long time. One of the things we are trying to do is that everybody says the same thing, so we don’t have a politician saying that government water sources are free.”

Finding solutions

Triple-S partners with local government in Kabarole and Lira to make the provision of services more professional and sustainable. Triple-S is involved in capacity building at sub-county level, seen as a critical layer of local government, close to the communities, but able to interact with the districts. Among innovations are sub-county Water Supply and Sanitation Boards , the development of Hand Pump Mechanics Associations , and the M4Water phone system to report breakdowns and track repairs. There are also moves to establish savings and loans committees as an incentive for households to pay water point fees.

With 18 months of project work left, Triple-S is working on guidelines to spread the adoption of these innovations, to leave a legacy of stronger governance and sustainability. Robert Otim says: “Without effective coordination and harmonisation there is no way we can implement sustainable services at community level. We have got great action research studies. What is very important and what we need to leave with the sector is how these action research innovations link to and reinforce each other.”

Peter McIntyre  16 June 2013

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