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Viable institutions are key to strong WASH systems

Published on: 29/05/2019

IRC supports institutions that promise to improve and professionalise the delivery and management of WASH services. District Hand Pump Mechanics Associations (HPMAs) are an example of such institutions.

WASH systems thinking is the idea that drives IRC's approach to the development, implementation, and sustainability of WASH services. The interplay and collective performance of all the factors that contribute to the effectiveness and sustainability of WASH services are at the heart of IRC's understanding that the provision of these services happens in a complex system. For services to be provided and maintained, every actor and aspect of the system need to function and to be effective and adaptable. 

Strong institutions are a key system building block, comprising the structural arrangements that define the roles and responsibilities of different actors. The concept of institutions refers to the way the WASH sector is organised to deliver services to the population. This includes the capacity and resources that each entity or group – legislators, decision/policy makers, regulators, and service providers – has to perform its role and how the responsibilities of the different organisations and office bearers are coordinated to ensure effortless and reliable service delivery.

IRC's 2017 baseline study of WASH systems at the national level and in Kabarole District found that overall, the institutional arrangements for rural water supply in Kabarole were well-developed (scored 4 out of 5) with clearly defined roles and responsibilities of the service authority and service providers.

IRC supports institutions that promise to improve and professionalise the delivery and management of WASH services. District Hand Pump Mechanics Associations (HPMAs) are an example of such institutions. Since 2011, IRC has supported the Kabarole Hand Pump and Sanitation Association (KAHASA) to build its capacity to serve the WASH needs of people in the district and to develop into a viable business enterprise.

The role of HPMAs

With nearly 2,500 water source points in Kabarole, each overseen by a voluntary Water User Committee composed of community members, the district and central governments are hamstrung for time, personnel, technical capacity, and resources to support all these committees. "Imagine the amount of labour force you would need to follow up every single water source committee to keep them in good shape," says Sam Tusiime who is a Community Development Specialist with the Kabarole-based Technical Support Unit 6 (TSU6) of the Ministry of Water and Environment. The Ministry, the District Local Government (DLG) and their partners had to think outside the box to find a workable water service delivery system that the communities could afford and manage on their own. A core element of such a system was access to reliable technical expertise that the communities could call upon to maintain and repair their facilities whenever the need arose. That is how Stephen Baryebuga, general secretary of the Kabarole Hand Pump and Sanitation Association (KAHASA), and his colleagues came into the picture. "My role in Kabarole is to look at the infrastructure of water and sanitation in the district," says Baryebuga. "We carry out assessments of all the water sources including gravity flow schemes, boreholes, protected springs, shallow wells, rainwater harvesting tanks. We are looking at improved pit latrines in institutions and households."

Baryebuga started on this journey as a hand pump mechanic after participating in training that UNICEF sponsored in 2000. Then the Uganda Red Cross Society came calling with another training opportunity in 2002, after which Baryebuga and mechanics from different sub-counties were recruited to work on a newly launched water and sanitation project. When the Red Cross phased out, it recommended the mechanics to the District Water Office. This was the beginning of a relationship between the mechanics and the District Local Government (DLG) and with the communities that would come to rely on their services. Whenever the water and health offices needed personnel to assist with field work such as assessing assets and facilities, they turned to these mechanics whose skills they found handy.

Another window of opportunity opened up when the district introduced the mechanics to the Ministry, which took an interest in their work. But to leverage their collective potential, the mechanics needed to be organised. With the backing of the Ministry, they mobilised and got the association formalised and registered in 2010. The association currently has 28 members, two per sub-county, who pay a membership fee of 35,000 Uganda shillings annually. KAHASA became the platform for the partnership with the DLG and the Ministry and other WASH sector partners including IRC Uganda. One of the first projects the members undertook was by Triple S – IRC's forerunner – which was to collect data on service delivery indicators across all water sources with the use of mobile phones. "By then it was mobile phones for water," Baryebuga recalls. "They involved us in data collection to see the sustainability and functionality of all water sources in Kabarole District". 

Making the Kabarole HPMA a viable entity

IRC took the association under its wing. It trained members in community mobilisation skills which they used to facilitate the formation of water user committees, and supported them to consolidate their trade in repairing and rehabilitating water sources and managing sanitation facilities. The game changer for KAHASA was the support from IRC to develop a business plan that revolved around water and sanitation services. One of the association's first ventures conceived through the business plan was the rehabilitation of 16 water sources in Kabarole and neighbouring Bunyangabu District with IRC funding. These improved water sources were incorporated in the newly introduced pay-as-you-fetch model.

The learning visit to Lira District in June 2018 which IRC sponsored was particularly eye-opening for KAHASA members. For instance, they picked up valuable lessons about the organisation, operation, and performance of water and sanitation boards. Comparing their district's performance with that of Lira highlighted areas where Kabarole fell short and needed to improve. The long-term viability of KAHASA is an issue that concerns the members perennially. "We have two models now. We focused on water and sanitation first then we made it a business," explains Baryebuga. "That's why we wanted to have the pay-as-you-fetch water points such that if they collect some money, a percentage comes to our association. But the communities did not agree and we didn't want to fail the system."

The association had lobbied the user communities for a share of the revenues they collected from public water points. Having failed on that, it then prospected for business opportunities in the management of gravity flow water schemes. But it could not compete with government agencies like the Midwestern Umbrella and the National Water and Sewerage Corporation which are far better equipped technically and financially. The support of the Ministry proved pivotal, however. It lobbied the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Authority (PPDA) to have HPMAs exempted from some of the public procurement requirements and make it easier for them to compete for local government contracts. To reap the most from this affirmative action, KAHASA was advised to set up a company. And so Kabarole District Hand Pump Mechanics and Scheme Attendants kicked into life as a commercial unit. However, the company was a nonstarter. The competition was cutthroat and the taxes choking. The group then reverted to its original identity as an association. Yet the abortive foray into the harsh world of business did not dim the association's ambitions as a business entreprise.

In pursuit of its model of water as a business, KAHASA identified Kayengi sub-county, a water-stressed area, and initiated a plan to establish a gravity flow water scheme to serve the residents. But tests of water samples that the Ministry conducted found high levels of E. coli. Given the level of contamination, the cost of treating the water did not make business sense. The idea was abandoned. KAHASA members understood that to stand a chance of breaking through in the competitive world of water and sanitation business, they had to be enterprising. That meant coming up with original ideas and focusing on unserved and underserved areas of the district. This would also allow them to expand the association's revenue sources beyond grants from partners and local government tenders.

As it works to improve its business acumen, KAHASA is investing simultaneously in building confidence among decision makers in its capabilities. With the blessing of the Ministry, every year it signs a memorandum of understanding with the DLG to be considered for contract awards. "They were advised by the Ministry to do that," says Baryebuga. "When they are making open bids they put us in consideration. They are trying. The district is planning to give us a contract for extension of a gravity flow scheme with National Water." The association has developed several water sources in Karambi and Karugonjo sub-counties, and is scaling up its business plan through marketing of its sanitation services including construction of improved latrines and EcoSan toilets and removal of faecal sludge.

IRC supported the association with funds for the acquisition of a sanitation kit, a vital asset that will enable KAHASA's services to graduate from manual emptying of latrines to a mechanised process that is more efficient. Several households, a tea company, schools, tertiary educational institutions, and health facilities have been signed up as prospective clients. The association will earn income from the fees it will charge for the service. Fees are charged per 100-litre barrel of faecal matter recovered. The rate for a barrel is 20,000 shillings.

Sustainability and the future of KAHASA

Unity among hand pump mechanics is essential to improve their level of skills and quality of services. It is estimated that there are more than 100 water and sanitation technicians working in Kabarole District, offering various services as hand pump mechanics, plumbers, and masons. Yet only 28 are registered as members of KAHASA. Many find work privately in the communities and practice their trade unregulated. This has come with challenges. Some have been accused of mismanaging and vandalising infrastructure, and of unscrupulous charges for their services. This compelled KAHASA to seek the intervention of the district authorities. The DLG is now considering enacting a by-law or ordinance that will make it illegal for a non-member of the association to service government infrastructure. "We've discussed it and we've seen it is working," says Baryebuga. "No one can go to a sub-county to do work on any water source without the authorisation of the water and sanitation board. The priority goes to our members."

Accountability is an important factor in how hand pump mechanics deal with the communities they serve. "If there is a problem with their infrastructure, you have to give them clear information of what is required and what you have put in the system," says Baryebuga. Peter Opwanya, the team leader for the Ministry's TSU6, is impressed by KAHASA's contribution. "The association is active and they have been involved in a number of rehabilitation works and helping to increase coverage."

TSU6 has partnered with IRC to build the association's capacity in business planning. This has given it a foundation to diversify beyond water supply by moving into sanitation marketing, and to seek financing opportunities from banks. "We continue to strengthen their capacity from basic skills to soft skills and to a level where they can network, communicate effectively, and be able to diversify," says Opwanya.

By becoming a market-oriented and profitable entreprise, KAHASA will develop the financial muscle, human resources, and technical capacity to respond promptly to water supply and sanitation service disruptions. This will minimise water source downtime and ensure that water supply facilities are operational at all times. HPMAs like KAHASA are now recognised across Uganda for providing grassroots technical support in maintenance and rehabilitation of rural water supply facilities. Their presence ensures a sustainable support system for operation and maintenance of rural water points and increases their level of functionality through timely repairs. A major challenge that hand pump mechanics face is the lack of technical know-how for maintaining emerging technologies such as solar powered water supply systems. This will require that the HPMA, the DLG, the Ministry, and WASH partners in the district invest in training the mechanics to master the new technologies and to keep abreast of technological developments in the sector.

One of challenges identified by the IRC baseline study of 2017 was the inadequate human resources of the District Water Office, hence its limited capacity to support service providers and to carry out community mobilisation activities. In that regard, KAHASA would do well to plough back some of its profits for investment in continuous professional development and capacity building for its members.

Documented with support from Dr George Lugalambi

Email: glugalambi@hamwe.org

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