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Self supply: great potential to improve water services

posted 6 Feb 2012, 02:18 by RCN Uganda   [ updated 16 Mar 2012, 03:48 ]

Enhancement of self-supply initiatives can go a long way in improving access to safe water in Uganda and ultimately attaining the MDG targets. This was the key message emerging from the discussions that transpired during the National Learning Forum on self supply in December 2011. The Forum was organised by The Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) in partnership with Uganda Water and Sanitation NGO Network (UWASNET), Network for Water and Sanitation (NETWAS), Sustainable Services at Scale (Triple-S) Uganda, Uganda Rain Water Association (URWA) and Water Aid Uganda.

The Forum was organised to reflect on the effectiveness of the existing self-supply initiatives, focusing on institutional and policy supporting policies and structures; private sector experiences; technologies; and financing mechanisms among others. It attracted a wide range of participants including MWE ministers, officials and technocrats; representatives from various district local governments; actors from local and international non-government agencies; as well as participants from Ethiopia and Zambia.

Discussions in the Forum indicated that for a long time, many individuals and communities have been making efforts to improve their water supplies without relying on external help. Examples abound of individuals, households, even communities that are drawing water from springs, hand-dug wells, pulleys, harvested rainwater, shallow wells with low cost hand pumps and deep wells for those who can afford.

Indeed the MWE recognises and supports these efforts. For example, the Minister of Water and Environment, Honourable Maria Mutagamba is a renowned champion for rainwater harvesting. District Water Officers are offering technical expertise to people who are undertaking self-supply initiatives. Hand Pump Mechanics are being trained on installation of appropriate technologies; local workshops in Kampala, Jinja, Iganga, Soroti are fabricating rope pumps and spare parts. Above all, the Ministry has drafted a national framework to guide self-supply efforts and activities.

All these efforts are taking shape in the face of ever increasing levels of access to safe water. At the opening of the learning Forum, Engineer Aaron Kabirizi on behalf of the Minister of Water reported that safe water coverage in rural areas has increased from 20% in 1991 to 65% in 2011. That is a leap in the right direction, but far from hitting the MDG target which is to halve, by 2015, the number of people who do not have access to safe and sustainable water sources. And this is the reason why, in spite of all the hardships, actors are exploring the full potential of self-supply initiatives.

Without a doubt, self-supply comes with many advantages for the benefitting individuals, households and communities. In many cases the supplies are shared with neighbours and this translates into innumerable benefits for entire communities. Users also enjoy the advantages that come with proximity since self-supply sources are always close to the home. Moreover, there are higher chances for reliability, functionality and sustainability because there is a strong sense of ownership which drives users to put more effort in maintenance.

While self-supply has the promise to improve the situation, there are several challenges that still need to be addressed. Key among those is the absence of clear guidelines on technology options, specifications and standards. The tendency is for authorities to discourage the use of self supply sources which is premised on the belief that self-supply sources do not meet the government standards of construction and quality. This discourages community initiatives.  Indeed most self-supply initiatives are undertaken without technical advice. In many situations for example, sources are set up without first testing the quality and quantity of water. Some participants in the Forum shared information about homes where water sources are set up near latrines. What this calls for is the urgent setting of standards.

Speaking of guidelines, there is currently no definite government policy on self-supply. The approach is not even included in the sector investment plans and financing mechanisms. Institutional roles in terms of planning, financing and regulation are not clearly defined.  In fact, participants raised the concern that there is likely to be a clash in policies especially if self-supply is to be promoted in urban areas which are served by National Water and Sewerage (NWSC). Apparently NWSC has the mandate to supply urban areas, and the corporation need to generate enough revenue from sales in order to sustain its operations. Thus, the promotion of self-supply will lead to a reduction in sales revenue, threatening the very existence of NWSC.

The other challenge is about limited funding for self-supply projects. Usually the owner has to bear all the costs. In one case in Wakiso district, an individual installed a self-supply water system at his home. Soon enough his neighbours started fetching water, but when he asked them to contribute towards the maintenance of the pump, they all disappeared. On the other hand, there are some individuals who end up exploiting community members under the guise of collecting fees to maintain the sources. A case was reported in Iganga where an owner used to charge exorbitant fees from people who used to access his source simply because they did not have an alternative. Yet, because they are owned by individuals, self-supply initiatives may not attract donor support. One of the recommendations here was to support artisans, communities and individuals undertaking self-supply initiatives either by giving them direct access to funding support or by offering subsidies on the materials they use in their activities.

Other concerns arise from issues like equity and inclusion with the observation that self-supply would result into the exclusion, especially of the poor. Concern was also raised about the possibility that the water table will be affected as a result of multiple opening of sources.

All the challenges notwithstanding, self-supply is a worthwhile approach. Discussions in the Learning Forum came up with several recommendations on how it can be taken forward.  On guidelines, the participants called for the completion of the self-supply guiding framework as this will enable different stakeholders to develop guided strategies.

By Lydia Mirembe, Communication and Advocacy Officer, Triple-S Uganda