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How can water utilities provide reliable water to poor people in African cities?

By Chris Heymans co-authors: Rolfe Eberhard, David Ehrhardt, Shannon Riley

Urban Africa: Rapidly growing and densifying. Photo Credit: Kathy Eales / World BankUrban Africa: Rapidly growing and densifying. Photo Credit: Kathy Eales / World BankSustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 targets “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all”. However, in Africa’s fast-growing cities, just accessing water is a daily struggle for many poor families. While Africa’s urban population is expected to triple by 2050, the proportion of people with improved water supply has barely grown since 1990, and the share of those with water piped to their premises has declined from 43 percent in 1990 to 33 percent in 2015. Poor families bear the brunt of these inadequacies through poor health, the long time required to collect water, and higher costs when purchasing from on-sellers’.

However, some cities stand out as exceptions. What can we learn from cities and utilities that successfully provide reliable and safe water to almost all of their inhabitants? A study I led recently, Providing Water to Poor People in African Cities Effectively: Lessons from Utility Reforms, analyzed how the water utilities in Kampala, Nyeri, Dakar, Ouagadougou and Durban achieved stand-out performance, and how this made a difference for the poor people in these cities.

In these cities, improving financial performance was critical to effective and sustainable provision. The utilities charged tariffs that recovered their costs and implemented strategies to effectively collect revenues, while ensuring that services were affordable for their customers, especially poor households. A variety of pro-poor strategies were employed, such as carefully designed rising block tariff structures and cross-subsidies for residential consumption, and capping on-sellers’ mark-ups.

They also adopted new technologies such as prepaid standpipes and mobile self-metering and payment, and improvised to overcome barriers that prevent them from supplying water to informal areas. For instance, the National Water and Sanitation Office (L’Office national de l’eau et de l’assainissement, ONEA) in Ouagadougou works with small providers to deliver services where the utility cannot due to land tenure rules.

Effective management was essential in achieving the above. In each case, effective management resulted from a reform of the utility, which moved from poor performance to relatively good performance. We also found three key characteristics of successful reforms in each case -- a catalytic event, a skilled and motivated manager, and a confident political leader who supported and protected reform.

Water Fund to benefit conservation

A new project that aims to deliver sustained water supply to over 9.3 million people while conserving the environment has been launched today in Kenya.

The project, known as Nairobi Water Fund, has been described as the fi rst in Africa by its implementing partners, and is expected to generate US$21.5 million in long-term benefi ts to Kenyan consumers, farmers and businesses.

It is being implemented through a public-private partnership led by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which has its headquarters in the United States.

According to TNC, 60 per cent of Nairobi’s residents lack access to a reliable water supply, with the problem expected to become worse through unpredictable rainfall resulting from climate change.

“Water funds are founded on the principle that it is cheaper to prevent water problems at the source than it is to address them further downstream,” TNC adds.

Fred Kihara, the outreach manager of TNC’s Nairobi Water Fund, says: “The water fund mobilizes people involved in water catchment conservation to use scientifi cally-proven methods to maintain a green infrastructure. The private, public partnership engaging farmers will result in cleaner, more quantity of water and a greener infrastructure.”

According to Kihara, TNC and partners have developed a global portfolio of 32 water funds now conserving more than seven million acres of watersheds and secure water supplies for 50 million people.

“Through the fund, Kenya can spearhead for Africa an ecosystems programme that brings benefi ts to all,” he adds.

The partners involved in the project include the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC), Kenya’s electricity generating company KenGen, Water Resources Management Agency, Kenya, Coca Cola Africa Foundation and smallholder farmers who have adopted agricultural practices to conserve the environment and improve dry season water flow.

Fred Kizito, a senior scientist with CIAT, Kenya, says scientifi c guidance and research will play a major role in making sure that the programme succeeds.

He tells SciDev.Net: “Research helped build the ‘business case’ to show that investing at least US$10 million in onthe-ground environmental management efforts for the Upper Tana River will have a tangible impact on water quality and quantity, and farm productivity.

“We can only know if the [Nairobi] Water Fund is delivering on its promises by monitoring ongoing impact on soil erosion and water quality. CIAT is using various monitoring and assessment tools such as real-time water quality sensors, runoff and erosion detectors, soil moisture probes and rapid infi ltration tests, among others, to quantify impact of interventions.”

Philip Gichuki, the NCWSC managing director, who also chairs the fund, notes that Nairobi has witnessed tremendous growth in water demand.

“We plan to invest in expanding our water supply, since at least 30 per cent more water is needed,” Gichuki says.

Meeting this demand depends on the conservation efforts in the catchment area and on farmers championing the cause such as Jane Kabugi, whose home on a steep slope overlooks Kiama River, a source of the nearby Ndakaini Dam that supplies 85 per cent of Nairobi’s water.

“Alongside other farmers, we have dug trenches, planted grasses and bamboo to prevent soil erosion and sedimentation in the river as part of conservation measures to ensure that the dam has adequate water supply throughout the year,” Kabugi says.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa desk.

Facts and Figures on Water Quality and Health

The global health challenge: preventing water quality-related disease

• No safe drinking-water: almost 1 billion people lack access to an improved supply
• Diarrhoeal disease: 2 million annual deaths attributable to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene
• Cholera: more than 50 countries still report cholera to WHO
• Cancer and tooth/skeletal damage: millions exposed to unsafe levels of naturally-occurring arsenic and fl uoride 
• Schistosomiasis: an estimated 260 million infected 
• Emerging challenges: increasing use of wastewater in agriculture is important for livelihood opportunities, but also associated with serious public health risks

The Health Opportunities: Implementing good practice

• 4% of the global disease burden could be prevented by improving water supply, sanitation, and hygiene 
• A growing evidence base on how to target water quality improvements to maximize health benefi ts
• Better tools and procedures to improve and protect drinking-water quality at the community and urban level, for example through Water Safety Plans
• Availability of simple and inexpensive approaches to treat and safely store water at the household-level.

Wastewater use

Safe use of wastewater, excreta and greywater

• A growing world population, unrelenting urbanization, increasing scarcity of good quality water resources and rising fertilizer prices are the driving forces behind the accelerating upward trend in the use of wastewater, excreta and greywater for agriculture and aquaculture.
• The health risks associated with this practice have been long recognized, but regulatory measures were, until recently, based on rigid guideline values whose application often was incompatible with the socio- economic settings where most wastewater use takes place. 
• In 2006, WHO published a third edition of its Guidelines for the safe use of wastewater, excreta and greywater in agriculture and aquaculture. In four volumes, these Guidelines propose a fl exible approach of risk assessment and risk management linked to health-based targets that can be established at a level that is realistic under local conditions. The approach is to be backed-up by strict monitoring measures.

Prepaid Meters Scupper Gains Made in Accessing Water in Africa

Whether they like it or not many Africans faced with the possibility of having to access water through prepaidWhether they like it or not, many Africans faced with the possibility of having to access water through prepaid meters have resorted to unprotected and often unclean sources of water because they cannot afford to pay. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPSBy Jeffrey Moyo

While many countries appear to have met the U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water, rights activists say that African countries which have taken to installing prepaid water meters have rendered a blow to many poor people, making it hard for them to access water.

“The goal to ensure that everyone has access to clean water here in Africa faces a drawback as a number of African countries have resorted to using prepaid water meters, which certainly bar the poor from accessing the precious liquid,” Claris Madhuku, director of the Platform for Youth Development, a Zimbabwean democracy lobby group, said.

Prepaid water meters work in such a way that if a person cannot pay in advance, he or she will be unable to access water.




Current Issue: Africa Water & Sanitation & Hygiene November - December 2017 Vol.12 No.6