10th May, 2006
Thirsty for safe water

Government figures show that Uganda has performed well on Millennium Development Goal Seven on water and the environment. As RICHARD M. KAVUMA writes, however, sanitation threatens to soil the party.

From 7 am to 8 pm everyday, Roza Kagoya fiercely watches over the borehole in Nabunyere village, Kadama subcounty, in Pallisa district.
“I told you I don’t want children here,” she barked in a sharp voice, picking up and aiming an imaginary whip as children below seven scampered. “What will your parents do if it gets spoilt?”

It is nine years since Nabunyere residents collected Shs 180,000 as their contribution towards a borehole; two months since they first drank water from it. To maintain the water source, each of the about 600 beneficiary households contributes Shs 1,000 a month. The villagers also elected a water user’s committee (WUC).

Kagoya, a mother of two, is the kalunda mazzi or caretaker of the borehole. Her duties include ensuring that the area around the borehole is kept clean, no dirty containers are used to draw water and that no unaccompanied children fetch water. WUC chairman Sepiriano Tawulya, says the caretaker is not paid for her job.

“I do this job voluntarily because of the water; because I used to suffer a lot before we got water here,” says Kagoya in Luganda.
The villagers used to walk four miles to Nandere to get water.

Tawulya says older women sent children, while others like Kagoya would carry water on their heads, rest in tree sheds and then start walking again.

According to Pallisa District Water Officer, Patrick Buyinza, Kadama is one of the sub counties with the lowest access to safe water. And according to Water minister Maria Mutagamba, Pallisa is among the districts with the lowest access to safe water in Uganda. While safe water access in the country is over 60 percent, in Pallisa it is only 40 percent.

Under Millennium Development Goal Seven, Uganda committed itself to halve the proportion of Ugandans without access to safe water between 1990 and 2015.

Figures from the Department of Water Development show that in 1990, rural access to safe drinking water stood at 24 percent meaning that 76 percent lacked access to safe water.
To achieve the MDG target, Uganda needed to increase access to 60 percent by 2015.

“Today, rural water coverage is about 60 percent and urban 70 percent,” Water Minister Maria Mutagamba said during in an interview. “We believe if we move on the same target, we are likely to meet the urban target which is 85 percent by 2015 while [in the rural areas] the target is 75 percent.”

Under the Uganda Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP), government had set itself more ambitious goals. The PEAP target is have each Ugandan access safe drinking water by 2015.

“We have moved but the question is whether we will be able to catch up because there are so many factors which bring us down. One is availability of resources. Like this year we got a [budget] cut,” the minister said.

Last year, her ministry got 3.3 percent of the national budget, this year, 2.9 percent. Another challenge is population, which is growing much faster than anticipated. Demographic experts have been warning for years that the current 3.4 percent annual population growth rate cannot be matched by current service delivery capacity.

What this means is that if Mutagamba plans to build ten boreholes for a village and achieve a ratio of 800 people per borehole, by the time the boreholes are sunk, the ratio could be as high as 1,000 people per borehole, meaning she would need to build more boreholes to maintain the same access level just for another one year.

In war-devastated northern Uganda, water provision has been upset by the response to the crisis there. While the ministry has been trying to provide water to people in IDP camps, there is now an effort to decentralise the camps, meaning that people from one camp could be spread across five camps or so. This, the minister says, is bound to stretch the resources of the ministry further.

Mutagamba’s task has not been helped by changing weather patterns: “For the last three years, we have not received adequate rain,” she said. “...where we had put shallow wells during the rainy season, most of them have run dry. We are now trying to find out how many deep wells we have.”

While major urban centres have piped water, availability of water in rural areas is much more susceptible to weather changes. Minister Mutagamba cited the cattle corridor, from the south up to the north, as one of the areas that face perennial water shortages. The cattle corridor includes areas like Mbarara, Kooki, Mubende, Kiboga, Karamoja and West Nile.

In the east, the most stricken area is around Busia. Because that is an area round Lake Victoria, bore holes cannot be sunk. Pallisa, Katakwi, Kaberamaido are also in the dry belt.

Money, money, money
Mutagamba says that every year the ministry needs 25 million dollars to ensure that another 970,000 people have access to safe drinking water.

Pallisa Water Officer, Patrick Buyinza, also sees inadequate funding as the biggest barrier to safe water access. While a local community contributes Shs 180,000 per borehole, it costs Shs 10 – 18 million to sink one borehole.

“For us in Pallisa, to raise coverage by one percent, we need Shs 300 million going by the present population figures,” says Buyinza.
In the last financial year, 61 boreholes were sunk and 11 water springs protected in the district under central government grants and the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund.

But besides installing water facilities, government has also been getting concerned about maintenance. “....there is now need to own the bore holes and stop seeing them as government programmes,” Mutagamba said.

This is what the people of Nabunyere have done with Rose Kagoye and the water committee, whose major aim is to preserve the borehole.

Sanitation worries
One thing that Kagoye takes for granted is the pit latrine. For her, it “cannot be asked” whether one has a latrine or not. In many homes in the country, however, disposal of faeces remains a big public health problem.

According to the UN Children’s Fund, Unicef, of the 4.4 million African children who die each year, diarrhoea, which is closely associated with poor sanitation and hygiene, kills 701,000.

The 2005 Uganda Human Development Report estimates that 80 percent of the disease burden in Uganda is associated with poor sanitation and lack of hygiene. The country’s latrine coverage was 48 percent by 2003 and is now said to be around 55 percent, with barely 5 percent of the population able to access piped sewerage services.

Mr. Paul Luyima, the Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Health, told The Weekly Observer that government was promoting three strategies of community mobilisation, enforcing health laws and bylaws and development of relevant latrine technologies for people in difficult areas.

Luyima also notes that there has been progress from the mid 1980s, when only 23 percent of the population could access “acceptable sanitation facilities” to the present 60 percent.
“We hope that by 2015, we will have pushed it to 80 percent,” He said in an interview.

The Human Development Report notes that sanitation remains poor partly because discussing it remains a taboo in most areas and donors too have not prioritised sanitation. Another reason, as Minister Mutagamba also noted, is that there is no single agency responsible for sanitation. So it’s like a parentless child disowned from time to time by Water, Health and Education.

For Luyima, a key challenge is that sanitation involves behavioural or even cultural change – and that normally takes time.
“If one has been used to using the bush [as the toilet], it is difficult to make that person change overnight,” Luyima said.

It is also said that at the community level, Local Council officials who would be instrumental in ensuring basic sanitation levels are reluctant to do so. This is because their positions are elective and they do not want to push the voters too much lest they are voted out.

Yet there is a critical link between sanitation and safety of water. Around 1998, a survey of 311 springs and wells in Kampala showed that 95 percent of them were contaminated with faeces. Luyima, who conducted the survey, says however that El Nino rains may have raised the percentage beyond the usual prevalence. But there is no doubt sanitation is a problem. Another survey of 161 homesteads in Kampala found that in 57 percent of them, faeces could be seen in the open.

“There is widespread use of polythene bags [flying toilet] in Kampala, where people put faeces in a kavera and throw away,” says Luyima, “When it rains, all this runoff finds its way into the water sources”

Private sector role
During the Water Sector review in Kampala in September, one of the hotly debated issues was the statement by minister Kahinda Otafiire fixing the price of water in small towns.

The statement had alarmed technical people in the sector, who feared it would erode the sustainability of the participation of private firms in the sector.
Mutagamba said the ministry had since created a team to study the implications of the minister’s statement although Otafiire himself insisted all was well.

Private operators are involved in two forms – either managing water systems constructed by government, receiving operation and maintenance fees, and earning a commission on the revenue collected; or private firms are contracted to build and then hand over water systems to government.

“There is a new branch of private sector who are the real investors,” Mutagamba says. “They have started with small amounts of money [setting up and running their water schemes]. These are the people who are really coming to our rescue because with 768 small towns and at the rate of 10 towns per year, I think I need 70 years to cover [all the towns in] this country.”

The issue of how government deals with private water service providers is not clear and Mutagamba says it has been referred to the water policy committee.

One example is Mukono. A private firm had been providing water for over three years only to be pushed away by government. The National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) is also intending to push out the service provider in Lugazi.

“We are now looking at the policy. How do we handle these people who have initially done their investment; do they become partners? Do we just send them off?” she said.

USAID has signalled intentions to give money to government but in a way that involves the private sector. The World Economic Forum, which includes the largest water companies, has sponsored a private sector consultant in Mutagamba’s office as president of the African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW). The consultant will work out strategies of how big players can help small towns.

As the small towns get help, the more critical need is in the villages like Nabunyere, where one borehole or protected spring makes all the difference. Often it can be the difference between life and death.