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
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
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
“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
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
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
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,
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
“If one has been used to using the bush [as the toilet],
it is difficult to make that person change overnight,”
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
“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
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.