Self-help improves supplies in rural Uganda

A recently completed study into rural water self-help initiatives in Uganda has identified considerable household- and community-level improvements to rural water supplies, and significant potential for encouraging further implementation of self-supply initiatives. Professor Richard Carter of the UK's Cranfield University, team leader for the project, and Aaron Kabirizi, the Ugandan government's assistant commissioner for rural water, outline the study team's findings.

The rural water sector in Uganda, as in many low-income countries, is one in which decentralised authorities (District Water Offices) contract out the construction of new water sources to the local private sector on behalf of communities. It is increasingly recognised that this “conventional” approach, in which the initiative for new construction lies with government, and communities (of various degrees of heterogeneity) are expected to take responsibilty for operation and maintenance, will fail to achieve full and sustainable coverage in the short-term.

Most water-sector non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operate in a similar fashion to the government. NGO-funding of rural water and sanitation in Uganda probably lies between 4% and 17% of total sector spending although the exact figures are not known with certainty. Uganda’s current national safe water coverage is estimated at 61%, varying across districts from 23% to 93%.

Aspects of the available data indicate however, that in some cases the figures are over-estimates. Accepted “improved” safe water technologies include protected springs, gravity-flow schemes, boreholes and shallow wells with hand pumps, and communal and institutional rainwater harvesting.

Self-supply is a relatively new concept to those in the Ugandan government and NGOs who are trying to improve rural and urban water services. The concept has been extensively investigated in Zambia and work has been carried out in a few countries in West Africa. The increasing focus on technologies such as rainwater harvesting and shallow groundwater, which especially lend themselves to self-supply initiatives and possible targeted external support, made this study especially timely in Uganda.

The study made a number of findings:

  • The notion of self-supply is difficult for many organisations and individuals who are used to implementing conventional approaches to community water supply. There is a strong tendency to divide water sources into those which are ‘traditional’, unimproved, unsafe and therefore unacceptable, and those which are improved, safe, and therefore acceptable.
  • The study identified four main groundwater water source types, which fitted the self-supply concept, varying from the rudimentary to the increasingly sophisticated.

    Type 1 – a very shallow (<1m) small water hole ("almost a spring") on a hillslope or near the valley floor, sometimes protected by earth bunds and/or stone or timber to allow access without entering the water.
    Type 2 – a more extensive, deeper (up to 2-3m) valley tank, utilising shallow groundwater from a swamp or near-swamp.

    Type 3 – a self-initiated usually brick-lined shallow well, with rope-and-bucket, windlass or handpump.

    Type 4 – a private borehole with handpump or submersible pump.

  • The initiators of self-supply improvements tend to be:
    1. Influential community members or leaders
    2. Relatively wealthy rural or urban householders who can invest in, for example, shallow wells
    3. Rural or urban householders with political influence who can use their authority to steer government investment to their own and their neighbours’ advantage
    4. Businesses and institutions (including NGOs and foundations), often with foreign funding links.
  • Regarding source use, very few truly private sources were identified. Private sources are usually shared, either free of charge, or at a small charge for water. Water users tend not to participate in maintenance and care of the source.

    In the more rural areas, paying for water can be completely unacceptable still, although this is less so in trading centres and conurbations. Multiple source usage (using the better quality supply for drinking, and an inferior quality source for other domestic purposes) does happen, but in many cases rural people were found to use one source for all purposes.
  • Investments in self-supply fall into four categories:
    1. Input of local labour and materials only
    2. Investment of private Ugandan cash
    3. ‘Steering’ of government funds
    4. Foreign money.
  • Barriers to self-supply include:
    1. The official position of the authorities, to discourage use of poor water quality sources
    2. The insistence by both government agencies and NGOs that they support communities, not individuals
    3. The blind-spot of both government and NGOs regarding the positive steps people have made to improve their sources
    4. The inability of all but a very few to invest in the more expensive (type 3 and type 4) technical options.

As a result of the findings, the team proposed a new way of conceptualising water supply services that recognises a spectrum from unimproved traditional sources through to a full in-home on-demand service. This approach scores any individual source on a scale of 0 (poor), 1 (medium) or 2 (good) against each of five characteristics: access, water quality, reliability, cost and management. In this way a source can score anything from 0 to 10.

It is important to stress, though, that access, water quality and reliability are only achieved at a cost, in both financial and management terms. Consequently even a traditional unimproved source can score up to about 4 (if access and reliability are good, and since cost and the management burden are small). A fully treated piped water supply would probably only ever score 8, because of the high per capita cost of development.

This conceptual framework allows a more integrated and balanced approach to the consideration of water supply service improvements, without over-emphasising one issue (such as water quality) at the expense of others, which may be more important to consumers (eg access and reliability). The trade-off between service level (access, quality, reliability) and cost and management is made explicit.

It also enables one to rapidly assess the characteristics of a ‘traditional’ source and identify areas for support or assistance. Rather than ignoring people’s own self-supply initiatives and investing only in conventional improved sources, issues of access, source protection and reliability can be prioritised with households and communities, and addressed accordingly – perhaps at significantly lower cost than in the conventional approach.

The study recommended additional support and subsidy to private source owners to develop water sources, on the basis that such sources will be used not just by the individual, but also by the surrounding community. It also recommended support to private source operators, to enable them to carry out source management and maintenance without the need for water user committees, but with sensitisation of user households to the need to contribute financially in return for source reliability. Support to private well-diggers, in the form of training, equipment and/or improved access to credit was also recommended.

The study was completed in August 2005, and a pilot phase of implementation was due to begin in Uganda in July 2006, with support from the study team and a National Steering Committee chaired by the Directorate of Water Development. The pilot intervention will be jointly funded by the Joint Sector Partnership and UK NGO WaterAid.

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