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Sub County Water and Sanitation Boards could help fix community management in Uganda but only with proper support

– By Martin Watsisi, Regional Learning Facilitator, Triple-S Uganda.

In Uganda, as in many places, community water management has not worked very well. By and large, water user committees don’t have the requisite authority to collect fees or the necessary technical skills to ensure proper operations, maintenance and repairs. And District Water Officers, ostensibly responsible for backstopping the committees, don’t have the reach to provide effective support.

In 2011, Triple-S with district government partners began looking at Sub County Water Supply and Sanitation Boards (SWSSB) as a possible means of improving community water management. The model was inspired by the water supply and sanitation boards that manage piped water systems in small towns and rural growth centres of the country. Testing began in Kabarole and Lira districts. In each of these districts at least four SWSSBs were formed by the sub county authorities.

The intention was to create a responsible body that would specifically focus on water and sanitation issues at the sub county level. The boards are there to support the user committees at point water sources and tap-stands  – helping them to implement by-laws, collect and manage user fees, and report and respond to facility breakdowns among other duties.

Results thus far
I work a lot in Kabarole district and so have been able to witness firsthand the good work of the SWSSBs formed there—in Kicwamba, Busoro, Buheesi and Karambi sub counties.

HEWASA (Health through Water and Sanitation), a local civil society organisation in Kabarole, is partnering with the Kicwamba SWSSB to extend piped water five kilometers to communities who lack water sources. In Buheesi the SWSSB has been called upon by the communities to solve issues that user committees have been unable to address on their own.

For example, when the water user committee for the borehole at Piida, in the Kiyombya parish of Buheesi, was unable to collect funds for the repair of the borehole when it broke down, they called on the SWSSB to assist by addressing the community. In a single day, with the help of the SWSSB, 70,000 USh was collected. Kedreth Mwesige, chairperson of the Buheesi SWSSB, asked why the community refused to respond to the water user committee, although it had been elected by them to manage the water source. The community members said they did not trust the committee to use their money well. According to Mwesige, this is common. As he explained ‘communities have more respect for the sub county leaders than their own elected committees. We often have to help water user committees to convince users to pay fees for maintenance’.

In the same Sub County of Buheesi, the SWSSB was called in to resolve a conflict between the community of Kiboota and the new owner of the land where the community tap had been sited. After it was reported that the land owner was destroying the community tap stand, the SWSSB, on request from the community, held a meeting in July 2013. The users and land owner recognized the authority of the SWSSB and reached an understanding on how to maintain the tapstand.

Such problems often remained unresolved since the district water office is far removed from the communities and the Sub County Authority has many issues to attend to aside from water. Also technical staff at the sub county level—the  Senior Assistant Secretary, who is the key technical officer, the Community Development Officer and Health Assistant—are not directly linked to the district water office and this creates a gap in the service delivery chain. The SWSSBs ensure that water and sanitation issues come to the attention of the sub county technical staff and improve the linkage between the communities and the district water office.

Challenges and solutions
Despite these successes, there are still numerous challenges faced by the SWSSBs. In most sub counties they have yet to receive full support and recognition from the sub county authorities. For example, they are not invited to council meetings where key decisions are made and their activities have not been given a budget line. In addition, the SWSSB’s resources, both human and financial, to intervene in most community issues are limited.

What will it take for the SWSSBs to function effectively? ‘If the various stakeholders come out to support the SWSSB it will reduce the pressure on the sub county authority in solving community problems’ says James Mpanga, Chief of Buheesi Sub County. I agree. The various civil society organizations that intervene in the rural water sector need to embrace the SWSSB as a direct vehicle to reach out to the communities for awareness, education and empowerment around rural water service delivery. But even more importantly, the sub county authorities need to recognize the valuable role the SWSSBs play, and offer financial support through budgetary allocations and political support through favorable resolutions of the council.

A number of other players also need to get on board. The district water officers, with their knowledge of policy and implementation and technical skills, are in a good position to backstop the SWSSBs and develop their capacity. They are also in a position to solve or at least alleviate the current financing dilemma faced by the SWSSBs; they could already allocate a portion of the district water and sanitation conditional grant for software activities to support SWSSBs.

Users and communities who are the direct beneficiaries from the work of the SWSSB also need to do their part. Water user committees have to collect and remit the monthly user fees and report problems to the SWSSB.

On the part of Ministry of Water and Environment, recognizing the SWSSB as a service delivery model and buttressing this commitment with a legal provision for their operation would set a firm foundation not only for the operation of the SWSSB but also the other stakeholders willing to work with them. Ultimately to ensure the sustainability of the SWSSB, the Ministry would need to incorporate this service delivery model in the sector schedules for the District Water Supply and Sanitation Conditional Grant.

Initial success of the SWSSBs in Kabarole indicate that this innovation has the potential to further strengthen and also professionalize community based management system in the rural water sector of Uganda. It is also clear that if the SWSSB are not helped to overcome the challenges of their operation, the innovation will not last for all to see and enjoy its benefits.

For more information: see www.waterservicesthatlast.org/swssb

Martin Watsisi (left), talks to community members at Magura shallow well in Karambi sub-county, Kabarole District.

Martin Watsisi (left), talks to community members at Magura shallow well in Karambi sub-county, Kabarole District. Photo by Peter McIntyre, 2013.

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