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Testing the sub-county water supply and sanitation board as a new management model in rural Uganda

By Julia Boulenouar –

A classic case of community managed rural water supply

In Uganda management of water supply has been responsibility of the communities, who struggle to provide an adequate level of service.  In Kabarole or Lira Districts, only 2% of households receive a basic level of service (Triple-S baseline survey).

Water points are operated by Water Service Committees (WSCs) who collect user fees and call on the services of handpump mechanics to carry out minor repairs, but due to their unclear mandate, political interferences and lack of capacities, they struggle to mobilise user contributions (from 0% in Kasese to 62% in Kitgum with average contributions amounting to $ 0.33/household/month in addition to contributions towards repairs when sources break down). As a result, covering the costs of minor maintenance has become a big challenge. Water systems are left to the default responsibility of boards, but with the application of uniform tariffs across water points and systems, there is little incentive to attract professional providers and many systems end up falling into disrepair.

Although districts are responsible for setting tariffs, providing support to service providers and covering repairs exceeding $ 80, they often fail to do so with resources spread too thin. In Kabarole, with only four staff members, the District Water Office oversees over 1200 WSCs, seven water schemes in a radius reaching 80 km an almost impossible task. This sounds like a classic case of the limitations of community-managed rural water supply, but are there alternatives?

The Sub-County level: addressing the missing link at the Sub-County level? 

To solve some of these issues, Triple-S tested the Sub-County Water Supply and Sanitation Board (SCWSSB) as a new service authority level, empowering the lower-tier of government with some of the district functions to ensure better supervision and monitoring.  The rationale behind this “experiment” was to pool resources together for minor repairs and allow for synergies and better financial management at the Sub-County level. Coupling mutualisation of funds with increased funding from the District could lead to better operation and maintenance.  As for water schemes, the SCWSSB would create the conditions of success to make their operation a viable business for a professional operator.  The graph below gives an idea of the water supply profile in four Sub-Counties in Kabarole District.

Number of water systems

From gut feeling to financial modelling

That was the thinking, but was it only gut feeling? The experiment is already being tested in four Sub-Counties in Kabarole District (Kicwamba, Busoro, Buheesi and Karambi), but we are looking into financial data collected by the Fontes Foundation in 2012. The financial principles are the following:

  • Supported by the SCWSSB, WSCs will mobilise more user contributions and will be able to cover the cost of minor repairs and possibly some major repairs.
  • This  additional revenue will be transferred to the SCWSSB to contribute to the cost of major repairs and rehabilitation.
  • SCWSSB will receive a larger chunk of the conditional grant from the District to cover the remaining costs of major repairs, rehabilitation and staffing and readjust tariffs to an adequate level.

We are still grappling with the exact costs and revenue figures and are yet to include i) real figures for transfer of conditional grant, ii) ideal recurrent costs for all types of technology iii) foreseen costs for adequately staffing the SCWSSB and iv) costs for bringing the non functional systems to functioning levels. Below is some preliminary data coming out of the Triple-S and Fontes Foundation surveys http://www.fontes.no. Based on the assumption that i) all households pay their fees using the current tariff and ii) the district allocates a portion of the conditional grant allocated to O&M based on population ratio, Buheesi Sub-County’s annual revenue could be as high as $ 15, 586 through tariffs and as low as $ 1,862 from transfers to cover a portion of  all the costs of maintaining a good service in Buheesi.

Juggling and struggling with figures

Hopefully, the financial model will confirm the SCWSSB as a viable model and be used as a good advocacy tool to justify transfer of adequate funding from District to Sub-County and set appropriate tariffs for each type of service which is one of the critical issues of the current model. But with the national cap on water tariffs set at $ 0.50 per m3, there is little leeway to adjust the current water tariff.  On the other hand, people aren’t ready (and shouldn’t) pay more for a very limited level of service.

Many challenges remain…

Although we believe the SCWSSB might be a good idea, we also know that management models are never, on their own, solutions to any problem. They fit into larger contexts of political pressures and the reality of fierce competition for scarce financial and human resources.

More importantly, this model relies on a number of assumptions. The main assumption is that WSCs will effectively transfer some of their potentially growing (but limited) resources to a higher entity that would in exchange, cover major repairs and rehabilitations. However, with competing requests for funding, the SCWSSB would not always be in a position to guarantee these activities, which would mean WSCs might end up losing by mutualising funds, which would certainly not create a great incentive!

But at the end of the day, if there just isn’t enough money around (either through tariffs or government transfers) to carry out optimum operation and maintenance, capital maintenance and rehabilitation of water systems and if people are- understandably- not prepared to pay more for low levels of service, then these problems are not likely to be solved by simply changing the management model.

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