By Philip Oyamo, in Kampala
On a chilly dawn in Kyenjojo, western Uganda, the electromechanical technician at Mid-West Umbrella for Water and Sanitation (MWUWS), the regional water service provider, assembles his small unit and equipment, ready to drive off to Kigorobya scheme, some 176 kilometres away. This follows a report received at 2am from the pump attendant at the production borehole, saying that the pump was not working, meaning the town would be soon waking up to dry taps.
As if nature had conspired to worsen an already bad situation, the Area Manager for Bundibugyo almost immediately calls the senior technical officer and informs him that the Bundibugyo main water intake at the river has been washed away by raging floods, due to excessive run-off from Rwenzori mountains. The increased discharge episodes in the river is attributed to climate change, deforestation, herding animals, and cultivation along the riparian zones. For the MWUWS team, it means that the previously made plan for the week has to be aborted and another team from the lean staffed technical division has to be mobilised to immediately travel 155 kilometres to Bundibugyo, assess the situation, and come up with a solution as quickly as possible, limited resources notwithstanding.
This is a typical day at MWUWS, which manages 62 water systems meant to serve circa 1 million people in small towns and rural growth centres, spread across 16 Districts in the mid-west region of Uganda. Additional schemes – water production and distribution networks serving specific communities – are periodically gazetted for the Umbrella’s take-over.
The challenges experienced in ensuring continuous supply of potable water are not only on the technical side but also on other operational spheres. From holding volatile meetings with community members incited by politicians to demand for absolutely free services because the source of the water is “their” mountain, to lobbying District and town council stakeholders in fighting off competition from a larger utility interested in taking up water supply systems from MWUWS – and having to work extremely hard to collect revenues from customers in order to sustain operations.
Further compounded by a huge outstanding debt portfolio that the utility has been working extremely hard to recover from customers, these are just a few challenges that the commercial and finance divisions of MWUWS have to deal with on an ongoing basis.
Water in Uganda: the challenge of offering services to small towns
Reorganisation and professionalism
Managing water supply in fragmented schemes spread geographically wide, with lean staff most of who are unskilled or semi-skilled, is not an easy task.
The good news is that, over the past four years, WSUP Advisory has been supporting MWUWS to become a well performing utility through funding received from the Conrad N Hilton Foundation. The funding provided to date totals USD 4 million, which have been invested in institutional reorganisation and capacity support, setting up governance structures and appointment of board members, marketing new connections, and expanding customer base by implementing pipeline extensions, revenue collection campaigns, adoption of billing and finance systems, scheme improvements, staff trainings on various identified gaps, among others.
The successes recorded in institutional reorganisation came through the area performance management framework (APMF), which organised the MWUWS into core technical staff based at the secretariat, Kyenjojo. This team have been supporting and guiding semi-autonomous area teams made up of between 2 and 9 water systems, led by a single area manager. All 16 areas are further grouped into 3 clusters of between 3 and 5 areas overseen by 3 members of staff from the secretariat. This has made it possible for MWUWS to oversee operations seamlessly at all the schemes with key decisions being made at the lowest possible level. It is worth noting that some of the schemes the utility inherited from the previous managers in 2017 were rather quite old, with some dating back to the 1970s.
The schemes outlived their design capacities. This situation was exacerbated by the ever-increasing population, due to migration to the previously tiny villages and small towns. This has led to the support programme focusing on scheme improvements that enhanced the hydraulic performance and conditions of the water systems. It entailed rehabilitation and expansion of pipeline sections, installation of critical operation and maintenance valves, and fittings and installation of bulk and consumer meters. The improvements have allowed customers to receive more water in a reliable manner, with sufficient pressure.
Investments in water quality testing equipment and recruitment of additional staff have led to increased testing and consistent reporting. Water systems where testing was previously done only once in a quarter are now seeing tests done and reported four times in a month, with a few having tests done at least three times a day.
The few significant milestones enumerated above, among many others, could not have been possible without the leadership and close guidance offered by the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE). This has been coupled with the support the Umbrella received through MWE’s 100% service coverage acceleration project (SCAP 100), which availed pipes, fittings, meters and finances for systems expansion and connection of customers.
The Water and Sanitation Development Facilities (WSDF) at Central and Southwestern have also been a key infrastructure developer and local support provider for MWUWS . Other partners, e.g. IRC and Water for People, have offered significant support to the utility as well in the recent past. The MWUWS management team and staff in general have also been a key pillar to their own success, through commitment and being receptive to new initiatives and improvements.
This has not, however, been an easy journey, especially for the secretariat staff who have been spread out so thin on a number of occasions when they played host to consultants that outnumbered them in a single day. They have to sit through the deliberations and brainstorming sessions with the consultants, while still guiding the teams handling crises at the Kigorobya and Bundibugyo systems. Various support initiatives to the Umbrella are being driven from MWE side and other partners, in addition to the WSUP Advisory programme, all aimed at performance enhancement.
The work WSUP Advisory has managed to achieve at MWUWS clearly demonstrates how bringing on board extensive experience in utility management, leveraging on existing resources and capacities while closely collaborating with the government and other partners, can lead to positive and sustainable change. The utilities monthly billing, for instance, has increased from UGX 80 million in 2018 to UGX 278 million in January 2022. In the face of so many challenges, made even more difficult by the biggest of them all, climate change, this result is quite commendable.
Click on the link to download the report: The challenge of small towns: Professionalising piped water services in Western Uganda
Top image: Construction of water filtration facility at Bundibugiyo. Credit: Stephen Mwesigwa