On accelerating sanitation, clean water access

Faced with a fast rate of urbanization and population growth, national and local governments are finding it difficult to provide essential services such as safe drinking water and sanitation, especially in the socioeconomic context of lower and middle-income countries. Performing utilities have a key role to play in accelerating access to water and sanitation to all in compliance with Goal 6 of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. The best approach must take into account all forms of capital — social, technological, financial, political and cultural. How can the utilities transition to better serve the populations, particularly the poor? Chief Executive Officer Silver Mugisha of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation of Uganda (NWSC), who will be giving a keynote address on Sept. 17 at the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2018, shares the best ways to address the institutional issues and meet the new challenges.

Question: What is required to improve access to drinking water and sanitation for periurban areas and secondary centers, which would make it possible to better fight against poverty? What needs to change?

Mugisha: Improving access to drinking water and sanitation for periurban areas and secondary centers requires a joint and concerted effort by all stakeholders involved, including the government, utilities and communities. There is a need for all stakeholders to refocus their priorities and implement aggressive measures to accelerate service provision in these areas. In the case of the NWSC, prior to 2013, the corporation operated in only 23 towns. Working together with all stakeholders and closely collaborating with the government, we changed our focus and prioritized acceleration of access to safe water for all. Currently, the NWSC is operating in 240 large and secondary centers. This has only been possible with the dedicated support and engagement of all stakeholders, including government and communities.

Question: To have more efficient water and sanitation companies, on the basis of your experience, between the big plants and other decentralized ones, what is the best option?

Mugisha: The answer lies not in one system or the other, but in the appropriate use of each system. Our experience in the NWSC has shown that none of the options could be excluded a priori, but we have generally been able to opt and adopt the different options on the basis of the specific, required situation in a given town.

Question: In which ways are new technologies offering opportunities for developing countries to accelerate progress?

Mugisha: New technologies offer significant potential for developing countries to accelerate access to water and sanitation for all. They provide opportunities for potentially lowering investment and operational requirements, making optimal decisions, providing better customer experiences, as well as opening the possibility of delivering more ambitious plans in respect to acceleration of access to water and sanitation. Countries and utilities that grasp the opportunities of the new technologies will be able to accelerate progress and narrow or even leapfrog any gaps in respect to provision of sustainable water and sanitation for all.

Question: How can the adoption of innovative technology in developing countries be improved?

Mugisha: Focusing on new technology alone as a solution to water access issues has contributed to high failure rates. Adopting an innovative technology requires due consideration for the context of the community (or) organization where it will be operated, as well as its applicability and the potential for it to be used widely considering economic, technological, social, environmental, organizational, institutional and legal issues. The readiness of the organization to adopt the technology is a very important aspect that also needs to be assessed.

Question: Concerning the gap in human resources, how can we face this constraint and have water and sanitation companies performing better?

Mugisha: In addressing the issues of water and sanitation sustainably, one needs to consider the role of all forms of capital — social, technological, financial and cultural — and the complex ways in which they interact. All forms of capital derive their value, utility and application from human capital. This makes human capital the central determinant of sustainable service provision of any form. At the NWSC we have placed human capital and its development at the core of our strategy. We have established in-house vocational development facilities for the lower cadre and a state-of-the-art resource center for top and middle management. This is in addition to several regional and international partnerships we have established to support our human capital development. Our focus is to develop knowledge, skills and attitude.

Question: The NWSC is a successful African water company, which is not the case for many water companies on the continent. Do you think this situation will improve in the future?

Mugisha: The NWSC’s success has been attributed to a number of factors, mainly, an appropriate, enabling environment and the autonomy provided by the government, the servant leadership approach practiced at every level of the organization, staff capacity, a do-it-yourself approach and a strong focus on performance and performance-based incentives. Many governments and companies in Africa have acknowledged the need to implement internally driven reforms with a focus on homegrown solutions and the future is very promising for many such companies.

Question: Why should institutional aspects be better taken into account in placing water and sanitation companies in low- and middle-income countries in a more favorable context for their development?

Mugisha: Water and sanitation companies in low- and middle-income countries are experiencing several challenges — technical, institutional, financial and also social and cultural. There seems to be a wide range of solutions that can be adopted to address these challenges apart from the institutional issues, which have proved to be the most difficult because it is not easy to transpose one context to another. In addition, most of the solutions are sustainable only if the institutional aspects have been adequately and appropriately addressed.

Question: How can we make political decision-makers better understand the need to put in place such institutional solutions?

Mugisha: Our experience in engaging with the political decision-makers is creating a win-win situation for all parties. It’s a known fact that water is a political good and in many places used as a tool for soliciting political capital. We have managed to mobilize the support of the political decision-makers by supporting them in fulfilling the commitment they make to their constituents of providing better services and extending water and sanitation services to unserved areas.

Question: Are the many changes, particularly among the authorities in charge of the water sector, a hindrance to the implementation of sustainable policies?

Mugisha: Sustainable implementation of any policies in whatever form requires a certain degree of leadership continuity. The current practice in a number of countries and the nature in which the leadership of the authorities changes has definitely been a hindrance to the implementation of sustainable policies. The NWSC is one of the few unique cases where leadership continuity has enabled continuous and progressive performance improvement.

This text was provided by the IWA.

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