How can water utilities provide reliable water to poor people in African cities?
By Chris Heymans co-authors: Rolfe Eberhard, David Ehrhardt, Shannon Riley
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 targets “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all”. However, in Africa’s fast-growing cities, just accessing water is a daily struggle for many poor families. While Africa’s urban population is expected to triple by 2050, the proportion of people with improved water supply has barely grown since 1990, and the share of those with water piped to their premises has declined from 43 percent in 1990 to 33 percent in 2015. Poor families bear the brunt of these inadequacies through poor health, the long time required to collect water, and higher costs when purchasing from on-sellers’.
However, some cities stand out as exceptions. What can we learn from cities and utilities that successfully provide reliable and safe water to almost all of their inhabitants? A study I led recently, Providing Water to Poor People in African Cities Effectively: Lessons from Utility Reforms, analyzed how the water utilities in Kampala, Nyeri, Dakar, Ouagadougou and Durban achieved stand-out performance, and how this made a difference for the poor people in these cities.
In these cities, improving financial performance was critical to effective and sustainable provision. The utilities charged tariffs that recovered their costs and implemented strategies to effectively collect revenues, while ensuring that services were affordable for their customers, especially poor households. A variety of pro-poor strategies were employed, such as carefully designed rising block tariff structures and cross-subsidies for residential consumption, and capping on-sellers’ mark-ups.
They also adopted new technologies such as prepaid standpipes and mobile self-metering and payment, and improvised to overcome barriers that prevent them from supplying water to informal areas. For instance, the National Water and Sanitation Office (L’Office national de l’eau et de l’assainissement, ONEA) in Ouagadougou works with small providers to deliver services where the utility cannot due to land tenure rules.
Effective management was essential in achieving the above. In each case, effective management resulted from a reform of the utility, which moved from poor performance to relatively good performance. We also found three key characteristics of successful reforms in each case -- a catalytic event, a skilled and motivated manager, and a confident political leader who supported and protected reform.