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How can water utilities provide reliable water to poor people in African cities?

Chris Heymans's picture
Urban Africa: Rapidly growing and densifying.
Photo Credit: Kathy Eales / World Bank

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.

The World Bank at World Water Week 2016

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.

In Ouagadougou and Dakar, the catalytic events were water resource shortages; in Durban, the end of apartheid in South Africa created the political impetus to redress service inequalities. Capable utility managers charted the way by addressing urgent needs first, combining technical and financial strategies with institutional reform and winning political support. Outsiders cannot create such conditions, although in some cases development partners have contributed technical advice and financing.

Making reforms sustainable is as challenging as getting them started. As utilities provide better service, they gain more resources and become more tempting targets for predation. Yet, success can also be the first line of defense. Proven competence in service delivery can win support from external stakeholders and raise the political costs of predation. Nyeri’s water utility demonstrates how, when allegations of political meddling surfaced, citizens called to ask how they could prevent it.

Formal structures, such as independent boards and regulators, can help bolster professional corporate cultures, but may be insufficient on their own. In Burkina Faso, ONEA’s performance contract with the government is supervised by a multi-stakeholder committee with customers, nongovernmental organizations, and development partners. Other successful utilities also developed relationship networks with external stakeholders, mobilizing support against predation.

It is possible for rapidly growing African cities to provide their poorest residents with near-universal access to reliable and affordable water. Success is possible even in difficult circumstances – poor water resource endowments, low levels of economic development and seemingly inauspicious governance environments. Where political economy factors can be mustered to enable, support and protect professional management and service provision, combined with the necessary financial and technical support, other cities could similarly extend and sustain water service to poor households.

I am going to present more findings from the study on 30 August at the session “Water No Get Enemy! Drivers of urban water supply improvement” of World Water Week 2016. Please join us for an in-depth discussion on urban water supply improvement if you will be in Stockholm. Feel free to also share any experience or examples in the comments below!

Related: The Guardian: The African water companies serving the poorest and staying afloat


Submitted by liaqat hayat on

If we can't provide water to all ,we can make a systematic and regularly monitored effort in this regard .the new source of water to me appears to use waste water in irrigation after treatment

Reuse of wastewater is definitely a relevant option for African utilities, not only for irrigation but also for other uses. In fact, Windhoek in Namibia, for example, is globally recognized for its innovative recycling for many years, and has recently made new investments to update the systems there. eThekwini (Durban), one of the five core case studies in our report, has developed facilities to reuse industrial wastewater for non-domestic use. Several other cities and utilities have been considering reuse of some sort.

It is noteworthy though that Windhoek and eThekwini have been well-run water service providers. This may actually reinforce the narrative of our report, namely that positive outcomes are more likely to be achieved, and sustainably so, if the responsible institutions get the basics right – being efficient and effective, accountable, robust in financial practices, and successfully engage political leadership, stakeholders and customers generally.

Submitted by Richard Middleton on

As an old fogey, I cannot help wondering how many of the current WSP staff are aware of all the work that was done even before the WSP was established (i.e., in 1976!), and whether any of the ideas have survived into present-day programs. For example, in collaboration with UNC, we developed computer programs that reduced water distribution costs very significantly, and so made extension of water supply to low-income areas more attractive to water utilities. This was achieved by adopting more realistic design standards (lower residual pressures where all houses were single-storey, lower fire flows in areas where no pumper could ever reach, fewer pipe sizes to simplify O&M, lower design flows in areas served by standpipes, etc.). TAG (the forerunner of the WSP) trained local staff in the use of these programs and provided basic computers (a novelty in those days, outside head offices). A lot of work was done in the Philippines and Indonesia, rather less in India and Thailand, and the cost savings were substantial (see technical note TAG 16, the only one that seems to have survived to be included in the Bank's current library). Much credit is due to Don Lauria of UNC and his student Paul Hebert, who went on to be TAG's man in the Philippines.

We also collaborated with Ron Sternberg of UMd, who secured USAID funding to develop pre-paid water meters (operated by air-filled Sparklet cartridges, to be sold by the water authority through local stores), diaphragm-operated leakproof PVC valves for public standpipes, and low-cost locally-fabricated PVC wellscreens.

All of these ideas were at the time regarded as important contributions to making water supply more affordable, and, from the data give above they (or their modern descendants) still seem to have a role to play in Africa. But I have a nasty feeling that they have probably been forgotten.

Hello Richard

Making water affordable is indeed a critical challenge, and as you point out, we need innovations on technology and systems to help facilitate this. Technology may well be vital, such as mobile metering and payment as is being used increasingly in Kenya, or prepaid systems that enable poor households in cities like Kampala, Nairobi and Lusaka to manage their water consumption in line with their available resources. See my earlier blog and report:

Our recent report recognizes such innovation, but it also makes a few points on the enabling conditions to be able to make innovations and initiatives gain and sustain momentum. Sometimes these conditions are in the politics of getting leaderships to strike a chord; and there also are the underlying aspects of making the responsible institutions effective, efficient and accountable. If one gets such basics in place – which may take time – the space gets created for innovation and investment to occur, and to be sustained.

Making water more affordable, demands that we think systemically.
This requires that we address issues like water losses; the targeting of subsidies more specifically so that they support those that still need to be connected, rather than those that are already connected; and that fiscal support – if any – is more predictable and systematically geared at extending access and incentivizing the quality of services.

Submitted by Jitka Hiscox on

Dear Richard, is it possible to access the technical notes produced by TAG (other than just #16)? I would be very interested in reading them. Thank you, Jitka

Submitted by Greg Pierce on

The link to your report does not actually allow for access of or download of the report. Is this forthcoming? I would like to read it.

Submitted by Tom Wilson on

Yes, even in developed countries service delivery is affected by politics. The model discussed here of how this could be managed to have certain impacts on the overall trajection of a service provider, looks interesting.

The general consensus is that politics should not interfere with operational decisions, which presumeably is the rationale for the independent utility model. The question is: at what point does it become interference, or when is it simply part of a healthy strategic relationship?

I also wonder what role leadership plays in the outcomes of utility reform. No change management happens by itself. It needs leaders that can and are willing to lead.

Hi Tom

In most countries, water is politicized. It's strategic importance heightens its political value and means that success or failure could have big ramifications politically. Our study also shows that it often is an instrument if patronage and predatory politics.

The latter obviously should be resisted, and as far a more general governance is concerned it seems sensible to acknowledge the political importance of water, but at least put mechanisms in place to avoid daily operations being dictated by political decisions. It's always a fine line, but duly structured institutional protection against political interference in daily operations has been achieved quite effectively in many parts of the world, including a few African cities.

Leadership? Yes, it is important. In driving institutions, especially when reform is pursued. But even most successful reform will be at risk if it is not embedded writhin the institution and between it and its stakeholders. The report provides elaborate examples of how this was achieved in the case study cities.

Submitted by Ed Bourque on

Great report.

In my opinion, the finances and the governance are where it's at. I'm more conversant in the latter than in the former, unfortunately.

Since political economies vary, I've been toying with the idea of pulling in existing data and indices on accountability, government effectiveness, democracy, livelihoods, etc in order to develop some sort of semi-uniform country water/sanitation enabling environment index (a Frankenstein-like melding of GLAAS/trackfin/HDI/Democracy Index, Corruption Perception Index, and others).

It would have to be something that takes into account decentralization, as I think institutional effectiveness and accountability is likely associated with that.

Ed Bourque
WASH Consultant

Submitted by 236139 on

Dear Ed, thanks. Good to see that you like the report, and that you also see governance and political economy as very relevant to utilities and service delivery.

Indeed, political economy analysis really does reiterate the importance of being context specific when trying to understand issues and developing interventions. Utilities and those interested in them could/should certainly learn from each other, but the context varies immensely from institution to institution, city to city and country to country. One size does NOT fit all.

I'm not so sure about the kind of indices you suggest. They might be rather complex. What would you be trying to explain?

On decentralization and accountable service delivery - some decentralization initiatives have certainly made a very positive impact on accountability generally, and on accountability for service delivery. But others have not had the same impacts. Again, the evidence is quite context specific, sometimes even in the same country.

Submitted by Ed Bourque on

Thanks for your reply. I'd love to see some decentralization success/not so success stories, if you could send them my way.

The enabling environment indices that I am thinking about are indeed rather complex. I am still working on what would be useful contextual information that would be able to be done for any country and would reflect situations at national, regional, and local scales. It's been a back burner thought process of mine for a year or so, now.
[Actually, the idea goes way back to my PhD in water governance, but that has collected dust by now!]

Essentially, I find the historical failure in water and sanitation sectors maddening. In my humble opinion, there isn't enough attention paid to finance and governance, and more frustratingly, learning from past projects/programs isn't what it should be.

My other back burner project will be called "WASH TL:DR" ("Too Long, Didn't Read") because I am convinced that very few people read long, wonky WASH reports.

I love long, wonky WASH reports. My favorite assignments are broad sector analysis pieces.

I'll share what I have on either of these topics on my website ( at some point this autumn.


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