In Uganda, UMCOR’s partner, Whave, helps communities engage in public-private partnerships that ensure clean water flows reliably. Photo: Emma Goring
Clean water flows in Uganda
By Susan Kim*
March 22, 2016—In Uganda, clean water simply doesn’t flow every day. “It’s only flowing about half the year. There are frequent breakdowns of machinery, and there is no system to make sure the pumps, pipes, and filters are always working,” explained Adam Harvey, founder of Whave, a Uganda-based partner of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
Operating a water system this way is exactly like having a car and never checking the oil, Harvey said. “If you don’t put the oil in, you’re throwing away hundreds of dollars’ worth of engine.”
With support from UMCOR and others, Whave has established a system of preventive maintenance for water pumps and other water-supply apparatus in rural Uganda, so that clean water can flow reliably.
Whave’s name, a derivation of “we have,” reflects the concept that we have sufficient resources in the world for everyone — and that people are proud to be self-sufficient. The group works with communities and governments in developing countries to identify and demonstrate sustainable solutions to poverty and health issues.
In Uganda, Whave is setting up public-private partnerships so that consumers—local farming families—have regular technical services from regulated companies. The companies pay local technicians to keep breakdowns in the water system from occurring, thus avoiding repairs through reliable maintenance.
The companies are, in essence, service utilities. They gain trust from residents who then willingly pay for service contracts, leaving technicians to take pride in their work. “This is something completely conventional in the U.S. — expecting a working system and being content to pay your water bill,” Harvey said, “but this is revolutionary in rural Africa.”
Water Justice at Work
In rural Africa, when clean water doesn’t flow, people draw on contaminated sources of water, and water-borne disease is a serious problem.
Mike Barbee, technical officer for UMCOR’s water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) program, said that Whave’s work is reaching areas most in need with water and sanitation solutions.
“We need to be innovative in how these services are delivered and let the communities speak their priorities through choosing what they spend their money on,” he said. “UMCOR and Whave seek to combine the right of people to access clean water and improved sanitation with the private sector systems of service supply.”
Harvey underscored the importance of village management of water to ensure access to clean water sources for all.
“The village as a whole has to pay for the servicing, but in practice it redistributes the bulk payment so that bigger families and local businesses pay more, and the very poor pay less or nothing at all,” he said. “This equity is impossible to achieve in systems where people have to pay money for every liter they take from a pump. In pay-for-liter arrangements, the poor simply don’t buy clean water but, instead, revert back to ‘free’ contaminated water and suffer from the health consequences.”
A replicable approach
Whave’s approach is one that could be replicated in other areas, said Barbee. “We hope to learn from Whave and apply this approach in some form in other areas where we are seeking to make a difference.”
Whave is in the process of spreading the word to people in Uganda that a public-private water system really does work, Harvey indicated. UMCOR is helping to fund a public awareness campaign.
“We are telling people not to wait until their pipes break, but instead pay their fee to the village committee so they can hire a local service company that is regulated and monitored, and pays technicians according to their performance. Local governments are playing an active role in this, and we are seeing the health impacts of our work already,” he said. “This simply works and it works well.”
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*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.