Tall order: Universal water access in Uganda.

Tall order: Universal water access in Uganda.

By Christopher Bendana

High population growth rate and dwindling money from the government are Uganda’s two greatest challenges to achieving universal access to water in the country.

“We are going backward, though the figures had been increasing earlier,” said Callist Tindimugaya, the commissioner for water resources planning and regulation at the Ministry of Water and Environment before he left for the UN Water conference in New York in March. “We are unlikely to achieve universal access by 2030 as envisioned in the SDGs.”

The Water and Environment Sector Performance Report 2020 for 2019/20 indicates that safe water coverage in urban areas dropped to 70 percent from 79 percent the previous year. The safe water coverage for rural areas was 68 percent from 69 percent the previous year. The budget was reduced from 1,939 billion shillings in 2018/19 to 1,820 billion in 2019/20. 

A 2023 UN World Water Development Report by UNESCO launched during the conference in March revealed that 26 percent of the world population (2 billion people) did not have access to safe drinking water as of 2020.

Another 46% lacked access to safely managed sanitation. Many of these people are in what is commonly referred to as the Global South: sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Universal access is the main target of Sustainable Development Goal 6 which focuses on clean water and sanitation.. 

Apart from the target of universal access, Uganda’s water commitments to the UN Water Conference were; water for health, water for cooperation, water for climate resilience, water for sustainable development, and Water Action Decade. These were highly debated by stakeholders including the government, the private sector, and the NGO world. They looked at successes and challenges.

“We have too much water (flooding) when it rains, and no water a few days when drought sets it,” Tindimugaya argued during one of the meetings, calling for investments in water storage programs like wetland and water catchment restorations.

Residents rescued from flooding along Jinja Road

He said that the much-publicized Rwizi River that serves Mbarara City in western Uganda would have 15 times more water than it has today if the water catchment areas of Buhweju and Ntungamo were restored. 

Wetlands that used to store and purify much of the rainwater like the Port Bell wetland have been cleared, with statistics from the Water Sector Report indicating a reduction from 15.6 percent of the country’s land cover in 1994 to 8.9 percent in 2020.  

The international UN report added that 85 percent of wetlands were already lost in 2020, and 75 percent of the land surface is significantly altered, affecting the ability of the Earth’s ecosystem to support sustainable water.  

Wetland degradation has led to silting and pollution of lakes, including Lake Victoria, which provides much of the drinking water to Kampala, Uganda’s capital. 

Sam Apedel, the public relations manager at the National Water and Sewerage Corporation, says the corporation spends Shs 1.5 billion (about $400,000) monthly to treat water before it can be pumped into the system for the residents of Kampala, Mukono and Wakiso.     

Prof Charles Niwagaba, a lecturer and water researcher in the College of Engineering at Makerere University, explains the role of swamps in managing the water cycle.

He says swamps play an important role in the storage and purification of stormwater, blocking erosion soils and pollutants from entering water bodies.

He explains that swamps alone make water clean, citing times in the 90s when they were growing and they would drink water directly from the rivers and springs as it had been purified by the swamps. 

He added that the plants we see in swamps feed on bacteria and metals like NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium). 

“We have destroyed all recharge areas,” he says. “If we would for a start restore the Icm of swamps. This would have a big impact on the amount of water stored. This also helps in balancing the recharge on their natural cycle.”

He predicts that town councils will run out of water because of the change in the balance of the water cycle in the aquifers. 

“We are losing a lot of water. There is also a lot of wastage of water and resources,” he argued. 

There is some progress: The Water Sector report indicates wetland restoration of 16,906 hectares since 2012. Niwagaba calls for alternative livelihoods for the wetland encroachers if the program is to succeed.

Tindimugaya also boasts of some success in efficient water use, citing institutions like Uganda breweries that have reduced their water used in beer production significantly. More resources are needed for the upscale and expansion of these initiatives, sector leaders said.

Prof Kasenene inside his forest plantataion Mubende 1
Prof Kasenene inside his forest plantation in Mubende


To fill the funding gaps, Tindimugaya said Uganda is looking at alternative sources of financing water. He said they had won some grants under the Adaptation Fund and Green Climate Funds. 

They are also promoting a co-financing model with the beneficiaries like the one used in the mini-irrigation program, explaining that it is not how much money there is that matters most, but how that money is used. 

“The success rate is high when the beneficiaries feel they own the project,” he revealed.

He also called for cooperation with the private sector and WASH in the NGO world.

Onesmus Mugyenyi, deputy executive director of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), called for the creation of a green fund with its basket away from the consolidated fund to finance environmental activities. Mugyenyi was presenting a paper on alternative financing for climate change during the Uganda Water Week in March.

John Walugembe, the executive director of WASHFIN, who is involved in private funding for water and sanitation, considers the water sector as virgin, but also risky. 

“People see water as a free resource and they don’t want to pay for it. Funding for projects like water springs and boreholes is a risky business. Commercial banks don’t want to avail capital,” he explained to this publication after he participated in the alternative financing debate as a panelist.

He said his microfinance organisation had already financed sanitation facilities (latrines) in Mbuya and they were availing finances to households installing water tanks. 

Kasanje Water Reservoir. The Government taking water to areas away from the city

Niwagaba says water is a public good that requires heavy initial investment that can only be afforded by the government. It is not easy to make profit from the investment.

He says there is a need for programs like the Parish Development Model money economy so that the citizens have money in their pockets to pay for such services.

This story was produced with editorial support from InfoNile

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