District-wide O&M system sustains community access to water sources amid global COVID-19 pandemic

Water Faucet

As countries reel from the coronavirus pandemic, the district governments of Lira, Kole, Alebtong and Dokolo in Uganda gain greater appreciation for an Operations & Maintenance (O&M) system with improved fund management that is sustaining access to water sources.

Our resources have been severely stretched during this lockdown as we try to ensure that all communities have access to safe water. It has thus been a great relief for us to have all nine Sub-county Water Supply and Sanitation Boards (SWSSBs) ably maintain their water sources throughout the lockdown using their O&M savings without requesting for funds from the Water Office. Most of the SWSSBs have savings ranging from UGX 300,000 to UGX 500,000. Notable among these are Agweng and Baar SWSSBs with savings reaching UGX 1.4 million and UGX 800,000 respectively; before the lock down. Both SWSBBs were established by SNV’s Improving Water Supply Sustainability (IWAS) project. When we talk about O&M and the need for communities to save, there is no better example than this. At a time when communities are depending on limited resources from government for delivery of services, SWSSBs have managed to sustain and keep their water sources functional.' - Jimmy Otim, Assistant District Water Officer for Lira District

The IWAS O&M system and fund management

An improved water source provides water in sufficient quantity and drinking water quality throughout the year. To ensure that water sources (predominantly boreholes) continue to benefit communities in Uganda, at all times, the importance of a well-managed Operations and Maintenance (O&M) system with well-managed funds cannot be underestimated.

With the district governments of Lira, Kole, Alebtong and Dokolo, the Austrian Development Agency-funded Improving Water Supply Sustainability (IWAS) II project of SNV set up an O&M system to ensure the sustained delivery of district-wide water services. An integral feature of this system is the set-up of governance measures and implementation bodies tasked to build up an area’s O&M fund and ensure its proper utilisation.

  • 22 Sub-county Water Supply and Sanitation Boards (SWSSBs) were formed to support Water User Committees (WUCs) and strengthen their capacity to operate and undertake preventative maintenance. Part of the SWSSBs’ tasks include designating hand pump mechanics to carry out monthly preventive maintenance of water sources in their respective sub-counties.

  • 783 Water User Committees (WUCs) were established with wide-ranging responsibilities, including O&M funds collection from their respective communities; 80% of which are turned over to the SWSSBs to organise and pay for monthly maintenance of water sources.

Community borehole

A child pumps water from a community borehole

Intermediate O&M results amid COVID-19 lockdown

Thanks to a workable O&M system and consistent community contributions, Otim said that the savings pooled at sub-county level have created an interim safety net to maintain water sources during the COVID-19-related government lockdown.

In Lira district alone, the nine SWSSBs established for all sub-counties are overseeing the proper functioning of 350 water sources, ensuring that 87,500 people have access to drinking water. An additional 35 non-functional water sources were revived during the last two months of lockdown, serving 8,750 people.

Otim noted however that the SWSSBs will soon ran out of O&M funds should the lockdown continue, thereby hampering tariff collection. Collections have plunged due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Breadwinners in households, many of whom engage in low-income, informal or insecure jobs have minimal to zero means to raise incomes during lock-down. According to Otim, ‘We will need more support from partners and donors in the short-term to step in and support O&M so that we don’t end up with more water sources breaking down during and after COVID-19.’

IWAS: going beyond (drinking) water supply access

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the IWAS project is also assisting district governments in safeguarding the health of communities. With the Lira district task force, IWAS is disseminating messages pertaining to the COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for water points issued by the Ministry of Water and Environment, through community radio. In addition to relaying the need to fence water sources and avoid crowding at water sources (in line with physical distancing directives), the SOPs are also educating communities about the importance of handwashing with soap and water.

These efforts, according to Otim, are starting to pay off with some communities already constructing temporary handwashing facilities next to the water sources and maintaining the recommended distance when fetching water.

IWAS II is implemented with funding from the Austrian Development Agency.

Read more about the IWAS II project here.