People in African cities are taking charge of their water supplies

The world has made tremendous progress in bridging the gap between water supply and demand. But....

there’s a long way still to go. In a 2017 joint monitoring report UNICEF and the World Health Organisation noted that more than 844 million people – many of them in sub-Saharan Africa – still don’t have access to improved and safely managed drinking water sources.

This is particularly true in the region’s urban areas, and especially its informal settlements. Population growth and rapid urbanisation are outstripping the already inadequate infrastructure in these spaces.

The traditional model of water governance through state or public water utilities, and the market based privatisation of water supplies that gained momentum in the early twentieth century, have failed to effectively address growing urban water demand. And so other institutional and management systems have emerged in some urban and peri-urban areas.

These new and alternative institutional configurations include public–private partnerships, community public partnerships, management by local autonomous urban water utilities and community self-help systems.

My colleagues and I explored several of the new systems in recently published research.

Community based water supply models have been common in rural areas for some time. They are now appearing in urban contexts for several reasons. These include communities’ desire to address everyday water challenges when public utilities fail to deliver.

A good example is the case of Maputo, Mozambique. The government’s decision to halt direct water delivery to peri-urban settlements led to the formation of public community partnerships. In Kenya, the rise of public community partnerships through delegated management was inspired by changes in government policy.

Community public partnerships typically involve a community – or an elected body within that community – working with a public or state owned water utility. So far they’ve emerged in only a handful of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, notably Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. There are also successful examples of community-state partnerships in Latin America. These are mainly in Bolivia, Mexico, and Chile.

These existing initiatives offer useful lessons on what can be achieved when communities work jointly with the state in water service delivery.

Lessons from Malawi

Water boards in Malawi started working with community-elected water user associations in informal settlements in the mid-2000s. This began after a long history of mismanagement by private water operators. The water boards struggled with everything from financial management to extending water connections. Water points were frequently vandalised. The utility routinely ignored complaints from the community.

There have been significant gains since the community public partnerships were established. Technical and financial management have improved. Systems have been put in place that allow residents to gradually pay off their outstanding debts rather than just cutting off their supply. Money in the bank means there are more functional communal water kiosks. Broken pipes and other technical faults are handled more efficiently.

Perhaps most crucially, water pricing has stabilised in the communities in Lilongwe and Blantyre that have adopted this model. People are no longer overcharged for this basic service.