Residents of Lusaka’s George Compound remember the bad old days in the early 1990s, when the area suffered ugly outbreaks of waterborne diseases. Poor management and maintenance caused the water infrastructure in the dense low-income settlement to collapse. People resorted to using water from shallow, easily-contaminated wells.
A Japanese grant supported the establishment of the George Water Supply Project in 1995, with management of the neighbourhood’s water supply supervised by a team of 60 locals elected by the community, working together with the Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company.
Fifteen years down the line, George Water Site Manager Lengwe Mwape says basic water needs are now being met for the township’s estimated 200,000 residents: eight boreholes and water reservoirs supplying water to 385 communal access points, allowing each family to draw up to 250 litres per day.
“We have about 16,500 households on the prepaid scheme. Then we have an extra 2,000 individually-connected properties. We pump 240,000 litres in the morning and the same quantity in the evening for those who go to the communal taps,” he says. “For the ones with individual connections, they have longer hours of supply, on average 16 hours each day.”
The George Water Supply Project meets its own costs for treating water, spending up to six thousand U.S. dollars a month. Residents buy a card each month from the Lusaka Water Company office, 10,000 Zambian kwacha (roughly $2) entitling the holder to 7,500 litres of water. When a member of the household goes to the tap, they present the card to the controller, who permits them to draw up to a maximum daily amount.
There are those who can’t afford the monthly contribution. These pay 200 kwacha for every 20 litres: a rate seven times more costly per litre than water in a monthly subscription.
Area resident Rose Malama feels the project is beneficial to the community, but she has reservations, beginning with the pricing structure.
“I have only a small family, so if I need water for washing clothes, then I will draw more. But if I’m not using it for that, maybe it’s three or four containers only, which is 100 litres.”
She would like to be charged only for the amount she uses. Many residents find themselves caught between using less than the maximum 250 litres/day their monthly card entitles them to and buying water on a pay-as-you-go basis, but at a much higher rate.
“There’s nothing we can do as citizens,” Malama adds, “since they said it’s 10,000 kwacha this water, you either take it or leave it.”
The George Water Committee is elected for a five-year term by the community. Its mandate is to ensure that the water project is operating efficiently and to attend to maintenance. A tap monitor is assigned to each zone to oversee the functioning of the system and ensure availability of water at the designated times. The monitors also report illegal connections and ensure no one draws water they are not entitled to.
According to Mwape, the team employs mainly locals to run the day-to-day operations of the facility. The Committee and the LWSC have also hired accountants, water technicians and others.
“We have meetings every fortnight to give them an overview of how this unit is performing in terms of revenue collection. We give them specific tasks or areas to follow-up, or go to properties that have been disconnected and check if those guys are still disconnected,” he says.
“We still have 8,000 [households] who do not have cards and who do not have individual connections.”
George is perhaps typical of informal settlements throughout southern Africa: the technical challenge of supplying water to a dense, unplanned neighborhood is complicated by a host of pirate practices.
“We would have illegal connections, people from here [the project] conniving with people from the community. They give them an individual connection. There has also been the issue of water vending.”
According to Mwape, some unscrupulous people with individual connections are reaping huge profits from water vending, taking advantage of the much-cheaper rate they pay for water and the longer hours it is available to them.
“They sell at an average of 300 kwacha per 20 litre container. We are giving it to them at 20 kwacha for twenty litres. What we charge per month per individual, they make in a day.”
To curb the challenges of illegal connections and water vending, a security committee has been established to work with police to end this.
A few hand-dug wells remain in George, and as a result, Mwape says, cases of cholera are still recorded here in the rainy season. But the water project has drastically reduced the problem as few residents have still use unclean water sources.
Several residents – speaking anonymously to avoid retribution – told IPS there needs to be greater transparency in accounting for the 20 percent commission that comes back to the Water Committee each month. They want full accounting reports of its expenditures on maintenance for example to be produced for everyone to see.
“We want accountability; we want to know where that money is going.”
But Mwape says they’ll be disappointed if they think there are millions of kwacha unaccounted for.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep this project sustainable. Expenses have gone up. Everything: electricity, telephone bills, the chemicals for treatment. But the tariffs don’t go up at the rate all the other expenses do,” he told IPS.
The George Water Supply Project has succeeded in restoring a safe water supply to an area where it’s badly needed. To address residents’ concerns and remain sustainable in the face of growing costs, its elected management will have to maintain open and transparent accounts, and perhaps an open mind to users’ complaints.
Source: Brian Moonga, Inter Press Service / allAfrica.com, 22 August 2010