In November 2020, the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) global partnership will be hosting the Finance Ministers' Meeting 2020, which will bring together ministers of Finance at the regional level to develop and strengthen partnerships for smart investments in water, sanitation and hygiene. This year’s event, the fifth in SWA’s history, is particularly crucial as Africa grapples with the uncertainty of the so-called “new normal” brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The centrality of water, sanitation and hygiene in national economic and health recovery, improved resilience, employment opportunities, and allowing countries to build back better, necessitates the sharing of evidence and practical realities to foster dialogue and partnerships for addressing the WASH challenge on the continent.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, only a quarter of the 1.03 billion people have access to basic handwashing facilities, and 27 percent have access to clean drinking water. Governments in the region are still struggling to conduct COVID-19 mass testing to gauge the true extent of the pandemic. The best hope for Sub-Saharan Africa is a deliberate investment in water, sanitation and hygiene to prevent and manage the rise of new COVID-19 infections. Lessons from Kenya show that governments need to pay greater attention to WASH service delivery, in terms of financing, urban planning and repositioning Water Service Providers (WSPs) for greater efficiency and equity impacts.
When Kenya registered its first case of COVID-19 on March 13, 2020, to mitigate the spread of the pandemic, WSPs were directed by government to continue the supply of water irrespective of billing arrears. They were also directed to provide water in unserved low-income informal areas. This directive highlighted the current failure to provide access to clean water and sanitation services for these populations. It also showed the unsustainable cost of providing WASH services on an emergency basis.
WSPs installed water tanks, delivered clean water in tankers, set up handwashing facilities, purchased and distributed soap in informal settlements, purchased and distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) and conducted community outreach on good hygiene. These unbudgeted costs of approximately US$322,650 over four months per WSP meant that the 88 public WSPs in Kenya spent a total of US$55 million on largely temporary solutions. This investment could have provided permanent services for at least 445,000 people.
Assessments undertaken by USAID’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Finance (WASH-FIN) Kenya program revealed that WSPs across Kenya saw a 50 percent drop in revenue collection, limiting their ability to meet operational costs for electricity, chemicals, staff costs and statutory obligations. It was estimated that by July 2020, WSPs in Kenya owed US$2.8 million in unpaid electricity bills.
The pandemic also highlighted an inadequate chemical supply chain, which relies heavily on importation of raw materials from China, India, Russia, and South Africa and was severely affected by slowed importation process at the height of the pandemic.
As governments define new futures to counter COVID-19, prioritization of government investment and local solutions is critical to overcoming these challenges.
For the supply of chemicals, government incentives to the local manufacturing sector can offer a solution to enhance local production and ensure water treatment is not disrupted, whilst also creating job opportunities. The government may also consider tax exemptions on water treatment chemicals to lower cost and speed up importation.
In the case of electricity, WSPs should be encouraged to reduce electricity consumption or increase efficiency through different means, including energy audits and approaches to financing retrofits that reduce energy consumption. Governments may also consider setting up preferential electricity tariffs for the WSPs as a way of freeing up financial resources.
Finally, with the African urban population estimated to grow to 50 percent by 2030, it is imperative that governments are deliberate on integrating informal low-income areas into the formal water networks through regulated WSPs. Service provision for informal settlements must not depend on whether these consumers are able to pay but on provision of basic services for a dignified life, removing their exposure to informal service provision and focusing on public health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created some unprecedented challenges for WSPs that were already relatively weak financially. However, as the case of Kenya shows, it has also presented an opportunity for African governments to rethink how they deliver water and sanitation services and how to optimize available resources, whilst also making service providers more resilient to future uncertainties. This is key to fighting COVID-19 and the realization of the goal of universal water supply and sanitation coverage.