Providing Sustainable Water Supply in Sierra Leone by 2030

How is it Possible for Sierra Leone?

By Ing. Alimamy Kolipha Kamara, Freetown, 22nd March 2018

Perhaps the most abundant natural resource Sierra Leone has is fresh water. Yet, access to clean and adequate drinking water remains a challenge for over 30% of the country’s population. It is therefore an imperative that Sustainable (environmental, economic, and social) actions are taken if the country must achieve Sustainable water supply services by 2030.

In my 2017 newspaper publication on world water day, I wrote about environmental management for water and sanitation Sustainability. Today, in this article, I will discuss how to sustain water supply services in Sierra Leone with lessons drawn from experience working at the two water utilities in the country and the sustainable development concept.

Water is a major economic driver. Its economic significance to a nation spans from the provision of healthy wellbeing of its citizens, to meeting industrial water demand for economic development. Goal six of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals requires that every country is able to provide safe and adequate drinking water for its inhabitants by 2030. Particular note must be taken of the word ‘Sustainable,’ which means that the service must be adequate and continuous even after 2030 perhaps till the end of times. How possible can this be for Sierra Leone?

Several water supply improvement programmes have been undertaken during the post-war reconstruction program and the national development agendas that followed. Without any doubt, remarkable improvement has taken place on WaSH service delivery since the end of the rebel war in 2002. Some improvement in water supply coverage was recorded from 47% in the year 2000 to 63% by the end of the MDG in 2015 even though the national target of 74% was not met. Much progress has been made especially in the rural areas. Cholera epidemic was last recorded in 2012. This serves as an indication of success at least in hygiene education and by extension access to clean drinking water whether directly from the utilities and other actors or as a result of the proliferated commercial water packaging industries. With plans underway for more investment in water supply for the Western Region including the capital city and other areas in the provinces, there are chances that the country will achieve or get very close to achieving full coverage of access to safe and adequate drinking water by 2030. The major challenge has been the means of sustaining and improving the services in urban and peri-urban areas. Three key strategies are identified in this article as ways through which that goal can be achieved. They are complementary and are based on an analysis of past and present situations. The strategies are (1) application of a cooperate business approach to water supply services (2) control of environmental degradation and (3) creation of a national institutional framework for coordinated infrastructural development.

The need for a business approach to water supply services

It is without doubt that in urban and peri-urban towns in Sierra Leone, people are willing to pay for water supply services as long as it is reliable and affordable. If they can afford to purchase bundles of sachet water for drinking in their homes at a relatively higher price, why would they not want to pay a cheaper price for a reliable and affordable utility service? Benchmark from other developing countries like Uganda has shown that a well-managed water utility is a profitable business. The problem in Sierra Leone is that pipe borne water supply has not been reliable in big towns and coverage has not been growing beyond the designed area. One of the fundamental causes is the low and slow investment rate into the public water system by way of extension of the infrastructure to catch up with the high rate of expansion of settlements in urban and peri-urban areas. Another cause is the poor performance of the utilities. Their poor performance can be attributed to many reasons such as lack of a business plan for improved performance and extension of their coverage area, financial crisis they suffer as a result of compromises in payment of water rates even by government agencies, and high non-revenue water resulting from wastages and theft in the network. These problems can be addressed by one of three ways: 1) by creating the environment for private sector investment through a design, build and operate agreement with a private company and tariff regulated by a designated body (the Electricity and Water Regulatory Commission (EWRC) in this case). 2) By delegating some aspects of the utility operations (such as the water distribution and commercialization) to private entities. 3) If the government does not prefer the idea of privatization or delegated management, it must then establish a very robust performance management system for the utilities by setting performance targets which must be monitored regularly. The EWRC or any agency established for the monitoring purpose must be up to this task. Key of the performance indicator must be expansion and reliability of water supply services. While this goal cannot be achieved without adequate financing, systems that can ensure efficient revenue collection (such as the installation of pre-paid water meters to all business and government agencies) and robust leakage control measures must be established. Professional and committed human resource is the driving force to achieving this goal. Internally generated revenue can be directed to the day-to-day operation and maintenance (major and minor) costs. Capital investment cost for expansion of coverage can be borne by the government as loan or donation to the utilities.

Control of environmental degradation for water sources protection

The sustainable development concept became fundamental in the global agenda since 1987 from the report of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development commonly known as the Brundtland Report titled ‘Our Common Future’. The report hinged development and poverty alleviation on the extent of environmental protection. In other words, man’s development cannot be sustainable without protecting the environment from where he gets his resources. The theme for this year’s World Water Day commemoration is: Nature for Water: Stop the deforestation. Forests play an important role in the water cycle and this understanding has been exhaustively discussed in the literature. In Sierra Leone today, uncontrolled deforestation for housing construction is widespread. The effect is climate change events which includes alteration of rainfall pattern. The consequences will be a decline in the country’s water resources potential. While development for housing settlement cannot be stopped, steps must be taken to control related practices that are environmentally unfriendly and which may deplete water resource potential. One such step is to stop the deforestation of protected areas such as the Western Area Peninsular Forest reserve and other sensitive forests which are recharge zones for groundwater that feeds into rivers and streams. National environmental regulations that encourage environmentally friendly pavement construction and tree planting in public areas and private homes must be established as a way of securing groundwater storage. The Water Resources Management Agency which is about to be established is expected to handle the protection of the country’s water resources. The establishment of this agency is overdue.

National framework for coordinated infrastructural development

It is imperative for our infrastructure and built environment planners (if such body exists) to establish and enforce among all MDAs, a ‘Coordinated Development Planning Guideline’ in a document form. Such coordination, for instance, will prevent the issuance of permit for construction or other development in water catchment areas. Protected areas will be identified and enforced. Development works will be coordinated to prevent damage to other services, infrastructure, and the environment, and allow the right facilities to be established at the most suitable locations. This exercise will start by undertaking a physical development master-plan of towns and cities and perhaps the entire country. The idea of a coordinated development planning can be localized in towns, cities, and at district levels. Credit is hereby given to the Makeni City Council for their effort in creating a development master-plan for the Makeni City. Above all, high-level commitment and technical professionalism will be required for successful implementation. This goes with the right kind of leadership; one that is resilient enough to galvanise support and cooperation of all stakeholders.

In conclusion, For Sierra Leone, achieving the SDG goal number six can only be possible if a systematic approach is applied. This includes business focus, environmental protection, and inter-sectorial coordination.

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