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Establishing clean water delivery is just the start: How to maintain investments long-term

May 24, 2021

By Simon Turgoose and Loren Labovitch

With climate change, rising populations, and aging infrastructure, developing communities requires a long-term approach for dependable water

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. A lack of access to clean water is one of the biggest causes of global poverty, especially in sub-Sahara Africa where more than a quarter of the population spends more than half an hour per trip to collect water. The task of fetching water also tends to fall on women, a burden which can prevent girls from attending school. 

Other causes affecting access to water in sub-Saharan Africa include climate change which is making water availability less predictable as droughts have been drier and longer lasting in recent years, speeding up hunger and health crises, increasing poverty, and lowering incomes for entire populations. Africa’s rising population is also driving demand for water, decreasing the availability of water resources and creating challenges in securing clean drinking water. The development of pathogens (such as cholera, amoebic dysentery, typhoid, and hepatitis A) through climate change, floods, and heavy precipitation, can affect the quality of drinking water. In 2017, only half of Africa’s population had access to safely managed drinking water.

While establishing a municipally managed water delivery system can help address these immediate challenges, many developing communities continue to suffer from lack of access to dependable, clean water because these systems are not properly operated and/or maintained over the long term. This is often because the investments needed to maintain these systems are costly and require specialized expertise.

The lack of investment in the piped water network in Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown, has resulted unreliable service and poor water quality at the standpipe, among other issues.

The challenges of limited investment

The water supply system for Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown, was constructed in the 1960s. It includes a reservoir in the Guma Valley reserve, a water treatment plant, and a distribution system comprised of pipes and storage tanks. 50 years of inconsistent investment has rendered the water system serving urban Freetown inadequate. Providing clean drinking water to residents is limited by a number of factors, including:

  • A water supply system reliant on a single source: The Guma Valley Reservoir is insufficient for supporting Freetown’s existing and rapidly expanding population. It was designed to support a population of 700,000 people and is struggling to supply a current population of over 1.5 million people via a daily rationing scheme.
  • An aging, undersized, poorly installed, and deteriorating existing transmission and distribution system: This has caused high water losses (up to 50% by some measurements) further reducing available water.
  • Substantial data/revenue losses: This is due to inefficient management by the Guma Valley Water Company (GVWC).
  • Inadequately treated water delivered through the system: Starting with inadequate treatment at the Guma Valley Water Treatment Plant, the water supply is further compromised through broken pipes and intermittent service.
  • Limitations of the physical system: The system’s physical limitations impede the ability of the GVWC to reliably deliver water or properly measure the volume of water distributed.
  • Tariff issues: For residential consumers, GVWC tariffs have not been adjusted since 2006. They are too low and not volumetric (charges are levied through flat-monthly fees).

Over the years, the longstanding lack of investment in the piped water network has resulted in many illegal/ mischaracterized connections, non-payment for service, unreliable service, poor quality water at the standpipe (only 152 of the 283 public standpipes owned by GVWC are functioning), and continued deterioration of the distribution network. Ineffective management and poor service delivery also create and perpetuate opportunities for corruption, whether in providing new connections, billing and collection, or internal waste and inefficiency.

Deteriorating pipes are collected in Freetown.

Opportunities to reinvest and rebuild

With the right funding and guidance, communities in the developing world can get their water supply networks on the right track. In the case of Freetown, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)—a bilateral US foreign aid agency established by the US Congress—provided $44 million in funding to the Government of Sierra Leone as part of a five-year Threshold Funding Program (THP). This began in February 2016 and recently completed in March 2021, with the goal to reform the water and electricity sectors and advance economic growth.

In 2016, Stantec’s International Development Group was selected to help MCC oversee all aspects of the program, including engineering, financial, institutional, policy, regulatory, capacity building, and service delivery elements of the THP. Stantec brings a long history leading this type of work in developing countries around the globe. Over the last 10 years, we have successfully undertaken similar water supply projects where a lack of water resources, poor infrastructure, and poor management were addressed through establishment of an Infrastructure Network Management System (INMS). The INMS includes provision of mapping/GIS, network modelling, engineering design, and pipeline extensions. These physical interventions were coupled with institutional strengthening of the local water companies to improve operational performance, increase revenue collection from customers, and enhance long-term maintenance of the system. 

The lack of investment in the piped water network has resulted in mischaracterized connections, such as the pictured plastic piping to a concrete water storage tank.

A water reform success story in Sierra Leone

The work completed under the THP in Sierra Leone—through a myriad of strong, committed partnerships and collective efforts—provided a foundation for the GVWC to establish improved sustainable revenue streams. Better service levels and improved customer support increases customers’ willingness to pay, which then enables the GVWC to reinvest in further network improvements. A more robust water system also allows the residents of Freetown to reap the long-term health and economic benefits of a dependable, clean water supply.

Stantec is grateful to have been part of the success story for water sector reform in Sierra Leone under the MCC THP, which improved safe and sustainable access for 15,000 residents. We also celebrate their selection in 2020 by MCC’s Board of Directors to develop a compact aimed at further reducing poverty and increasing economic growth for their people. 

  • Simon Turgoose

    As a water technical lead, a technical manager, and due diligence engineer in the UK, Africa, and the Middle East, Simon works to improve access to sustainable, clean water.

    Contact Simon
  • Loren Labovitch

    As vice president of emerging markets, Loren manages our international development team based in Washington D.C. where he leverages his more than 25 years of project, policy, and management experience.

    Contact Loren
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