The COVID-19 pandemic tested institutions’ capacity to respond to crises and work together amid physical lockdowns. It raised questions about how resilient the world is to unforeseen and extreme events. The pandemic also highlighted the importance of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene to protect human beings from infectious disease (and outbreaks). Reports on the impact of COVID-19 indicate that the pandemic is slowing down progress in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Attainment of SDG 6.1 – achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all – is no exception.
Loss of revenue affects the capacity of water utilities to invest in service upgrades and rehabilitation. During the lockdown and the subsequent restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 (March to July), monthly remittances for the upkeep and maintenance of water sources declined in several Northern districts in Uganda. This is a story of how the Austrian Development Agency's (ADA)-supported Improving Water Supply Sustainability (IWAS) II project of SNV helped mitigate the shocks of revenue loss.
Higher savings realised through regular maintenance
SNV’s research in Uganda found that the annual cost of repairing a broken-down borehole hand pump is higher than the cost of carrying out preventive maintenance. Preventive maintenance (in monthly and quarterly cycles) per borehole costs less than UGX 25,000 (EUR 6) per month, and an average of UGX 300,000 (EUR 69) per year. This amount is significantly lower than the annual cost of repairing a broken-down borehole, which costs on average UGX 1,000,000 (EUR 230).
By approaching access to water and sanitation as a human right, SNV’s partnership with ADA made sure that several sub-counties in Northern Uganda were spared from the adverse effects of not having access to safe water during the global pandemic and subsequent lockdown.
A more sustainable approach to water source functionality
Through the IWAS II project, SNV and ADA worked with the district governments of Lira, Dokolo, Alebtong, and Kole to establish and strengthen the capacity of the Sub-county Water Supply and Sanitation Boards (SWSSBs) to implement an operation and maintenance (O&M) scheme to sustain the functionality of water sources. A payment and savings scheme was introduced by the project. For water sources to be considered part of the O&M scheme, each had to be registered with the SWSSB, paying an annual membership fee of UGX 25,000 (EUR 6) to the board.
Every month, each household contributed UGX 1,000 (EUR 0.2) to the O&M funding scheme. The Water User Committee (WUC) of each water source remitted 80% of the collected funds to their SWSSB monthly. Funds received by the SWSSB through the WUC were banked, and hand pump mechanics were assigned to maintain specific water sources on a monthly basis. The hand pump mechanics’ service fees were paid by the SWSSB.
Despite the drop in monthly remittances in 2020, there was an overall increase in water source functionality by 7.4%; up from 86% in December 2019 to 93.4% in December 2020. In numbers, this means that 794 of IWAS’s 850 target water sources are now functional. Today, these sources are supplying safe water to 198,500 people amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. An additional 63 water sources became functional during the lockdown period.
IWAS model institutionalised
The complementarity of sanitation and hygiene to water cannot be disputed. The COVID-19 pandemic made this more evident. Without access to a constant flow of safe water, washing hands or the proper management of waste cannot be practised. Access to safe water reduces non-income poverty  by improving the lives of communities.
Northern Uganda is a good example of how communities can work together to improve their overall well-being and dignity by tackling one fundamental need – access to safe water. In 2019, the Ministry of Water and Environment integrated the IWAS model into the new National Framework for Operation and Maintenance of Water Infrastructures. In 2020, Lira became the first project district to scale the IWAS model across all its nine sub-counties.
Written by: Shafiq Kakeeto, J.R Okello & Kumbulani Ndlovu Note  Defined as having poor quality of life with limited to no access to affordable social and physical services. More information  For more information, contact, J.R. Okello by email.