Working with Strong Service Providers to Address the Urban Water and Sanitation Challenge


For many people around the world, it is simply impossible to imagine life without easy access to safe drinking water or a toilet, yet the lack of such basic amenities is still a fact of life for too many in the global South. While it is true that transformational change in the provision of basic services has been achieved in some countries over the past 15 years, millions remain without access to water and sanitation.

In towns and cities, local service providers have struggled to keep pace with unprecedented population growth. Discussions around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have reflected the urgency of focusing greater attention on the needs of low-income urban residents. Between 2010 and 2050, the urban population of Africa is projected to increase from 400 million to 1.26 billion, and by 2035, 50 per cent of the continent’s total population is expected to be living in urban areas. Many of the people migrating to such areas will have no choice but to move to low-income communities that lack access to the most basic of services.

In my role as Country Programme Manager for Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), I have seen first-hand the scale of the challenge in Madagascar, my home country. Madagascar is among the poorest countries in Africa, with one of the world’s highest rates of extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, 92 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 per day.

Across the country, around 50 per cent of the population has access to an improved water source. Access is certainly higher in urban areas but this masks the fact that many city residents have to travel long distances or stand in line for hours to purchase water. Faced with this option, it’s not surprising that many urban residents end up using contaminated water sources that are closer to home, risking their own health and that of their families.

Each month, the urban population in Madagascar grows by 33,000. As the population becomes increasingly city-based, the focus of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All (WASH) challenge will gradually shift away from rural needs towards solving urban problems.

I joined WSUP in 2007 at the onset of our programme in Madagascar, which at that time was focused entirely on the capital city, Antananarivo (Tana). Like many capital cities in the global South, Tana has experienced massive population growth over the past decade, with the majority of its new residents living in low-income communities. Back in 2006, water and sanitation services to these communities were insufficient. The national water and electricity utility company, JIRAMA, was committed to improving the water supply situation but lacked the capacity to do so without external assistance.

At WSUP, we held the conviction—as we still do—that service provision at scale can only be achieved through strong local service providers, who will own and run the service delivery process in the long term. Our priority was to form a close working relationship with JIRAMA, strengthen their capacity and demonstrate what is possible. The partnership began with a pilot project to build 17 water kiosks and has grown exponentially. Since 2010 alone, JIRAMA has provided nearly 500 new communal water connections to Tana’s low-income communities. The infrastructure is managed by community-led associations that buy water from JIRAMA and resell it to customers at an affordable price.

The introduction of a safe and reliable water supply has brought with it a wide range of social and economic benefits, including improved health, thanks to a reduction in diarrhoeal disease, and the time and monetary savings associated with shorter trips to collect water.

Germaine, who lives in Tana’s Itaosy commune, is a customer who has benefited from the new services. Previously, she had no choice but to boil and treat the water from a nearby well or risk sickness. Now, with a kiosk selling clean water just 10 metres from her house, she doesn’t have to pull up heavy buckets, and the health benefits are obvious. “My grandson is now happy that he doesn’t have stomach aches anymore, because he can drink potable water that comes directly from the water kiosk,” says Germaine.

The WSUP joint programme with JIRAMA has directly affected many women’s livelihoods. Over 60 laundry blocks with water connections have been built, in part to provide a safe space for washer women to practice their trade. WSUP estimates that each of the washers—95 per cent of whom are women—earns 8,000 ariary per day or about $490 per year, three times more than before laundry blocks were built.

Numerous other businesses have also benefited. Hantanirina Rakotozanany, for example, says that as a result of the water kiosk being so close to her house, she now has time to develop her wax business. “I create wax to polish people’s houses,” she says. “This helps me and my husband pay the scholarship fees of our children.”

So what have we learned from this experience that could be of relevance to other countries? First and foremost, the provision of these new services has been underpinned by institutional reforms and capacity development within JIRAMA. These improvements have focused on enhanced water efficiency and reduced levels of non-revenue water (NRW) in Tana. NRW is the amount of water produced by a utility for which the utility receives no revenue due to physical losses (e.g. leaking pipes) or commercial losses (e.g. incorrect billing, incorrect metering and illegal connections). Reducing NRW is a crucial way of increasing water supply for low-income customers. The estimated 3 million m3 of water that is being saved annually thanks to the NRW programme—enough to fill 1,200 Olympic-size swimming pools—is helping provide improved services to existing customers and extend access to a significant population of low-income residents.

Ironically, the reforms that JIRAMA has undertaken were accelerated by the collapse of a major investment initiative in Madagascar following a political coup in 2009. Without a significant source of funding, we had further incentive to work with JIRAMA to identify potential savings from within that would enable it to reach low-income communities. In a sense, this has been beneficial because it has proven that utility companies are able to instigate change themselves without large investments. The experience underscores our belief that the activities implemented by JIRAMA can be adopted as standard practice for other utility companies in cities across the global South.

Regrettably, we have failed to make the same progress in sanitation as we have seen in clean water supply, both in Madagascar and across the global South. A number of common challenges persist and will need to be overcome before we can begin to talk about sanitation at scale. A critical first step is to clarify which institutions hold responsibility for delivering sanitation services to urban areas. In Madagascar, the Ministry of Water was established in 2008 and became known as the Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in 2015; a legal framework for sanitation exists but it is rarely applied. There remains a leadership vacuum on the issue, derived partly from confusion about whether sanitation is primarily an environmental or town planning concern. There is, however, a growing awareness of the need to strengthen the institutional framework for sanitation. In a positive recent development, discussions are underway to create a new regulatory entity, although this will take some time to put in place.

Linked to the lack of clarity around sanitation responsibilities is a chronic lack of investment in improved sanitation infrastructure. The sewer network in Tana has barely expanded from the colonial era. Access is very limited in the city’s centre (around 17 per cent) and is virtually non-existent in peri-urban areas.

There has been work in developing a citywide sanitation strategy for Tana, which WSUP has supported. One of the components of the strategy is to increase the number of residents with access to a sewer system. These are welcome but long-term projects. In the short-term, sewers are not going to be available for the majority of the population any time soon. This means that there needs to be a greater focus on onsite sanitation, where waste from a toilet is stored locally, in a pit or tank, and then must be removed and disposed of. Such a solution presents its own complications in terms of management but also opportunities for economic development, as private-sector operators can run profit-making enterprises that can collect, treat and dispose of stored waste.

Another key barrier to improving sanitation infrastructure that we have observed across the global South is land ownership and availability. Low-income urban areas are typically densely populated and lack space for communal sanitation facilities and larger infrastructure such as transfer stations. Some settlements are established on public land that is not authorized for residential use, and tenants are deprived of their legal right to public services. In other cases, the land is controlled by a landlord who may or may not be required to provide adequate sanitation. In Tana, the major issue is the scarcity of land in the city’s central area, where siting a communal sanitation block, for example, can become a long and complicated process. There is no easy solution, but the issue is less pronounced in peri-urban areas.

A final piece of the sanitation jigsaw puzzle that I would like to highlight is the challenge of stimulating demand for better services. Many low-income families in Tana use basic pit latrines, which require a concrete sanitation platform (‘SanPlat’) to make them hygienic. Most low-income families, however, do not see improved sanitation as a priority investment. To counter this, we need to encourage residents to consider investing more in better sanitation through raising awareness of why it is important. This calls for a marketing strategy. In Tana, for example, we have experimented with television advertising to stimulate interest.

Of course, a concrete slab to go on top of a pit latrine is never going to be high on any consumer’s wish-list of aspirational purchases. It will never be able to compete with satellite television. But this challenge is very close to a core WSUP belief that we’ll never be able to improve access to water and sanitation for city-dwellers unless we see low-income residents as customers, and develop products and services that they are able to, and want to, purchase and use.

Right now, the SDG target of universal access to sanitation feels a long way off in my country and many others. But 10 years ago I could not have imagined that today, 700,000 more low-income residents would have access to a clean water supply in Tana. Transformational change is possible. In Madagascar, we have already made considerable progress towards universal access to clean water, and seeing this progress allows us to face the challenges ahead with greater optimism.