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Water supply

Easy access to safe, affordable water changes lives in Ugandan villages

18. March 2021

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Rural Ugandan fishing villages along Lake Victoria did not have easy access to safe water. The lake is polluted from industrial waste and causes serious or deadly waterborne diseases when ingested. In 2015 the Iceland government funded a 4-year Water, Sanitation and Health (WASH) project to help the area.

Iceland collaborated with the local Buikwe district government, NGO Water Mission Uganda and Grundfos, the solution provider. For one part of the project, the team drilled boreholes for safe groundwater and installed piped water systems with solar-powered Grundfos AQtap water ATMs  in 39 villages covering about 45,000 people. With this collaborative effort, after nearly two years the rate of sickness related to waterborne diseases is steadily falling.

In Bugoba village, the number of diarrhoea cases among all age groups has reduced 45% from 2017-2019. Among children under 5 years old, it has dramatically reduced by 65%. Additionally, village water committees are taking over operation of the water systems. Payments for the water go towards operation and maintenance to secure sustainable, long-term operation.

The situation

Bugoba village (pop. 10,000) lies in a valley in Buikwe District in the hills above Lake Victoria in Uganda. It takes about an hour by four-wheel-drive from the city of Jinja to Bugoba over the red-earth and past sugarcane and cassava crops. The lake sits at the bottom of a long, sloping hillside – about a half-hour walk from the village.

When Annet Kasukya came to Bugoba to marry her fisherman husband, she became one of many women and girls who walked down the hillside path to fill 20-litre jerrycans with water. Then she lugged them back home for cooking and washing.

“At first we thought the water was good because we used to take it,” Annet Kasukya says. “Then you became sick and thought it’s maybe mosquitoes. In the community, people were always sick. My neighbour died of bilharzia. His stomach was swollen. We did not know that it was the lake water affecting us.”

Her first-born daughter Hanifa – now six years old – got severe diarrhoea. “We spent a lot of money trying to get her better,” Annet says. “She became so dehydrated. It almost took her life.”

Some villagers thought that if they fetched water from deeper out into the lake, it would be cleaner. That brought its own dangers, including dangers of drowning and crocodiles. “The lake was not good at all,” she says.

There was a well, but it was a two-to-three-hour walk up the road in the other direction, and its water was not reliably safe. The other alternative was to buy water from local water vendors. They  sold water in the village during the day for 500 Ugandan shillings (USD 0.15) per jerrycan.

“It was expensive. We could not afford that money,” she says. “We invested a lot in medical treatment for our kids and even ourselves when we got sick. We could not save any money that could help us in our daily lives.

”The lake had once been a good source of water, but over time industrial development and population growth brought pollution, explains Kigongo Mathias, Buikwe District Chairperson. “The lakeside communities began seeing increasing waterborne diseases, deaths especially among children, high medical bills and declining productive working hours. This started a negative spiral of poverty and retarded growth in young children. This was not desirable to individual households and the district government.” There was no NGO present in the area, and the newly created district of Buikwe did not have funds to drill boreholes and prepare water schemes.

Iceland gets involved

In 2015, the Iceland Embassy – based in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala – started researching the needs for starting a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme in Buikwe at the request of the district government.

Maurice Ssebisubi, Senior Programme Officer at the embassy, identified 39 established villages along the shoreline. From there, consultants assessed the area. “The biggest problem they found was that there was no clean, safe water,” he says. “Second, there were no sanitation facilities. Everything was open defecation. The communities were really badly off.”

For the water systems, the Iceland team started studying different options on the market. “We wanted something that could actually give us value for money, while ensuring that they had pumps, so that people would not stop having water, which is the blood of the community.”

The team visited several different off-grid water systems in rural Uganda. Each had its specific challenges – like those that used cash transactions. “Whoever collects the money, the money just disappears. And then if a pump breaks down for a week, someone just comes and takes it,” he says.

Other projects would have water flowing for six months, but then the tap would go dry. One system in northern villages used a community management model, but the residents struggled with revenue management. “We did not want to make the same mistakes,” he says.

The solution: Grundfos Lifelink water system

It all changed when Maurice’s team visited a solar-powered AQtap “water ATM” in Kikondo near Buikwe. “We looked at the books, and we saw that it had been running for about three years. Whenever we’d go back there, we’d find water flowing.”

Water Mission Uganda, an NGO, had implemented the Lifelink solution with water ATMs in Kikondo. Iceland consulted with them and concluded that the best solution would be to connect the new water schemes with an automated water kiosk solution offering pre-payment, such as the Grundfos AQtap solution.

The government of Iceland had already determined the need to collect small payments for the water to ensure funds for operation and maintenance of the water systems. The Grundfos AQtap water ATM offered this with its WaterCard-based pre-payment and online water management system.

Thus, Iceland offered USD 6.7 million for a 4-year WASH programme that would conclude in 2019. The funds included 24 boreholes in 39 villages serving a population of about 45,000 people; solar-powered, submersible Grundfos SP pumps and RSI solar inverters; and 107 solar-powered AQtaps in the villages. Bugoba was one of the villages. It got three AQtaps in 2017.

The WASH programme also delivered sanitation facilities, rainwater harvesting schemes, training and more.

By 2020, the Buikwe District Local Government will receive full ownership of the systems. “The communities have to be able to run the systems themselves,” says Unnur Orradóttir Ramette, Ambassador of Iceland in Uganda. “It’s a low-cost system, more or less maintenance-free.”

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