Long-term Success and Viability of Water Supply and Sanitation Projects in Africa

Presentation at the Convention of the Illinois Chapter of Sister City International Hanover Park, Illinois on Friday, April 23, 2004

By William G. Nyanue, P.E.
Alvord, Burdick & Howson Engineers

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 26, 2004

US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, correctly observed during the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002 that “Water is the key to file.” He went on to say, “Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is essential to life, dignity and well being1". Yet, safe drinking water and basic sanitation are not available in many parts of the world, especially in Third World. According to the Water Institute, “Water scarcity is now the single greatest threat to human health...2” The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that 1.1 billion of the world’s population lack safe water supply, and about twice that number do not have access to basic sanitation. This translates into 3.4 million deaths each year from water borne and poor sanitation-related diseases3.

The problem, inadequate safe drinking water and poor sanitation, has been the concern of the international community for quite some time, judging from the many UN conferences on the subject, including:

• The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972)
• The United Nations Water Conference (Mar del Plata, Argentina, 1977)
• International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, designated by the UN General Assembly, 1980-1990
• The Global Consultation on Safe Water and Sanitation for the 1990s (New Delhi, India, 1990)
• The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992)
• The International Conference on Water and the Environment: Development Issues for the 21st Century (Dublin Ireland, 1992)
• The Interministerial Conference on Drinking Water Supply and Environmental Sanitation (Noordwijk, the Netherlands, 1994)

As part of its Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations has now established the ambitious goal of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation by 2015. To achieve this goal, the UNDP estimates that spending on water infrastructure in the Third World would need to be increased from the current level of $80 billion a year to $180 billion a year3. This is an immense challenge that would require public and private funds.

The problem in many African Countries is not necessarily what is referred to as absolute water scarcity---insufficient water resources----but what is referred to as economic water scarcity----sufficient potential water resources, but inadequate funds to develop those resources. According to the International Water Management Institute, only four of the twenty countries projected to experience absolute water scarcity in the twenty-first century would be in Africa-----Egypt, Libya, South Africa and Tunisia. On the other hand, twenty-two of the twenty-four countries projected to experience economic water scarcity would be in Africa2. The challenge for most African countries, therefore, is to raise the funds needed to build sufficient water and sanitation projects. But assuming the funds are available, certain key issues would need to be adequately addressed in the planning and designing of the projects to ensure their long term success. These issues include, among others, the application of Appropriate Technology, Training, Adequate and Equitable Tariff, Service to the Urban Poor, and Public versus Private Ownership of utilities. In this presentation we look at two of these issues, namely, the application of Appropriate Technology and Training.

A. Appropriate Technology
There are a number of technologies that can be employed to produce and distribute clean and safe drinking water, and to collect, treat and dispose of sanitary waste in urban centers. In treating surface water, for example, the technology can range from something as simple as slow sand filters, which require relatively large land area, which is readily available in many African countries, and very little chemicals, to exotic treatment processes that might include membrane filtration, ozonation, UV ray disinfection, etc. In the sanitation sector, the technology can range from a simple Ventilated Pit Latrine, to elaborate treatment works that include various pre-treatment processes, biological filters, sludge treatment facilities, etc. Operations and management data acquisition systems can range from simple manual, mechanical systems to sophisticated computer-based SCADA systems.

The planning and design of water and sanitation facilities for many African countries would need to take into account available local resources and expertise if the projects are to achieve their objectives in the long-term. Most things that are taken for granted by utility managers in many developed countries----water treatment chemicals, parts for pumping equipment and SCADA systems, etc.---- do become major operating problems in many African countries because they must be imported. That means these things compete with the many other essential foreign goods and services that must also be imported for their share of scarce foreign currency. Boakye and Siakwan highlighted this problem when they wrote: “...it has to be emphasized that the drilling rigs and the pumps (required for the construction and operation of boreholes in Ghana) are expensive and require foreign currency which is usually scarce in the Third World countries4.”

In many instances, projects which are planned, designed and constructed with little attention paid to the issues of appropriate technology and local expertise do not achieve their objectives in the long run. Studies have shown that many water supply systems in the Third World, costing millions of dollars to construct, are rendered useless due to lack of maintenance, which might be due to either the unavailability of spares, or local expertise, or both5. Rapid sand filters, for example, could be out of service for protracted periods of time for something as simple as the lack of media, which may have been depleted after a number of backwash cycles. Or a pumping equipment costing thousands of dollars may be damaged because the operator is not adequately trained to detect the onset of a problem. Boakye and Siakwan wrote, “About 40% of boreholes in the country (Ghana) are between 15 and 35 years old. Since they were first constructed, the wells have scarcely been maintained or rehabilitated. This has led to the disuse of some of these boreholes.”4

For the foreseeable future, many items employ in the water and sanitation sector in the Third World, including in particular pumping, control, and monitoring equipment, as well as water treatment chemicals, will have to be imported. But design engineers would need to make every effort to employ technologies that are suitable to the local environment and capable of being managed by available local expertise.

B. Training
This leads to the issue of training. Technical specifications for new water supply and sanitation works usually include the requirement that suppliers of major equipment and systems assist the owner with plant startup. The intent of this requirement is not only to ensure that the equipment and systems work as they were designed, but also to assist the operators become familiar with the new equipment and systems. Operators and system managers in the developed world have the added advantage of proximity to the suppliers. Just a phone call will bring a supplier’s representative to the plant, usually within no more than a day or so, to assist the operator. Operators and system managers in the Third World do not enjoy this benefit. They are normally left on their own once the project is up and running and the engineer and contractor, usually from abroad, have left.

With international donors expected to continue being the major source of funding for water and sanitation projects in the Third World, international engineering firms will continue to play major roles in the planning and design of major water and sanitation projects in the Third World. And most Third World countries would benefit from the experience and know-how of these firms, and be assured of quality products. However, in order to ensure the long-term viability of the projects, I believe the following two things are essential: 1) Partnering of local and foreign engineering firms, and 2) A commitment to training.

The benefits of partnerships between foreign and local engineering firms are obvious: 1) The local firm has superior local knowledge that would be invaluable to the planning and design of the project; 2) The local water supply and sanitation sector would have locally available high-level experts who would be familiar with the project(s) and could assist with technical issues related to the management of the facilities long after the international consulting engineer has left; 3) Technical information and records related to the project would be available locally. And this is very important because utilities require continued technical assistance----as-built drawings, technical specifications for old equipment, contact information of manufacturers of equipment-----long after a project is completed.

Medium and long-term training of utility managers and operators is essential for the long-term survival, integrity and development of the utility. Technology is changing rapidly and Third World countries need to acquire the know-how necessary to manage and operate modern water and sanitation utilities. Working with their counterparts in the West would be one means by which they can acquire valuable hands-on experience operating and maintaining modern equipment employ in the water and sanitation industry. Managers could learn how their counterparts deal with specific management issues, water accountability for example. According to the UN, half of the water produced in the developing countries is lost due to leakage, illegal connections and vandalism.5 Minimizing leakage will, therefore, translate into significant savings in energy and chemical costs.

What is required for truly successful water and sanitation projects in Africa and may other Third World countries, therefore, is a partnering relationship between water and sanitation utilities and the engineering firms that plan and design their facilities. Alvord, Burdick & Howson (AB&H) Engineers in Chicago, for example, has provided this link for the national Water and Sewerage utility of Liberia, the Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation (LWSC), for many years. The firm designed and supervised the construction of the water and sewerage facilities in Monrovia, Liberia many years ago. Before joining the firm about 13 years ago, I had the privilege of training at the firm’s offices in Chicago for about a year, as an employee of the LWSC. And before that, the firm arranged with the City of Louisville, Kentucky’s water utility to train a number of plant operators and distribution system personnel from the LWSC. Water and sanitation project sponsors need to include provisions in project documents for this sort of invaluable training.

A Sister City relationship between an American City and a City in Africa would be an opportunity for the sort of know-how transfer that even goes far beyond water supply and sanitation. Visiting African municipal officials can learn from their counterparts in their Sister Cities how to deal with a whole range of issues involved with the efficient management of modern municipalities.

The lack of safe drinking water and improved sanitation in many African and other developing countries, results in the deaths of millions each year. The problem is no less serious today than it was more than 30 years ago, despite the many UN conferences held on the subject. According to the UNDP, current investments in the water and sanitation sector would need to more than double in order to make a significant impact. But assuming the resources are available, several issues would need to be adequately addressed in order to ensure the long-term success of water supply and sanitation projects in Africa and many other Third World countries. In this paper we looked at just two of these issues - the application of technologies that take into account local resources and expertise, and a commitment to long-term training to develop local expertise. Realizing these objectives, as well as successfully dealing with the many other issues related to safe drinking water and improved sanitation in the Third World would require a partnership between the public and private sectors. Sister City relations between American cities and their counterparts in Third World could make a significant contribution to this mix.

1. Japanese Foreign Ministry press release - US-Japan Clean Water for People Initiative, September 4, 2002
2. Future Harvest News Report, March 17, 1999
3. Address by Mark Malloch Brown at Third World Water Forum, Koyoto, Japan,United Nations Development Program, March 22, 2003
4. P. Gyau-Boakye and S. Dapaah-Siakwan, Groundwater: Solution to Ghana’s Rural Water Supply Industry, African Technology Forum, 1999
5. Clearing the Water: A New Paradigm for Providing the World’s Growing Population with Safe Drinking Water, Earth Summit Watch, September, 2001