Public-private partnership water kiosks not a magic bullet

Public-private partnership water kiosks not a magic bullet

By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo

Seventy-five-year-old Margret Sukati, an elderly resident of Sikhuphe area, was overjoyed when her community got access to a reliable source of potable water, especially in an area that increasingly battles with drought and water scarcity. However, the promise of easy access to clean water was short lived. The solar water project in the area collapsed in 2021 and shows no sign of being restored.

The solar water project that was installed in Sukati’s village was the result of a partnership between WaterAid Eswatini and the Coca Cola Africa Foundation. WaterAid Eswatini piloted this sustainable water project which cost E27m and which supplied water to Khuphuka, KaBen, Siweni, Njonjane and Mahlabatsini-Lamini areas under the Lubombo Sustainable Rural Water Supply Project. 

In line with the United Nation’s resolutions and development goals, Eswatini’s Constitution recognises access to water and sanitation as a human right. 

The actual water supply in this project is run by Hlobisa Environmental Consultants, a Mbabane-based private operator that manages the water supply infrastructure and sells water to residents on a pre-paid basis at E70 monthly for 200 litres per household from the kiosks.

This system was designed to get around the problems experienced by previous community-run water supply schemes which were plagued by poor management and maintenance problems.   

The new scheme was also billed as one that would provide water for laundry, gardening, household and commercial purposes. Not only was it going to serve as a waterpoint, it would also provide access to proper sanitation through disability-friendly toilets. It was going to serve as a sort of ‘social hub’ for the users and provide drinking troughs for livestock in the rural communities.  

“WaterAid set up at least one water kiosk in each of the three communities at KaBen, Siweni and Njojane, and six water points from where the community members access water. Each water kiosk has a water collection point, a drinking trough for animals, a toilet and a water tank (with a tank stand),” reads the Water Kiosks Business Plan: KaBen, Siweni & Njojane Communities. 

But the elderly woman’s happiness has been short-lived as she can no longer access potable water from the nearby water kiosk three years down the line. With no option, she has to puff and huff uphill pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with a 25-litre container full of water from a communal borehole. She travels about 1.2 kms to the alternative water source on the banks of the intermittent Mgungu River. This is against the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended distance of 200 metres or 500 metres to the water source. She has no one to turn to for help because she lives with her two little grandchildren. 

“Thank God, we’ve had rainfall in the past few days so one has harvested rainwater. I’ve collected just enough water in my tank for my small family. Otherwise, one has to walk a long distance to the borehole across the main road. At my old age, I struggle to push the wheelbarrow uphill. But I’m one person who avoids asking other people’s children to help me,” she said.

According to Sukati, who lives on a measly E500 elderly grant, her water problem started when the kiosk stopped supplying them with water due to the sharp drop in the number of residents using the facility in protest against the imposed price hike to E70 per month with a limit of 200 litres per household. In a rural community with a big population of poor people, she complained that the new charge was unaffordable.

Despite enjoying the benefits of accessing potable water for barely three years chairperson of the community water committee, Tekhaya Sukati, was appreciative of what she termed a breakthrough to community development. Being a health-conscious person, she was thrilled that the solar water project ensured reliable and sustainable access to safe drinking water, relief from waterborne diseases and hygienic health conditions.  

“We’re over the moon when they brought us sustainable clean water. Previously, it was very difficult for us, especially women and girls, who were burdened with fetching water. By bringing safe drinking water closer to us, we thought our lives were going to change for the better,” she recalled, adding: “They also charged us 30c for 25 litres with no limit and one would fill up a 3000 litre-tank. I saw the importance of water as we always stayed clean and healthy.”  

But things have taken a turn for the worse for the residents as the kiosks in the designated areas have stopped operating since June 2021. The chairlady blamed the root cause of the collapse of the solar water supply project on the inaction of the WaterAid and Hlobisa partners. She claimed that instead of acting swiftly upon receiving reports on water problems, the partners allowed them to develop to a full-blown water crisis.  

The chairlady told Inhlase that it all started with water shortages in the third year. Only one or two residents would fill up five containers but the rest wouldn’t due to the water shortage at the kiosk. After reporting the problem to Hlobisa, environmentalist Majaha Khumalo, did nothing. Instead, he advised the chairlady and her team to check all T-pipes for leaks and solar pump faults. Much to their astonishment, everything seemed to be in perfect condition. 

“We first suspected the weather because the system used solar energy. But it turned out that it was sunny which made us wonder what could then be the cause. We had to go around trying to identify the problem. What’s more frustrating was that one could hear the sound of water getting into the tanks,” she said, adding: “Majaha also failed to figure out what could be the real cause. We moved from pillar to post trying to identify the root cause but in vain.”   

The other three water kiosks in the surrounding areas also faced almost similar problems. Later, Sukati was told that the cause was the Mbalenhle kiosk downhill. She learnt that the water minder was such lax that some residents were no longer paying according to the quantity of collected water. She discovered that when the water minder felt like not going to work, she hung the kiosk keys on a tree where the residents would take them to collect any quantity of water. This was brought to Khumalo’s attention who never bothered to discipline her according to the chairlady. 

Hlobisa disappointed the residents by failing to take disciplinary action against her. With no control at the water kiosk, the residents continued helping themselves to the water. She recalled that two residents came with a tractor carrying drums and connected their pipes to the kiosk and collected huge quantities of water. At the end, they drove away without paying a cent. 

Quite disturbed by hearing the sound of water getting into tanks but there was still no drop from the taps, the community members discovered an underground pipe diverting water to a community member’s “garden of tomatoes” meaning a dagga field in a forest. Sukati decried that though the community members knew the culprit, nobody dared confront him for fear of death. She was frustrated that her calls to Hlobisa’s Majaha Khumalo and his WaterAid counterpart Thobile Phungwayo were never returned. 

“We followed up on this matter and discovered that the water went to a certain homestead. After finally getting hold of Majaha, he asked me to substantiate my allegations. I told them that I know because I live in the community. Instead of listening to me, Khumalo was just fighting me. Yet, according to our contract with Hlobisa, the community is supposed to be his boss. As time went by, Hlobisa ended up unable to pay the salaries of the water minders due to lack of revenue generated by the kiosk,” she revealed. 

According to her, WaterAid and Hlobisa only jumped into action when the problem had already developed to a full-blown crisis. Addressing the meeting of the residents held under the tree, WaterAid country director, Ncamiso Mhlanga, pointed out the huge loss incurred by the kiosk operator. After showing the residents a padlock, he gave them an ultimatum to pay the E70 per month charge or else he went ahead to lock the kiosk gate. He disclosed that Hlobisa was unable to pay the water minders’ salaries and its operational costs. 

“Mhlanga didn’t see the problem of imposing the E70 price increase because he felt that the residents didn’t mind spending money on airtime which is not a basic need like water. He was later surprised to discover their unwillingness to buy water at that new tariff. I told him in our Esibayeni meeting that the community members had chosen to use other alternative water sources which finally forced Hlobisa to stop operating kiosk.”  

Margret, the elderly resident, further explained that the new water charge was unaffordable to the elderly getting a monthly E500 elderly grant. She complained that the measly grant did not meet her basic needs. She lamented that she had no option because WaterAid had tapped to the pipes of the nearby communal borehole drilled by the Member of Parliament through donations. She now has to trek once again a long distance to the faraway borehole to fetch water.

In the South African Institute of International Affairs 2005 report titled Nepad Policy Focus Series Working Together Assessing Public–Private Partnerships in Africa, Peter Farlam writes in theory, PPPs may have the potential to solve sub-Saharan Africa’s profound infrastructure and service backlogs, where almost 300 million have no access to safe water. But the governments should not expect PPPs to be a ‘magic bullet’ because of several negatives. He cautions that the private sector is not always more efficient and the service provision is often more expensive to the consumer.

The 75-year-old can attest to that the PPP operated water supply project is rife with challenges.

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