WaterAid country director, Ncamiso Mhlanga
By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo
Three years after Mkhiweni-Dvokodvweni residents in eSwatini’s drought prone areas were promised piped potable water through a new solar-powered water supply project, the taps in the kiosks supplying clean water have run dry and they are once more having to trek long distances to fetch daily water.
However, WaterAid Eswatini, which partnered with the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation to install the water supply system, says 26 533 people are still accessing clean water from eight public-private partnership (PPP) operated water supply systems. Of which, five of them are operational, two require replacement components and repairs and one needs facilitation support. This contradicts the organisation’s own internal project reports presented by the contracted private kiosk operator, Hlobisa Environmental Consultants, confirming that six of the water systems have not been functioning since late 2021.
“The six water supply schemes, which are still not functioning, include five water kiosks at Khuphuka, KaBen, Sikhuphe, Mbalenhle and Njojane. The sixth one is located at Njobo-Mbadlane area which has not been operational due to some technical design problems. Hlobisa continues to hold meetings with WaterAid and the community water committees in a bid to resolve the issues of the water supply schemes. We’re currently busy trying to restore water kiosk services to the Siweni-Sikhuphe community,” says Hlobisa environmentalist Simiso Bhembe.
The E27m (US$1.2 million) solar water project was billed as one that would supply 32 000 people in the Dvokodvweni and Mkhiweni Constituencies with access to safe drinking water. The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation and WaterAid Eswatini pumped E19m and E8m into the rural water project respectively. This joint project was launched in November 2020 and billed as a life-changing solution in a country with water supply coverage estimated at 49% (112,149) homesteads in the rural areas.
The 2015 Eswatini Rural Water Sustainability Assessment report indicates that rural water supply access is very low at 29% (65,845) homesteads. This is attributed to the low functionality of the rural water supply schemes. It also finds that 25% of rural water supply schemes are not functional due to the user non-payments which result in lack of funding for repairs and maintenance. These rural communities, the government report states, lack sufficient skills and knowledge on the maintenance of the water supply systems. The partnership between WaterAid Eswatini and the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation was hailed as one that would address these persistent water issues.
At the launch of the WaterAid/Coca-Cola Africa Foundation water project in 2020, the then Minister of Natural Resources and Energy (MNRE), Peter Bhembe said: “Completion of this partnership water project between WaterAid Eswatini and Coca-Cola Foundation adds two percent to the 69% completion towards fully implementing access to clean water in the rural areas. This will bring the nation closer to achieving one of the targets of Agenda 2030, which is to achieve universal, equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.”
Also speaking at the project launch, Coca-Cola chief executive officer Mícheál Geraghty said: “This water project addresses the need for sustainable services by working with local government authorities to establish national public-private partnership in the rural water sector and improve the lives of women and the youth. It aims to reduce the impacts of climate change on the rural communities through improved access to sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services in Eswatini.”
WaterAid country director, Ncamiso Mhlanga added: “We appreciate the generosity of the Coca-Cola Company contribution. This will help some Lubombo people to access clean and sustainable water. We also appreciate the partnership we’ve developed working with government. There’s a need to explore joint programme to change the old and non-functional water schemes from electricity to solar as the use of solar pumps will demonstrate sustainability in water supply. This cannot be ignored as it has proven to work.”
The PPP operated sustainable water supply system was introduced to Ka-Ben, Siweni, Njojane, Khuphuka, Njobo-Mbadlane and Mahlabatsini-Lawini communities under the Lubombo Sustainable Rural Water Supply Project. WaterAid contracted Hlobisa to run the water kiosks commercially. It was charged with operating, managing and maintaining the water supply system as well as selling water to the users through a pre-payment system.
The Mkhiweni-Dvokodvweni residents are still reeling over water crisis despite all the millions of emalangeni pumped into the eight solar-powered water supply schemes. Inhlase has seen a Hlobisa/WaterAid Rural Water Supply Pilot Project Progress Report spanning the period from July 2020 to October 2021 confirming that six water supply schemes were not functioning.
When Inhlase asked the WaterAid country director, Mhlanga for comment he did not respond. Inhlase then emailed questions to the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation in April which, in turn contacted him. On 11 May, he acknowledged receiving the questionnaire.
“Thank you for your interest in our work at the Mkhiweni and Dvokodvweni Tinkhundla solar water supply projects. We received your most recent questions via Coca-Cola yesterday and are obviously most concerned about claims that some of the installations may no longer be functioning. We are sending a team immediately to the site to assess the status of the equipment and talk to the community about resolving any issues around the long-term funding and maintenance. We will have a full picture by early next week and will then be able to provide you with detailed responses to all your questions,” reads his email.
Instead of providing ‘detailed responses to all your questions’, Mhlanga issued a media response with scant information on 15 May refuting all the people’s complaints about the water scarcity due to the not operational water kiosks.
He wrote: “A recent assessment on the performance of the 8 PPP operated water systems established that 26,533 people are still accessing clean water from 5 operational water systems. Two systems require replacement components and repairs that WaterAid is supporting, and one system needs facilitation support. We further established that due to insufficient revenue collection from the households, the private operator has had to stop working in these communities, which creates significant operational and management challenges.”
This contradicts the WaterAid/Hlobisa Rural Water Supply Pilot Project progress report presented by Hlobisa’s Majaha Khumalo, which states that the five water kiosks stopped operating in 2021 and this was also confirmed by the private operator on 18 May in a follow up telephonic interview.
In 2021, WaterAid and Hlobisa began to listen to the people’s demand for yard connections though it was a little late. They introduced them to Mahlabatsini-Lawini and Siweni-Mbalenhle which saw the number rising from 13 to 51 and 10 to 11 homes with piped water respectively.
Sikhuphe community water committee chairperson, Tekhaya Sukati, revealed that the water crisis hit them again because of WaterAid and Hlobisa’s inaction allowing the water problems to develop to a crisis. She said things came to a head when they changed the surcharge for water from 30 cents for 25 litres unlimited to a flat E70 monthly for 200 litres per household without conducting any affordability study.
Inhlase discovered that a section of the population in these rural areas cannot afford to pay the tariffs such as the orphans, the elderly and the extreme poor. Although the communities did not openly reject the new charge, they stopped buying water in protest. They turned to the alternative water sources such as hand pumps, streams and dams.
According to the project progress report, the causes of water kiosk problems were many. The PPP operated water project was not viable due to low water consumption. This was blamed on the incorrect assumptions of the approved business plan which projected the monthly water demand at 4.4 million litres. Yet, it turned out that Hlobisa sold only 1 550 167 litres over 12 months. Another cause was the people’s unwillingness to pay for water which stemmed from their cultural attitudes.
The other cause was that the operational costs were higher than the collected revenue. There was also the issue of vandalism and water theft left unchecked. The residents had access to alternative water sources. This exacerbated the affordability issue which resulted in the kiosks generating low revenue to remain viable.
Mhlanga revealed that between 2020-2021 WaterAid cushioned Hlobisa with a seed funding of E611,309 (US$30,000) to ensure the PPP operated water systems were maintained. Hlobisa denied that amount disclosing that it only received a three-month cushion based on the approved E375,966 (US$27,849) budget captured in the Water Kiosks Business Plan: KaBen, Siweni & Njojane Communities. Hence, insufficient revenue collected from the water kiosks forced it to stop working in the rural communities.
Hlane bucopho Sam Malambe said WaterAid shot itself in the foot by prioritising community water kiosks over yard connections. He claimed that the residents preferred the latter. Unlike at the kiosks where the community members come with their containers to buy water, the yard connections allow an individual home connection through a prepayment system. WaterAid initially ignored their preference and offered community water kiosks for 12 months.
“The WaterAid and Coca-Cola water project launch raised our hopes. Much to our disappointment, what WaterAid offered us wasn’t at the level of that we wanted. We wanted to get water on our home premises because it was one of the options that made the water project attractive,” he said, adding: “Imagine you pay E70 monthly but you still have to walk a long distance to the community water kiosk and central waterpoint to fetch water. We wanted water in our yards to stay stress-free in the winter season when water is scarce in our area.”
His Siweni counterpart, Bongani Maphefu Dludlu, echoed his words. He said WaterAid had promised Mbadlane and Ntandweni residents that the piloted PPP operated water kiosks would provide them with reliable and sustainable water. This was sweet music to their ears as that would relieve them of water scarcity. He lamented all that had remained a pipedream.
“We tried to make a case as a community by giving other options, but WaterAid closed its ears. Water would be pumped for two weeks but the residents would have it for two days. In one of the WaterAid workshops we raised the issue but we’re told to keep quiet because our matter was being addressed. It’s over two years now since we have been told to keep quiet. We’re asking ourselves who can save us from this dire situation,” he said.
Dvokodvweni Indvuna yeNkhundla, Mayibongwe Dlamini, blamed the water project collapse on WaterAid’s lack of honesty and transparency. He claimed that WaterAid did an about turn on bringing potable water to their homes. It ignored the disadvantages of sourcing groundwater via old boreholes. He pointed out the area is arid and water dries up quickly because of the low water table. He claimed that WaterAid had continued without heeding the community’s advice.
He slammed WaterAid for paying lip-service to the partnership with the Inkhundla executive committee. He claimed that WaterAid and Hlobisa had no time for the community representatives and local authorities. He recalled that WaterAid community liaison expert, Thobile Phungwayo, failed to honour Inkhundla invitation. Not to mention the Hlobisa representatives who did not have time to discuss water issues with the traditional councils.
“This was very frustrating because the water project was problematic from day one. Unfortunately, we don’t know the Coca-Cola Foundation contact person to report our complaints. The water project has never helped the people from the beginning. It is concerning that this white elephant cost millions,” he said.
Dlamini lashed out at government for not monitoring the project implementing agencies as they do as they please and are unaccountable. As a result, the rural communities ended up not knowing where to report their complaints. He criticised Dvokodvweni MP Mduduzi Magagula for not tabling a motion in Parliament to debate the collapsing water schemes which cost millions. He wondered how government verified the national safe drinking water coverage stats without a monitoring mechanism.
“These are the people who hate government because they received funding to sort out the plight of people. Government believes that the people have access to potable water in the rural areas. Yet, the water supply schemes are not operational due to their failure to respect the traditional structures. As a result, emaSwati end up blaming government for poor service delivery,” he said.
Hlobisa denied that its communication lines were not open and claimed to work with the inner councils (bobandlancane). WaterAid country director did not comment on the relationship between WaterAid and the local authorities in the media response.
Dlamini further complained that WaterAid had not released a report of the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation E50 000 entrepreneurship package. The Foundation had promised the people E50 000 as seed capital to start small businesses including vegetable gardens, soap making and brickmaking. He said WaterAid had so far not given the Inkhundla a report on the beneficiaries.
Attempts to get a comment from WaterAid and Coca-Cola have been unsuccessful as they deliberately avoided to answer the specific questions.
A Njobo-Mbadlane resident, Nikiwe Mamba, Asinatse Njobo Water Scheme chairperson, was over the moon when WaterAid came to set up the sustainable water supply system. She hoped the residents were not going to share dirty water with the animals in the dams. However, she was disappointed to hear that WaterAid was not bringing water to their homes.
“We then put our heads together and decide to get the Eswatini Water Services Corporation water services which are accessible in all seasons. We’ve set up the 18.7m Asinatse Njobo Water Scheme to install the EWSC metered water supply system,” she said.
According to the chairlady, the residents have already raised E300 000 and applied for more funding from the Inkhundla Regional Development Fund (RDF). There is a proliferation of EWSC aligned water supply schemes at KaBen, Khuphuka, Siweni, Njonjane and Njobo-Mbadlane as a proof that the WaterAid’s PPP operated water supply system is rife with challenges.
Interestingly, Acting Director of Water Affairs in the Department of Water Affairs, Makhosini Khoza, was not aware of the challenges facing the rural communities. This is despite the fact that his department is the custodian of rural water supply projects in the country. He told Inhlase that he was still waiting for WaterAid and Hlobisa to send the water project progress report.
According to him, government was appreciative of WaterAid and other partners assisting in the WASH sector because sustainability is critical in rural areas. He highlighted the importance of having a private operator to manage the water project.
“When a pump breaks down the operator can repair it to ensure that the people continue to access water. There is a need to repair pipes so that the communities can access water 24/7. Government alone cannot run the rural water project efficiently hence the use of the PPP model. Sustainability is one area of rural water supply that is crucial because the Constitution provides that every person has a right to water,” he said.
Khoza dispelled the perception that the PPP operated water supply services are expensive because they are profit-driven. He explained that the operator must conduct a willingness affordability study to determine a reasonable water charge. He stressed that the business arrangement is not meant for the private operator to make super profits. The PPP model is driven by the desire to ensure that the people access water 24/7 because water is life.
Probed about the pros and cons of the PPP model and solar technology, Khoza explained that they both have advantages and disadvantages. He pointed out that when it’s a rainy season the people harvest water and the operator loses money because the users won’t buy water. The solar power is also not a silver bullet due to vandalism and theft of the solar panels. Another area of concern is that the solar doesn’t generate power when it is cloudy. He advises the people to create room for both electricity and solar energies in the power plants.
Asked about the E18.7 Asinatse Njobo investment compared to the Cola-Cola Africa Foundation investment in the Njobo-Mbadlane solar water project, he acknowledges that this does not paint a good picture.