NSAs Debate the Impact of COVID-19 on Uganda’s Water Resources

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By Lucky Brian Wamboka

On 29th April, 2020, Food Rights Alliance and Community Integrated Development Initiative (CIDI) in partnership with Trocaire and Danish Peoples Aid organized a webinar on Water Resources. The meeting discussed a case around COVID-19 to influence stakeholders to prioritize water resources management systems as the first line of defense against health emergencies equally required for production in other economic sectors such as agriculture.

It was a platform for Civil Society to advocate for increased investments towards water resource management during and after COVID 19 crisis to support the health sector and other sectors that heavily rely on water resources. The meeting attracted over 90 representatives from Civil Society, private sector, media, academia, farmers, development partners and government officials. It also attracted stakeholders from United Arab Emirates, USA, Tanzania, Germany, France, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana.

The meeting composed of a panel of experts from Makerere University, IRC, CIDI, and FRA and specialists on Water for Production and Community Champions on Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). These deliberated on key salient issues including the need to ensure equitable access to adequate and safe water, sustainability and resilience of Uganda’s water resource management systems in meeting the current competing water demands.

With numerous COVID 19 interventions by the government of Uganda, water is one of the subjects considered marginal and not critically discussed in terms of accessibility, its stability, use and management yet it is a vital resource at the frontline of fight against COVID-19. As it is increasingly demanded and consumed by other different sectors and many people continuously assume that water is reliably sufficient and accessible by all Ugandans everywhere at all times. As a result many stand a risk of catastrophic expenditure and becoming water insecure especially the rural poor living in water stressed areas.

Ms. Agnes Kirabo, the Executive Director of FRA highlighted that the pandemic will pose significant impact on our water resources as they are increasingly required for washing hands. She noted that, “every Ugandan per household requires 1, 440 litres of water a month for hand washing only which will not be sufficient for the current population estimated at 43 million.” Agnes added that in the current Financial Year, the Ministry of Water and Environment and National Water and Sewerage Corporation did not receive a supplementary budget to meet their operational costs and ensure effective access to water by all.

Ms. Hellena Kasujja the CIDI Deputy Executive Director recognized government for increasing the budgetary allocation for the water sector for the FY 2020/2021 by 59% from the previous allocation. She noted that despite the budgetary increment, the government over relies on external funding which poses a risk of future water crises.  Hellena proposed that the government needs to prioritize and recognize the importance of water through systematic and meaningful investment in the water sector. She added that meaningful investment will enhance efficient access to safe water and aid proper waste management to mitigate water pollution in the country. Ms. Lydia Biira, a WASH Expert from IRC retaliated that that government should also promote Public Private Partnerships at national and local level for increased investments in water infrastructure to address issues of operation and maintenance for efficient access to water by community water users.

Dr. Joshua Wanyama, from Makerere University presented that the burden during COVID 19 and after the pandemic will be huge and could affect people’s access to water. Water bills have more than doubled which will affect the operations of National Water and Sewerage Corporation in enhancing effective water supply to the public. He proposed that the government should subsidize National Water to at least 50% for the entire corona virus season for address challenges related to operational costs being incurred. He added that the government should set water withdrawal limits for industry and agriculture and scale up rain water harvesting to reduce the growing deficit in water supply relative to demand.

Dr. Anthony Egeru from Makerere University noted that water quality especially in water stressed communities comes from ponds and dams which are prone to direct contamination from humans and livestock. It poses health risks to those communities and will not have the capacity to address issues of COVID and post COVID outbreak. He also noted that the availability and accessibility of water at household level has a number of gender dynamics as women suffer the burden of looking for water for domestic use hence government should consider addressing such water issues in a multi sectoral approach. He also added that for the safety of Ugandans water should be considered as a health issue and it is thus critical that we manage its quality and sustainability.

Eng. Cong Richard, the former Commissioner for Water for Production in the Ministry of Water highlighted that the government needs to strengthen the existing institutional framework to advocate, promote, develop, regulate, supervise, maintain and generate data that will guide planning and investments for sustainable management of water resources and infrastructure. He also noted that capacity building at all level for designing, constructing, operating and maintaining water facilities for improved efficiency and access to water is vital.

Eng. Kato Yusuf, an Irrigation Engineer noted that Water management systems involve maintenance of the water infrastructure, storage, distribution and abstraction of water and if these are not considered access to water will remain a big challenge to not only Ugandans in water stressed areas but also those who are the most vulnerable to pandemics like COVID 19. Ms. Annet Dianah Nannono, a WASH champion added that government should advance the technological approaches to enhance access to water quality and strengthen community management structures to improve the hygiene and management of the different infrastructure in place.

The meeting resolved to develop a detailed communique as a policy influencing tool that will be used to create awareness and mobilize policy makers and various stakeholders to foster ideological conversations on the linkages between water-food-health and energy stakeholders to inform planning and strategic direction in during pandemics like COVID 19. They also agreed that water is a mandatory health and socio-economic good that requires stewardship to avoid economic implications on Uganda’s economy.