Superheroes, sanitation and partnerships at the African Water Association Congress
Could sanitation at last be getting the attention it deserves? Mbaye Mbéguéré, Senior WASH Manager at WaterAid UK, and Rémi Kaupp, Urban Sanitation Advisor at WaterAid UK, report from the 19th Congress of the African Water Association on the buzz around smart mapping and faecal sludge.
Along with several WaterAid colleagues from Burkina Faso, Mali, Uganda and Ethiopia, we recently attended the 19th Congress of the African Water Association (AfWA) in Bamako, Mali. AfWA is one of the largest conferences dedicated to water and sanitation in Africa, and one of the few not organised by a university or an association from Europe, Australia or North America. It is therefore a good place to discuss African WASH issues and to gauge what really interests the attendees and speakers, who are mostly water utility managers, contractors from the water and sanitation sector, and representatives from relevant ministries and large municipalities.
Compared with the last Congress only two years ago, one change is very clear: sanitation is now at the forefront. For the first time in the AfWA agenda a day was dedicated to sanitation. Rightly so, as it still lags behind the advances of other sectors.
What is even more exciting for us is the buzz around faecal sludge management. It was previously a niche and neglected topic – why bother with pit emptying when you can plan beautiful (and unfeasible) sewers? Yet it was the central topic of countless presentations, panels and plenaries at this Congress, with experiences burgeoning across Africa. This is the sort of approach needed to reach the poorest urban dwellers. We saw many innovative approaches to deliver sanitation services this way.
Sanitation may be in front, but water services were not forgotten, and it looks like the buzzword here is ’smart’ – smart meters, of course, but also smart ways of mapping and tracking services. Reflecting efforts to help the poorest gain access, several sessions were devoted to tariffs, particularly social tariffs for the poorest, and how they fit with a utility’s wider need for financial viability.
We presented several aspects of WaterAid’s most innovative work, such as:
- How municipal employees can become water and sanitation superheroes.
- How some cities have become successful with sanitation – our ‘Tale of Clean Cities’.
- Our approaches to sanitation in Burkina Faso and in India.
- How we can strengthen the capacities of water utilities.
Our main event was on utility partnerships, or, in other words, ‘how can we best help employees in water and sanitation companies serve the urban poor?’ We have several methods at our disposal, which we shared with our friends from BORDA, AfWA and GWOPA, all involved in similar partnerships. Our colleagues from Uganda and Ethiopia presented:
- An international training programme on sustainable urban water and sanitation, ITP-SUWAS, which we co-created in order to train utility managers and municipal employees.
- A mentoring programme dedicated to creating low-income customer support units, i.e. specialised departments within utilities aiming to reach poor urban areas. Currently, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation of Uganda is mentoring two town utilities in Zambia in this programme.
- A ‘twinning’ relationship between Yorkshire Water in the UK and the water and sanitation utilities of 20 towns in Ethiopia.
Stakeholders have taken an important step in the need to give more space to sanitation, but we must not lose sight of the fact that many people will continue to be left behind unless we specifically target the most marginalised. It is therefore useful to rethink approaches with explicit attention to issues of equity and inclusion, which should be at the heart of the debate in future congresses.