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Integrated water services for refugees and host communities is more than just providing taps

Themes: Regulation Utilities WASH Water
Countries: East Africa Ghana Kenya Uganda

By Tim Hayward, General Manager, WSUP Advisory

Across the East Africa region there are an astonishingly large number of settlements, more than 200, that currently accommodate about 3,000,000 people displaced from their countries and home areas due to war, ongoing conflict and insecurity.

Their need for basic services such as water are met, with varying degrees of success, by a wide range of approaches and actors, and much of what has been provided in the past has been temporary and ad-hoc and none of it has been self-sustaining.

Following a significant shift in the humanitarian sector in 2016, with the development of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, there is now a much greater acceptance in many countries for the long-term support and integration of refugee populations which has opened up possibilities for initiatives that aspire to provide sustainable and integrated services to both host communities and communities of refugees or internally displaced persons. Only a few years ago in many countries there was no political will to even consider the long-term accommodation of refugees.

Whilst the tendency might be for discussions about how to achieve viable integrated services to focus only on infrastructure and training of the nearest utility, it has become clear to us at WSUP that such approaches have wide ranging implications for actors in both the humanitarian and the development sectors. Furthermore, investment decisions will have to take into account factors that would not normally appear on the agenda of a discussion about water utility development.

NCWSC PPD - Nairobi

A utility worker in Nairobi, Kenya. How can utilities adapt to the challenge of providing services for refugee populations?

This stems from some work that WSUP Advisory, WSUP’s consultancy arm, has conducted with UNICEF and UNHCR, supported by KfW, that focussed on the challenges of establishing integrated services (for the benefit of both displaced and host communities) in East Africa, and also draws on some of the observations and lessons identified in a paper written by WSUP Advisory in collaboration with UNICEF and IIED that looked at the challenges faced by service providers in the Middle East and North Africa region to serving displaced populations.

Any discussion on the prospects for integrated services should recognise at the beginning that certain conditions have to be favourable – it’s not going to work or to be a worthwhile investment everywhere, and from the perspective of the refugees and IDPs targeted what this means for them is in fact a transition from being “a beneficiary of humanitarian assistance” to “a customer of a utility”. The significance of this transition should not be underestimated, and it has wide ranging implications for a number of stakeholders.

For the funding agencies to provide the levels of investment required to deliver sustainable integrated services they will have to be satisfied that the conditions are at least favourable for success and will want to prioritise the most favourable locations.

Drawing on our experience of considering the water sector as a whole and of using tools such as WSUP’s Sector Functionality Framework (SFF) to assess and to understand the environment within which utilities have to operate, WSUP has identified that conditions in the national context such as security, political stability, etc. and the social context are just as important as assessing the capabilities of the service provider and of understanding the technical or engineering challenges of a particular location.

In order to understand the capabilities and requirements of utilities, WSUP has developed a Utility Strengthening Framework that follows the same structure and approach as the SFF but focusses more specifically on the utility.

Blog: A utility strengthening approach to tackling water scarcity

WSUP's Utility Strengthening Framework

WSUP’s Utility Strengthening Framework

Furthermore, moving from the traditional approach of the humanitarian sector to the provision of water services, that could be described as ‘care and maintenance’, to an integrated service being provided by a utility implies a significant process of change that should be managed, supported and encouraged in the same way as any other major change process.

Programmes of humanitarian response can be characterised as having an emergency phase, which may require quick and by necessity often temporary solutions in order to save lives, followed by a stabilisation and then a recovery phase. In the early stages, the responding agencies may in fact be substituting for local service providers (although sometimes they don’t recognise that this is what they are doing) who don’t have the capacity or are not present or may be present and have the capacity but have simply been overlooked by the international players.

In order to get to a point where local utilities can provide a good quality, sustainable service to displaced and host communities, will require a significant shift over time in the roles of UN Agencies, which have different but complementary mandates, and in the roles of international and national NGOs and different funding agencies. The areas of interest and the time horizon of a funder of humanitarian relief activities is very different to those of the IFIs and the development banks but one is required in the early part and the other in the latter part of such a process.  This therefore implies that ideally there should be a managed process of transition.

Similarly, whilst the expertise provided by humanitarian NGOs can be highly valued in the early phases, the expertise of international consulting agencies is likely to be more appropriate to addressing the requirements of the latter and longer-term phases. The same will also apply to national agencies and different government bodies with mandates and responsibilities that are relevant to different phases in the process.  The possibility for ‘territorial’ conflict between combinations of the above is also very real if not adequately addressed.

A wider benefit of moving towards an integrated approach is that investing in water utilities and creating opportunities for them to increase their customer base, and thus their revenue, could also provide opportunities for clustering of smaller utilities to create larger and more viable entities.

This is a trend that is already happening in a number of countries in Africa, for example in Kenya, with the development of county level rather than town level utilities; in Uganda with the advent of the regional Umbrella Authorities; and with the evolution of the Community Water and Sanitation Agency in Ghana. Bringing services to refugees and displaced communities into the equation could further reinforce that trend and provide a route to viability that may have been difficult if they were only to serve pre-existing host communities.

Read more about how WSUP Advisory is supporting a regional Umbrella Authority in Uganda

Assessing water supply issues with the Mid-Western Umbrella of Water and Sanitation (MWUWS)

Whilst this integrated approach is an all too rare example of a possibility for bridging the gap between the humanitarian and development sectors, and the debate on how to achieve that has been running since the 1970s, for this to be fully successful some other key issues will also have to be addressed. Not least is the question of the relationship and accountability between the customer and the utility. For example, how can someone who is a refugee, and therefore may have limited opportunities for employment and for earning their own income, be truly regarded as a customer of a utility while a mechanism for applying subsidies (of perhaps 100%) is still required.  Equally, how can such customers hold the utility to account for the service provided?

There is also the potential for lessons to be learnt from an integrated approach that could inform the early phases of future humanitarian responses. Hopefully, this would prevent the situation arising where decisions made during the humanitarian phase create challenges that then have to be addressed in the development phase. Whilst this is a hugely welcome development there is clearly plenty of scope for further work to be done.

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Top image: Resident outside a refugee camp in Beira. Credit: Stand Up Media