UN water expert advices Botswana to review tariff policy

Keletso Thobega
Thursday, 03 December 2015
Water management critical Water management critical

Botswana is in the midst of the worst drought in its history. Available water resources are getting lower over time in Botswana, what with the influence of climate change, the decreasing rainfalls and the temperature rise, which is anticipated to exceed the world average.

According to Leo Heller, United Nations (UN) water and sanitation expert, Botswana is in an emergency situation and urgent measures are needed to secure drinking water particularly for those who cannot afford to buy water. Heller was speaking after his mission to Botswana during which he visited communities and health facilities and schools in Old Naledi, Kasane, Maun, Sexaxa, Ghanzi, D’Kar, Tubu, Shaikarawe, and New Xade, at the joint invitation of the UN and Botswana government.

Heller said that not addressing these challenges urgently would be an infringement on human rights to water and sanitation, particularly to those who have no means of buying water, or the funds to purchase large storage tanks. “Many people I met were simply storing water in buckets. Even in a clinic in the Greater Gaborone Area, there was no water. The clinic was going through a procurement process of buying a water tank, in the middle of this drought. Such contingency plans must be put in place and implemented in advance,” he said.

He noted that one of the human rights obligations is that water supply must be continuous. “While controlled rationing of water may be unavoidable in extreme situations, frequent lack of water inside pipelines can lead to increased contamination of the water mains through intrusion of harmful substances. Experiences show that rationing of water through intermittent supply is a false economy, as this invariably leads to increased losses. Non-retrogression is also an important principle of human rights.”

Water wastage
Heller also cited water loss over negligence and poor management as a niggling concern. “Half of the water resources are wasted due to leakage and inefficient management practices. Under the leadership of the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources, and with support from international partners, the Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) is implementing a strategy to reduce the water loss level to 22 percent by 2018, and to 15 percent eventually. This is a welcome measure but people’s engagement is also essential to manage water wastage and increase the availability of water,” he said.

While Heller acknowledged that the WUC monitors the quality of drinking water according to the Botswana Standards for Drinking Quality Water Specifications, which requires that potable water meets its minimum standard as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO) Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality, it was disturbing to learn that the WUC is however not obliged to report the results of the monitoring to the surveillance either.
“The WUC monitors the water quality of boreholes not connected to the network, yet the information of the individual boreholes is not reported or not easily available. People have the right to be informed of the quality of water they are consuming.”

Heller noted that contamination of water sources due to inadequate management of pit latrines and leakages is a sanitation concern, adding that approximately one-fourth of households across Botswana do not have access to water borne sanitation.
“If the household is located in an area where the groundwater table is shallow, the government does not allow the use of pit latrines or sceptic tank with soak-away, and encourages the use of so-called conservancy tanks. There are two major wastewater treatment facilities in Gaborone and Francistown, but the latter does not have sufficient capacity at the moment. There are some localities with stabilisation ponds as the wastewater treatment process, but usually the lagoons are overloaded and receive inadequate maintenance.

Almost half of the population use pit latrines either in their premises or in shared-facilities. Pit latrines with proper slabs could be an acceptable solution if they follow certain standards including the protection of groundwater. Some types of pit latrines, for instance, eco-toilets with a composting function could be explored as one of the adaptation measures to the effects of climate change. Eco-toilets reduce water demand significantly, and contribute to protecting water sources from being contaminated by wastewater.” Heller noted that waterborne diseases, particularly diarrhoea, are still common, particularly in rural areas. While a decrease for the trend of 2000-2012 was reported by WHO diarrhoea was still the cause of 6 per cent of all under-five deaths for the year 2013. The under-five mortality rate for 2013 was 47 per 1000 live births and there is an estimation of 180 deaths under-five due to diarrhoeal diseases.

Access to precious water resources
While Botswana has achieved significant expansion of water piped networks, in rural areas such as in Okavango Delta, the proportion of households with access to improved water sources is still low, according to Heller. 
“I urge the Botswana government to review this policy to ensure equal access to water and sanitation for everyone without discrimination. In rural areas without networks I visited, the consumption of water per person appears to be 15-20 litres per person per day. This is far lower than the absolute necessary water level under emergency situations (50 litres per person). A WHO study reveals that with access to 20 litres per person, the health concern level is high as hygiene practices are difficult with this amount,” he said.

Heller has also observed that a large number of the population still resort to open defecation in the bush and urged government to ratify awareness on the health risks among the population as well as providing alternative solutions like the eco-toilets he recommended.  He noted that inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene in schools particularly affect girls. “Some girls do not use the toilet in school because of poor sanitation facilities and the absence of menstrual hygiene management. One girl I interviewed said that there is a disposal service, but it is difficult to manage menstrual hygiene without water available in school. Menstrual hygiene management that ensures privacy and human dignity is an important but often forgotten component of the human rights to water and sanitation,” he emphasised.

Pre-paid water metre cost concerns
Under the water sector reform started in 2009, the WUC streamlined the different tariff schemes into two (one for the public sector, and the other for the domestic, commercial and industrial uses). The WUC is introducing pre-paid meters for the public water points, which had been free of charge. “While I understand justification that some charges will encourage people to save water, I am concerned that there is no clear safety net for those who cannot afford this new charge. District authorities used to provide sludge collection services, but this responsibility has been handed over to the WUC at a much higher rate (about P600 per operation). Many people cannot afford this charge, and many pit latrines are over-flowing. Government could revisit the tariff systems and put in place clear mechanisms to ensure affordable water and sanitation for all, including those who cannot afford to pay the bills for the reasons beyond their control such as unemployment.”

Disgruntlement with WUC service provision
Heller said that the human rights to water and sanitation need to be translated into laws, policies, and budgeting. He pointed out that the Constitution of Botswana has provisions related to human rights including the right to life, though it does not explicitly recognise the human rights to water and sanitation. The Water Act (1967) is the principal legal instrument on water, but does not sufficiently deal with water supply and sanitation issues.

“Following the water sector reform, the WUC is responsible for water service delivery and wastewater management but both in rural villages and new settlements and resettlements I visited, people told me that they were happier with the services of water and emptying pit latrines provided by the district authorities. They also raised concerns that it is difficult to identify whom to  consult with when problems with water and sanitation occur.”
Heller suggested that an independent regulator with competence to monitor the compliance of water and sanitation providers be engaged.

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