How to accelerate access to water and sanitation for all in developing countries – An interview with Silver Mugisha

Faced with a fast rate of urbanisation and population growth, national and local governments are finding it difficult to provide essential services like safe drinking water and sanitation, especially in the socioeconomic context of lower and middle income countries. Performing utilities have a key role to play in accelerating access to water and sanitation to all in compliance with goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The best approach must take into account all forms of capital-social, technological, financial, political  and cultural. How can the utilities transition to better serve the populations, particularly the poor? Silver Mugisha, Chief Executive Officer, National Water and Sewerage Corporation of Uganda, shares with IWA the best way to address the institutional issues and meet the new challenges, ahead of his keynote speech on 17 September 2018, at the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition, Tokyo, Japan.


What is required to improve access to drinking water and sanitation for peri-urban areas and secondary centers, which would make it possible to better fight against poverty? What needs to change?

Improving access to drinking water and sanitation for peri-urban areas and secondary centers requires a joint and concerted effort by all stakeholders involved, including the government, utilities and communities. There is a need for all stakeholders to refocus their priorities and implement aggressive measures to accelerate service provision in these areas. In the case of NWSC, prior to 2013, the Corporation operated in only 23 towns. Working together with all stakeholders, closely collaborating with the government, we changed our focus and prioritized acceleration of access to safe water for all. Currently, NWSC is operating in 240 large and secondary centers. This has only been possible with the dedicated support and engagement of all stakeholders, including government and communities.


To have more efficient water and sanitation companies, on the basis of your experience, between the big plants and other decentralized ones, what is the best option?

The answer lies not in one system or the other, but in the appropriate use of each system. Our experience in NWSC has shown that none of the options could be excluded a priori, but we have generally been able to opt and adopt the different options on the basis of the specific required situation in a given town.


New technologies offer significant potential for developing countries to accelerate access to water and sanitation for all. Focusing on new technology alone as a solution to water access issues has contributed to high failure rates. 


In which ways are new technologies offering opportunities for developing countries to accelerate progress?

New technologies offer significant potential for developing countries to accelerate access to water and sanitation for all. They provide opportunities for potentially lowering investment and operational requirements, making optimal decisions, providing better customer experiences as well as opening the possibility of delivering more ambitious plans in respect to acceleration of access to water and sanitation. Countries and utilities who grasp the opportunities of the new technologies will be able to accelerate progress and narrow or even leapfrog any gaps in respect to provision of sustainable water and sanitation for all.


How to improve the adoption of innovative technology in developing countries?

Silver Mugisha

Focusing on new technology alone as a solution to water access issues has contributed to high failure rates. Adopting an innovative technology  requires due consideration for the  context of the community/organisation where it will be operated, as well as its applicability and the potential for it to be used widely considering economic, technological, social, environmental, organisational, institutional, and legal issues. The readiness of the organisation to adopt the technology is a very important aspect that also needs to be assessed.


Concerning the gap in human resources, how to face this constraint to have water and sanitation companies performing better?

In addressing the issues of water and sanitation sustainably, one needs to consider the role of all forms of capital—social, technological, financial, cultural—and the complex ways in which they interact. All forms of capital derive their value, utility and application from human capital. This makes human capital, the central determinant of sustainable service provision of any form. At NWSC we have placed the human capital and its development at the core of our strategy. We have established in-house vocational development facilities for the lower cadre and a state of the art resource center for top and middle management. This is in addition to several regional and international partnerships we have established to support our human capital development. Our focus is to develop knowledge, skills and attitude.


 All forms of capital – social, technological, financial, cultural – derive their value, utility and application from human capital. This makes human capital the central determinant of sustainable service provision. 


NWSC is a successful African water company, which is not the case for many water companies on the continent. Do you think this situation will improve in the future?

NWSC success has been attributed to a number of factors, mainly, an appropriate enabling environment and the autonomy provided by the government, the servant leadership approach practiced at every level of the organisation, staff capacity, a do-it-yourself approach, and a strong focus on performance and performance-based incentives. Many governments and companies in Africa have acknowledged the need to implement internally-driven reforms with a focus on home-grown solutions and the future is very promising for many of such companies.


Why should institutional aspects be better taken into account in placing water and sanitation companies in low- and middle-income countries in a more favorable context for their development?

Water and sanitation companies in low and middle income countries are experiencing several challenges: technical, institutional, financial and also social and cultural. There seems to be a wide range of solutions that can be adopted to address these challenges apart from the institutional issues, which have proved to be the most difficult because it is not easy to transpose one context to another. In addition, most of the solutions are sustainable only if the institutional aspects have been adequately and appropriately addressed.


How to make political decision-makers better understand the need to put in place such institutional schemes?

Our experience with engaging with the political- decision makers is creating a win-win situation for all the parties. It’s a known fact that water is a political good and in many places used as a tool for soliciting political capital. We have managed to mobilise the support of the political decision-makers by supporting them in fulfilling the commitment they make to their constituents of providing better services and extending water and sanitation services to the unserved areas.


Are the many changes, particularly among the authorities in charge of the water sector, a hindrance to the implementation of sustainable policies?

Sustainable implementation of any policies in whatever form requires a certain degree of leadership continuity. The current practice in a number of countries and the nature in which the leadership of the authorities changes has definitely been a hindrance to the implementation of sustainable policies. NWSC is one of the few unique cases where leadership continuity has enabled continuous and progressive performance improvement.


Meet Silver Mugisha and other creative thought-leaders at the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition, 16-21 September 2018. Register now!