Zambia NGO WASH Forum respond to government directive for commercial utilities to maintain water supply during COVID-19 outbreak

17 Apr 2020

The Zambia NGO WASH Forum is a network of civil society and non-government organisations working on water, sanitation and hygiene. Since its inception in 2007, the Forum’s mandate has been to influence and support improved and sustainable service delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities through advocacy and strengthening civil society participation and coordination.

In November 2019, an acute respiratory disease known as COVID-19 emerged. The pathogen responsible for COVID-19 is severe acute respiratory syndrome corona virus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), a member of the coronavirus family. The COVID19 disease that originated in China has since spread to more than 100 countries and already claimed more than 140,000 lives.

Zambia has been identified as one of the top 18 African countries most vulnerable to the fast spreading virus and has recorded 48 confirmed cases and 2 deaths. Good hygiene and safe water are the first line of defence against COVID-19 and other highly contagious diseases yet many Zambians still do not have access to water in their homes, schools or health centres to protect themselves from the spread of disease. While there is no known cure for the virus, the most effective and easiest way to prevent the virus from spreading includes frequent hand washing with soap and water, good hygiene and social distancing.

Statistics show that 64% of Zambia’s population has basic drinking water services while 33% have basic sanitation services. An estimated 10% of the population practice open defecation while 24% of households have access to a handwashing facility with soap and water. 

Considerable disparities exist in the coverage of water, sanitation and hygiene services. 87% of people in urban areas have water compared to 49% in rural areas. Similarly, 41% of people access basic sanitation in urban areas compared to 28 per cent in rural areas. About 16% of the rural population practices open defecation compared to 1% in urban areas.

The risks pandemics and other diseases pose can be managed through proper targeting, prioritisation and investment of water, sanitation and hygiene services. It must be noted that over the last 10 years and more, only about 40% of what the government allocated in the national budget to the water sector has been released. With the current outbreak, it is imperative that 100% of the budget is released and repurposed to support the fight against COVID-19, specifically focusing on improving water supply, sanitation and hygiene services.

On 19 March 2020, the Minister of Water Development Sanitation and Environmental Protection, Hon. Dr. Dennis Wanchinga directed Commercial Utilities in the country not to disconnect water services for clients who have not settled their bills to ensure people continue to access water during this difficult time. This move is commendable but more needs to be done to support communities who do not have access to water as well as to ensure commercial utilities are able to sustainably provide water and sanitation services.

The NGO WASH Forum would like to draw attention to the fact that the Commercial Utilities are currently unable to operate at optimal level - providing services using old, dilapidated infrastructure - and unable to extend services to new areas or repair existing networks. While most people's water and sanitation services are supplied by commercial utilities, many communities in peri-urban areas access water through water trusts and community managed facilities who may continue to charge for providing water. This only serves to widen existing inequalities in access to water.

The government suspended excise duty on imported ethanol for use in alcohol-based sanitisers in order to provide relief to businesses manufacturing the product. This is commendable and we request that the government similarly provides relief to commercial utilities to support their operations during the COVID pandemic response. A number of commercial utilities are owed large sums of money in unpaid bills from various government departments. Additionally the tariffs are not cost reflective and thus do not support operation and maintenance costs.

In view of the foregoing, we request Government to;

  1. Suspend duty on imported chemicals such as Granular chlorine, Aluminium Sulphate, Poly Aluminium Chloride (PAC), Aluminium Chloride SUDFLC, and laboratory supplies DPDT tablets 1 to 3, Iron and Lead used in the treatment of water. Alternatively, the Government could source water treatment chemicals and supplies on behalf of the Commercial Utilities during the outbreak and distribute the required supplies.
  2. Issue each commercial utility with a tax exemption certificate for input materials such as pipes, fittings and chemicals related to water supply and sanitation provision for the period of the outbreak.
  3. Assist Government departments with outstanding water bills to fulfil their obligations by remitting all payment directly to the utilities. This will enable the utilities to meet their many obligations.
  4. Compel civil society and cooperating partners to support with financial resources and procurement systems to speed up the process of procuring goods and services for the treatment, distribution, operation and maintenance of water supply. These could be:
    1. assisting pumping costs through reduced electricity rates for water service providers 
    2. hiring of bowsers to provide water to ensure the under-served areas continue receiving services
    3. supporting Commercial Utilities with grants or bridging funds during so they can continue to provide the service.