Assessment of Water Service Delivery in Refugee Settlements in Uganda

from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 31 Oct 2019 View Original

Executive Summary


  • Uganda hosts over 1.26 million refugees from neighboring states. Its receptive policy is increasingly being met with challenges of sustaining services to these populations. The pressure on water resources and infrastructure is high, and actors supporting the refugee response face a range of challenges.

  • A deep dive assessment in six sites in refugee settlements has revealed user and infrastructure constraints, many of them lined to design and establishment challenges, as well as O&M, financial, and institutional challenges.

  • While financial challenges directly threaten the sustainability of water supply in refugee settlements, other parameters also impact sustainability; such as, infrastructure and user challenges impact systems’ sustainability by breeding general community dissatisfaction and limiting time for productive activities. Maladapted infrastructure can also result in high O&M costs which cannot be supported by affordable user fees.

  • The MWE and UNHCR recently decided to speed up the process of adopting water user fee in refugee settlements, and to transition from a partner to a utility-based water service model. This aligns with national strategies to integrate refugees into long term development efforts to promote selfreliance.

  • While adopting a coherent overall strategy, the MWE, OPM and UNHCR should ensure that interventions are adequate to each settlement. To guide the design and implementation of these tailor-made interventions, the institutional and policy framework around water supply in refugee settlements should be strong.


As revealed by a deep dive study of six water schemes, provision of water services in refugee settlements and host communities remained challenged. Quality – but above all the quantity – of water supply in refugee settlements is inadequate due to severe limitations of the current water systems. This impacts refugees’ health, sanitation and well-being, and impacts their time and ability to engage in productive and recreative activities. This has direct implication on the economic precariousness of some refugees; despite being provided with basic goods and services (food rations, land plots, building material and core relief items and some training opportunities), livelihood and economic opportunities are reported to be poor; in turn, the ability to contribute to better water services is low. On top of water supply user challenges, sanitation challenges are also significant, especially due to the insufficient amount of water available, lack of improved sanitation facilities and the poor state of pit latrines.

Focusing on 6 motorised schemes, our study reveals that infrastructure capacity utilisation and performance could be improved, and that pressure on infrastructure is high, often because refugee flows being larger than predicted.

Key stakeholders for water supply in refugee settlements in Uganda acknowledged the need to improve services there, especially in terms of sustainability. These stakeholders include the Ministry of Water and the Environment (MWE) and associated District Water Office (DWO), local authorities, and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), responsible for refugee protection. A newly created MWE entity, the Refugee Response Subgroup, will serve as an entry point for all refugee initiatives, and coordinate the water sector's response to key challenges in refugee hosting districts.

To help solve challenge, the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, and its implementing/operating partners will also play a critical role. The UNHCR plays a critical coordinating role, while its partners, national and international NGOs, manage water supply in refugee settlements. In some settlements, elements of community-based management are integrated to the partner model, in the form of a Water Committees/Board reporting to the partner. Partners cover both capital and O&M costs of infrastructure, often with UNHCR partial or full support. In some settlements, refugees financially contribute towards water services through user fees; however, such incidences are relatively low.

With the aim of improving the sustainability of water supply and quality of services in refugee settlements, the MWE and UNHCR recently reached critical decisions: to speed up the process of water user fee adoption in refugee settlements, and to transition from a partner to a utility-based water service model. The National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) and the Umbrella Authority (AU) therefore become key stakeholders for the sustainability of water supply in refugee settlements. NWSC is an autonomous public utility owned by the Government of Uganda, well established and providing water in over 230 towns; the UAs, as recently restructured institutions, act as decentralised units of the MWE. While other management models exist in Uganda, the NWSC/UAs models were deemed the most efficient systems to manage water supply in refugee settlements over the long run. The NWSC utility model is being piloted in two settlements: Rwamwanja and Bweyale (Kiryandongo).

The announced shift towards the adoption of user fees and towards a utility-based model is in line with the Government of Uganda’s political stance to develop policies building the self-reliance and resilience of refugees (captured in the Refugee and Host Population Empowerment (ReHoPE) Strategic Framework, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) and the upcoming Water and Environment Sector Response Plan).

While there is potential for a widespread implementation of user fees, these should be implemented gradually, considering the characteristics of each settlements. An illustrative household survey undertaken in the six schemes showed that there is considerable diversity in the operational costs of water supply across different schemes, and substantial diversity in ability and willingness to pay across settlements. In light of affordability considerations, there may be more scope, in the immediate term, to increase user fees to levels that improve cost recovery in the settlements where there is already water use charging than to introduce user charges in settlements where there is no user fees.

Affordability constraints will also likely guide the ‘gazetting’ process of water supply systems for allocation to either NWSC or the UAs.

The Challenges

Our deep dive assessment in six sites in refugee settlements – Oruchinga, Nakivale Base Camp, Nyumanzi, Ofua 6 (Rhino Camp), Zone 4 and Swinga (Bidibidi) – has revealed a series of challenges relating to water supply and provision of services in refugee settlements.

The context in which water systems for refugee settlement are established is fragile, dynamic and uncertain, leading maladapted systems and fragmented design. Conflict and unrest in home countries, and refugee movements to Uganda are unpredictable. UNHCR partners’ responses to water supply needs is admirable, but not always well coordinated. The growth of population and associated water needs in refugee settlements is difficult to quantifiably foresee, and infrastructure capacity have often rapidly become inadequate. User consultation on design if often impossible, and designed systems are often financially unviable, which would become a challenge is partners’ financial support to O&M was to end. Multiple partners operative in the same settlement or refugee hosting region, and there is a lack of uniform planning in water systems, which does not allow for economies of scale to decrease O&M costs. Finally, establishment challenges are heightened by some of Uganda’s demographic, climate, and development trends, which put pressure on Uganda’s water resources. Lack of infrastructure, climate variability, and environmental degradation hamper the country’s ability to meet water demands.

There are multiple user challenges, which result in significant consequences for the livelihoods, sanitation and health of refugee communities. User challenges include inadequate water supply levels (below minimum standards), low reliability and intermittent supply, poor access to the water point, in particular for vulnerable groups; inadequate water storage at both scheme and household level, inadequate hygiene and sanitation, and associated health concerns. Finally, it is worth noting that user challenges are overwhelmingly carried by women, who not only face security risk, but whose water-related tasks limit their ability to engage in productive and recreational activities. User challenges breed general community dissatisfaction with water supply services, which also impacts the sustainability of water systems, as they impact users’ willingness to pay for water services.

Water supply infrastructure has proven to perform at a low capacity utilization rate and moderate performance (14-65%). Due to a weak application of standardized performance, incomplete data capture and limited information sharing, it is challenging to precisely assess the functionality of water systems in refugee settlements, however initial findings show scope for improvement. The overarching challenge related to a lack of predictability in the number of users, has led to the adoption of systems of inadequate size and strong pressure on infrastructure.

Our deep dive analysis has revealed a multiplicity of O&M challenges, from a lack of clarity of O&M costs and expenditure to delay in maintenance and energy supply issues. Capital investment cost information is not publicly available, and O&M costs are poorly documented. In some settlements like Nakivale, O&M costs are high. When systems break down, delays in maintenance and repairs were reported in most sites visited. Finally, there are some energy supply challenges, especially related to the lack of reliability of solar energy leading to intermittent functioning of the pumps.

Donor’s funding and humanitarian aid (UNHCR/partners) which largely fund water supply services to refugees in settlements seem to be shrinking, with no alternative sources known. Risks to see this funding shrink even more is particularly high as there is a push to shift to a utility-based model. The Government of Uganda is not able to increase its contribution, due to financial constraints. Refugee’s financial participation to cover O&M costs is also limited by the lack of sustainable livelihood opportunities, especially for women who spend long hours fetching water. Many refugees are partially or fully reliant on development aid, and some seem to have adopted an entitlement mentality.

The institutions playing a role in the provision of water in refugee settlements are varied, which creates institutional complexity and at times inhibit synergies. Some stakeholders reported that the limited practice of information sharing and knowledge exchange between development partners sometimes impedes coordination. Finally, some partners highlighted the misalignment between donor funding cycles and return on infrastructure investment. While cycles are usually of a few years, sustainable impact is usually only properly measurable over a longer period. This misalignment can lead to partners adopting short-sighted interventions, whose sustainability is poor.

Towards Improved & More Sustainable Water Services Delivery in Refugee Settlements

The numerous challenges identified in the six schemes should be addressed to increase the sustainability of the water systems. A sustainable water supply system would be one that meets and will continue meeting the demand of refugee populations and host communities, as this demand evolves. Further, it would be a system that provides a service that is good enough to trigger widespread willingness to pay among beneficiaries. As donors might be diminishing or withdrawing their support, to be truly sustainable, each system’s water fee revenue should fully fund operation, maintenance and upgrade costs; however, because of the low revenue of refugee populations, this equilibrium between revenue and O&M costs can only be achieved through an efficient appropriate technical system with reasonable O&M costs. Finally, a sustainable system should be fair and affordable to all, supportive of the most vulnerable refugees, supported by strong institutions and simplified through streamlined processes. A sustainable water supply system will only be the by-product of a transition from an emergency mindset to post-emergency, long-term development focused mindset.

While the root causes and manifestation of sustainability challenges are common to many or all water schemes investigated, the adequate responses to these challenges might differ from one settlement to the other. While adopting a coherent overall strategy, the MWE, OPM and UNHCR should also ensure that each intervention is adequate (and potentially tailored) to each settlement. Our case studies highlight that refugee settlements throughout Uganda have different characteristics, and that the water supply systems themselves have different features (cost, technology etc.). Interventions aimed at improving the sustainability of water systems will have to be adopted gradually. To guide the design and implementation of these tailor-made interventions, the institutional and policy framework around water supply in refugee settlements should be strong. The detailed analysis of the six case studies and institutional study revealed six key observations, each associated with key recommendations, as summarised in the two illustrations below.

About this Report

This report seeks to inform the development of key national instruments such as the Sector Response Plan, the O&M Guidelines revision, as well as the Infrastructure Plan. It also aims at supporting the work of the Refugee Response Subgroup and its nascent Secretariat, and the gradual implementation of a water user fee in refugee settlements. The findings and recommendations of the report will improve the efficiency and sustainability of water supply systems in refugee hosting districts, with a focus on refugee settlements. This goes hand in hand with a transition from an emergency resolution mindset to one of post-emergency support and longer-term development. The challenges presented in the report were identified as part of a “deep dive assessment” of six zones in five refugee settlements selected UNHCR, the Ministry of Water and the Environment (MWE) and the World Bank for their differing characteristics. The breadth of the analysis and recommendations presented in this report is the result of a pluridisciplinary approach, including three main disciplines: engineering, economic and social science.