Saturday, September 26, 2020

WUC on the ropes

As part of the 2009 water sector reforms, government mandated the Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) to take over water supply services in rural areas from the Department of Water Affairs (DWA).

The decision met resistance from some sectors, especially in rural areas. As the situation worsened WUC found itself battling to quell increasingly negative media reports about its failure to provide services to the people. However, it has emerged that the takeover was more than taxing to the corporation, as they inherited obsolete and badly maintained equipment, while also struggling to capture their clients’ information into their database to facilitate efficient billing.

To date the situation has not normalised, and WUC finds itself cash strapped, while the ever optimistic Chief Executive Officer Godfrey Mudanga remains adamant that the criticism that has been levelled at his corporation is unwarranted, as people do not appreciate the hardships that WUC operates under.

The water sector reforms were aimed at ensuring safe and efficient delivery of water services to the public. In a bid to address water challenges in the country, government also embarked on a number of reforms, which would also promote efficient use of water and lower the cost of delivering water.

As part of the reforms, WUC took over water supply services in rural areas. The project was also coupled with the acceleration of the construction of dams and major infrastructure to transport water from the better resourced northern parts of Botswana to the south.

Dikgathong and Lotsane dams are expected to be complete by early 2012, while Thune dam will be functional by 2013. Construction of the North South Water Carrier II will commence next year and finish in 2013.

The project will include construction of a pipe line to transport water from Dikgathong dam to Palapye, and a pump station near Palla Road to increase the capacity of the existing pipe line. The NSC II will also transport water from the dams in the north east to villages in the South.

The water sector reform project, which had seven phases, would run from 2009 to 2014. Phase I commenced in 2009 with the takeover of Mogoditshane, Tlokweng and bulk water supply to the North East and Tutume districts. Phase II included the takeover of 53 villages across the country. Phase II commenced in October 2010 and took over 100 villages. So far 373 villages from a possible 540 have been taken over. This represents 70 percent of the villages to be taken over.

However, the takeover has not been all smooth sailing. WUC has come under fierce attack from customers, especially those in rural areas.

But Mudanga feels that his detractors are not appreciative of the magnitude of the project.
“The issue is not really how WUC is failing, but rather the magnitude of water supply challenges in Botswana. The magnitude of the reforms was unprecedented, merging 18 organisations and increasing the staff complement of the new WUC from 900 to 3000 in two years,” he said.

Such a huge project, said Mudanga, would obviously have teething problems due to high expectations, anxiety, confusion and other transitional problems.

“We hope to finally normalise the situation as we all find common ground and understanding. However, I am glad to say that we are learning very quickly,” said Mudanga.

WUC also inherited obsolete infrastructure that was not properly maintained, resulting in frequent breakdowns and increased maintenance costs. The Telegraph is informed that the water sector reforms project was done in haste as there was very little, if any, planning and auditing of the infrastructure to ascertain if the current infrastructure and machinery would be adequate enough to shoulder the demands of the project. Consultants who were engaged before the project commenced had advised government to first carry out a thorough audit of the existing infrastructure and machinery, a project that would take a number of years and cost millions. Faced with a worsening problem of water shortage, government ordered WUC to accelerate the water sector reforms without the requisite audit and replacement of existing machinery.

WUC inherited equipment and infrastructure from DWA on an as-is basis, without any repairs or replacements. Problems emerged when the corporation started experiencing frequent pipe bursts, repeated breakdown of boreholes and the drying up of others. Shortage of essential equipment like water bowsers and vehicles meant that WUC at times failed to provide emergency water supplies to villages during technical faults and breakdowns. Assets taken over included reticulation networks, pump stations, boreholes, desalination plants and waste water treatment plants.

“The infrastructure that we took over was inadequate, incapacitated and at the end of its useful life. This adversely affected our operations. Some of the projects also mothballed or were suspended due to lack of funds as government struggled with the economic recession. Others collapsed because of a piece meal approach to assets acquisition and poor planning,” said Mudanga.

The fact is that WUC operations are asset intensive and serious investments in plant, equipment and structures will have to be made in the next few years if the corporation is to succeed in delivering impeccable service. Other problems continue to derail WUC operations. Because of limited water resources, WUC assets operate for very long hours, resulting in over utilisation.

Also most of the rural areas that WUC took over do not have serviced land. The corporation has in the past had to move fast to do some damage control after media reports that they were charging up to P6000 as connection fees caused uproar. At the time, WUC explained that they do not do reticulation as they only connect customers in areas that are already reticulated.

In the near future WUC might find itself at loggerheads with their rural customers, if they continue with plans to accelerate collection of owed water tariffs. The corporation has embarked on a project to bring billing up to date for all affected areas.

“Thereafter WUC will embark on an intensified revenue collection drive. It is necessary that WUC intensifies revenue collection as this is the revenue that funds the corporation’s operations,” said Mudanga.

The corporation has been battling with billing because of incompatibilities between its billing system and those of the DWA and local authorities. Consequently, many of the clients stayed for up to four months without paying their water bills.

As was the case with the aggregation exercise, the WUC inherited an operation that was saddled with a number of inadequacies, chief among them proper record keeping. The DWA and local authorities did not keep proper records and files on their clients, such that data migration became a headache. However, the situation has since been resolved, and most of the clients were billed last month.
The affected customers will be expected to make individual payment arrangements with WUC, as they might not be able to settle bills that have accumulated over an extended period of time. WUC has also partnered with other organizations to facilitate speedy payment of bills. Customers can now pay their water bills at Botswana Post, or through the use cell phone and internet banking.

If not handled properly, the issue of payment of bills will sour the already tense relations between WUC and its rural clients. Concerns have been raised that WUC might charge higher tariffs that those that were charged by DWA, as it will be aiming to maximise profits. Rural water consumers have unsuccessfully lobbied for a government subsidized tariff.

DWA charged very low tariffs because they were not set according to the cost of drawing the water from the source. WUC also charges VAT on new connections and monthly bills, which could mean higher costs for users migrating from the DWA and local authorities.

Meanwhile the water sector reforms project continues, and government is expected to pump in up to P7 billion into the project to ensure its successful completion. However, Botswana might be faced with a possible water crisis if the projected rains do not come any time soon.

Both the current and projected water supply situations point to scarcity. Although Botswana’s dams are currently in a satisfactory position and the forecast for the current rainy season was favourable at above normal, no rains have fallen yet to result in inflow to our dams.

The drying up of boreholes around the country has also not helped the situation, and has resulted in over loading of our dams with the watering of both people and livestock.

Areas like Tswapong, Bobirwa, Serowe, Molepolole and Hukuntshi are the hardest hit, with huge supply deficits occasioned by a depletion of ground water resource.

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