Omoro district in northern Uganda is in a dire dilemma after failing to get sh1b ($269m) for the repair of over 200 boreholes, as directed by the Ministry of Water and Environment.
In March 2020, the ministry's permanent secretary issued a circular to districts directing them to use the departmental sector grants for the 2019/2020 financial year to repair all broken boreholes.
The move was aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 by limiting interaction in the community from water point sources, as well as people's movement in search of water, in line with the global social distancing guidelines for managing the pandemic.
As the Ministry of Health requires that people should at all times wash their hands to reduce the spread of infection, the absence of easy access to water also limits this method of COVID-19 prevention.
In the financial year 2019/2020, which ended on June 30, Omoro, a district of more than 200,000 people, got about sh230m ($62,000) for the water sector. By March, all the monies had already been spent as per the district work plan and budget.
The district government wrote a letter to the Ministry of Water and Environment requesting for more funds to repair 203 broken boreholes, but they claim they have not received a response.
Christine Akumu, who operates a retail shop in Acet trading town council in Odek sub-county, previously would use about six jerrycans of water on a daily basis, but during COVID-19, she requires an additional two jerrycans to facilitate hand washing.
"Since my children are at home, they have to keep washing their hands. My customers, too, have to wash theirs. I would love to see this water network system connecting to taps repaired to help us have easy access to water," she said.
Wrong Figures in the Ministry Database
Patrick Mecak Ssaco, the district's water engineer, said Omoro has over 290 broken boreholes but only 203 have prospects of being repaired and operate well thereafter.
Of the total broken boreholes and shallow wells, Mecak said 230 are located in the former internally displaced people's (IDP) camps with scanty settlements.
Before Omoro was carved out of Gulu district to become a district in June 2016, the mother council had recommended to decommission these water points and delete them from the ministry database, which would help the district lobby government and donors for more clean water sources.
Immediately after Omoro district was created, the new district council also recommended that the broken boreholes be decommissioned in the 2016/2017 financial year. But this process was never completed, and thus the original number has been maintained in the ministry database.
"The minister came here and when we told him about the misleading data, he promised to send a team to carry out fact-finding, which has never been done to date," Douglas Peter Okello, the district chairman, explained.
To this effect, based on the latest Uganda census statistics collected in 2014, Omoro district is reflected at the national level as having water coverage of 91 percent, which is far from the reality.
Mecak told New Vision that this false coverage has led to the reduction in the district's water funding and yet the demand for safe water is instead increasing.
According to the ministry database, as of the 2014 statistics, NGOs were funding 64% of Omoro's water sources while the local and central government funded a total of 33%.
In the 2017/18 financial year, the district received over sh370m ($99,000) and there was a sharp reduction in the following year by over sh60m ($16,000).
According to the government's planning guideline for the water grant, it only allows the district to allocate 15 percent for borehole rehabilitation, which on average can repair only eight deep boreholes in a financial year.
The water officer projects that under this current budgetary system, it can take more than 20 years to complete the repair of more than 200 deep boreholes.
Of the six sub-counties, Bobi is the most affected, with only 49 boreholes functioning out of 103, followed by Koro with 68 functioning and 49 broken down, according to the formal letter to the ministry written by the district in March.
The entire district has three functional motorized pipe water schemes and 508 boreholes, including 203 that are non-functional. The cost of repair of one deep borehole is about sh5m ($1,300), according to the letter.
On the local market, a single stainless pipe costs sh250,000 ($67). According to Alex Ochora, leader of a water source in Idure parish, Lalogi sub-county, water user fees collected by the committee are inadequate to procure more than one pipe.
Access to Water Decreasing
Access to water dropped from 61.27 percent in the financial year 2017/2018 to 57.52 percent as of January 2019, according to information provided by the district's water engineer. Mecak said of Omoro's total population of 232,000 people, the non-served people increased to 82,758 people during the same period.
"The decrease in access is due to a growing population with limited increase in new water sources developed, coupled with a high number of broken down boreholes," he said.
In Uganda's Acholi region, where Omoro district is located, about 75 percent of households were using an improved water source as of the most recent 2018-2019 Malaria Indicator Survey.
Water access was higher in 2016, when 82 percent of the households in the region had access to an improved water source, which includes boreholes, piped water and protected wells and springs.
From 2016 to 2018/2019, the percentage of households in Acholi region relying on boreholes or spring wells also declined, from 65 to 58 percent. At the same time, households obtaining water from unprotected wells more than doubled, from approximately eight to 19 percent.
In 2016, while 32.8 percent of households in this region had a place for hand washing, just 8.4 percent had a basic handwashing facility with soap and water, according to the most recent Demographic and Health Survey of that year.
Reflection on the Ground
Of recent, when the Omoro district COVID-19 taskforce visited Acet trading centre in Odek sub-county, most shops, restaurants and other businesses almost had handwashing facilities in front of their premises.
Most were bought by individuals, though some were donated by political leaders to public places such as markets and health centres.
However, Okello, the district chairman, said virtually all of the containers never had water in them and for those that had, it was not much.
At the trading centre, a group of young girls were seen carrying empty jerrycans heading to fetch water from the nearby borehole at Acet Health Centre II.
With 95 percent of the boreholes installed using galvanized rods and pipes before their ban by the water ministry in 2014, a majority have broken down or frequently break down after repair. These pipes and rods were corrosive, gradually impacting the quality of water.
As locals eagerly wait for the district to rehabilitate the boreholes, the sixth release of the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund programme under the Office of the Prime Minister is helping to address the problem.
The programme, funded by the World Bank, was established to help local communities in northern Uganda that had been ravaged by conflict over the last 20 years. The money is given directly to members of the community so they can invest in infrastructure and training for long-term development.
Thirty-six groups in Omoro district are so far benefiting from funds, with the majority focusing on rehabilitating the deep wells.
Okello estimated that with more than sh560m ($150,000) released to the groups, this will slightly improve the district's water coverage from 60 to 68.9 percent.
"We all know the importance of water at this time. If people drink dirty water, it will affect their health yet they also they want it for washing hands," he said.
Situation in Other Districts
The situation is similar in nearby Agago district, where Hellen Drajea Iraku, the Agago assistant district health officer in charge of maternal and child health, said that of the 41 health centres in the district, 48 percent of them do not have running water.
Meanwhile, Iraku also observed that even in those that have boreholes, some are non-functional while others have poor quality water.
"In case pregnant mothers come to deliver, the attendants are required to travel long distances to fetch water from streams, protected springs and wells. Due to this, mothers are opting to deliver from home," the health officer said.
Iraku emphasized that during this period of COVID-19, it is hard to run a facility without water since it is essential during maternity and for the hygiene of the mother.
"We have been reporting this concern to the district technical planning committee, but the amount given to the water department is too low to cater for our demand."
Ministry to Take Action
Eng. Joseph Oriono Eyatu, the commissioner in charge of rural water, said the ministry requires close to sh100b ($27m) to repair all broken boreholes in 135 districts in the next three years.
However, due to budget cuts, instead of the ministry getting shs30b ($8m) per year, only shs10b ($2.7m) was approved, and it is anticipated that every year, at least each district will have 15 to 30 boreholes repaired through a central process.
Oriono acknowledged that most of the boreholes in northern Uganda are in the former IDP camps and therefore advised districts to prioritize their sector activities to repair them rather than drill new ones.
While the commissioner welcomed the move to have the boreholes decommissioned, he however noted that his ministry cannot destroy them completely like district leaders expect.
"These very boreholes can be worked on after a span of 15 years when the number of people in the areas they exist grows."
He also noted that with Omoro having 203 boreholes, it translates to about shs4.8b ($1.3m) in investments that were used to drill them, and therefore they cannot be destroyed totally.
Click the embed below to listen to an audio version of this story that aired on Rupiny FM, a local radio station in Gulu, Uganda, where the writer works.
This article has been produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the Pulitzer Centre and National Geographic Society. Additional reporting and editing by Annika McGinnis.
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