Why do we keep doing what we do? – some reflections from Swaziland

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Why do we keep doing what we do? – some reflections from Swaziland

At the end of last month I went to Swaziland on the request of the government’s Department of Water Affairs (DWA) and WaterAid's office in southern Africa. It was an interesting trip and we managed to cover a lot of ground given that it is a pretty small country that was not so hard to do. My brief was to look at the underlying reasons for poor functionality – or lack of sustainability – of rural water facilities. On the surface things look pretty good. Swaziland has made considerable gains in coverage of new water supply infrastructure in recent years (the 2013 JMP report indicates improved water supply coverage in rural areas was at 72%) and they came third out of 87 countries assessed against both increased coverage and decreasing rural-urban disparities. This is good news for the country as part of the National Development Strategy which wants to see 100% coverage of water by 2022.

What I found in practice surprised me in one sense, but reconfirmed a lot of lessons which I have seen over the years. Here is a country with some not insignificant resources – GDP per capita is now over $3,000, albeit with some pretty skewed distribution – and travelling about I saw this capacity reflected all around in the building of motorways, roads and bridges, a pretty vibrant private sector and plenty of smart people. The government is now commissioning and funding pretty big water supply schemes in rural areas; these are reticulated systems with public and compound level connections (in more limited cases household level) serving thousands of people.

But despite all this progress a recent mapping study co-financed by WaterAid and carried out from 2013 to 2014 in 32 of the country’s 55 Tinkhundla  (basically a district) has provided some of the only reliable data on the functionality of facilities - and it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. It shows that this progress in coverage is significantly threatened by the high levels of complete failure (29.9%) and partial functionality (11.5%) of water facilities. Only considering the large scale reticulated systems this mapping indicates some 79 schemes as failed or partially functioning, representing around $20 million in ineffective investments by government and development partners alike in the last few years.

So there is the capacity to build big, relatively sophisticated systems, but what I found – or rather could not find – is that the government (nor anyone else for that matter) has any record of these facilities, where they are located and what their status is – hence the big splash made by the WaterAid mapping. Nor do they have the systems in place - administrative, human or in terms of maintenance regimes - to do much about this tide of failed and failing water facilities. It really isn’t fair to blame the DWA as they are not given the proper resources to do the job at any level.


What this reinforces for me is that we keep on missing the wood for the trees – everyone is so concerned with ‘building stuff’ that no one is really thinking through what it takes to keep that stuff working. The Ministry of Finance is starting to get this and is trying to adopt a medium term expenditure framework approach to funding, but it will take time to filter through. In the meantime, new facilities are being built which within a few short years are showing the strain. Swaziland has the knowhow, it has the money, it has the vision of where it wants to get to – it just has to change business as usual.  

Harold Lockwood

27 March 2015