Enhancing Water Safety in Uganda: REAL-Water Fosters Urban-Rural Collaboration


Photo credit: The Aquaya Institute

Authored by: Dr. Peace Musonge, Dr. Karen Setty, and Dr. Caroline Delaire (The Aquaya Institute) with Dr. Rose Christine Kaggwa and Eng. Dr. Irene Nansubuga (NWSC)

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 invites the global community to work toward clean water for all. A consortium of several implementing organizations, funded by the United States Agency for International Development and led by The Aquaya Institute, has banded together to do just that: strengthen rural water service provision via evidence-informed solutions. The five-year program, called Rural Evidence and Learning for Water (or “REAL-Water” for short), derives its successes not from the newest technologies created or the largest structures built but from cooperation and coordination. As of 2024, the program has scoped or initiated research activities in nine countries.

REAL-Water activity locations (countries in blue) to support rural water service sustainability.
Image credit: Peter Ongalo, The Aquaya Institute

Having originated in Ghana, one novel cooperative arrangement called the Water Quality Assurance Fund offers a financial mechanism whereby dispersed rural water systems can receive reliable, professional water quality testing services on a regular basis. By setting up an Assurance Fund to ensure continued payment, the scheme makes routine water safety monitoring at rural locations a more attractive market for larger, well-equipped water quality laboratories. If regular payment is guaranteed on a specific schedule, the central laboratory can extend monitoring services to water systems in their vicinity with irregular income (e.g., agricultural communities with seasonal income and limited savings). The rural community benefits from ongoing surveillance at a pooled cost rather than having to arrange testing independently. If participants cannot occasionally pay the testing fee on time, the laboratory can file a claim against the Assurance Fund for immediate payment. Local government authorities may enforce rural water systems' repayment to the Assurance Fund, slowing the drawdown of the fund over time. However, most transactions occur locally between the rural community and the urban laboratory.

The basic mechanism for the Water Quality Assurance Fund connects rural water systems with nearby urban laboratories, who provide group-discounted monthly water testing services in exchange for a guarantee of payment.
Image credit: Peter Ongalo, The Aquaya Institute

The Assurance Fund’s encouraging uptake in Ghana led the REAL-Water team to expand research evaluations of its feasibility into Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. According to the implementation approach, larger urban water suppliers usually represent the first option for identifying a qualified water testing laboratory. During outreach efforts to arrange testing for 38 rural water systems in three eastern districts in Uganda (Luuka, Iganga, and Buikwe), though, the team encountered some challenges in finding a centrally located laboratory. Prior Assurance Fund arrangements in Ghana had a maximum two-hour driving distance to ensure same-day delivery of water samples to the laboratory. Uganda’s urban water utility, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC), operates a central laboratory in Kampala, located up to six or seven hours away by vehicle. Transporting water samples from the rural water systems to the country’s capital would be costly and impractical; furthermore, the sample integrity would be compromised. The team also considered two government laboratories in Mbale, but the distance from the rural water systems was still prohibitive, requiring up to five or six hours of travel.

The remote nature of many small, rural water systems, such as those in the Luuka, Iganga, and Buikwe districts (in red), makes it difficult to carry out regular water quality monitoring in a central location.
Photo credit: The Aquaya Institute

The only other accredited laboratories positioned nearer to the rural water districts are operated by NWSC in Lugazi, Jinja, and Iganga. Although the research team received approval to visit these laboratories, they soon learned that NWSC normally provides external testing services from the central laboratory in Kampala but not the regional or area laboratories. The Assurance Fund research team led by Dr. Peace Musonge arranged follow-up meetings with the NWSC team, including Dr. Rose Christine Kaggwa (Director Business and Scientific Services), Dr. Irene Nansubuga (Senior Manager Water Quality Management), and Alice Busingye (Manager Finance and Administration), to discuss the proposed use of area laboratories for outside testing services. They discussed the Ghana experience and ideas for how the proposed monitoring program could be handled, given the geographic challenges. 

After discussing, NWSC agreed to visit the proposed project area to get a better understanding of what would be required to offer testing from the Jinja area laboratory instead of the central laboratory. NWSC and REAL-Water team members conducted field visits in June 2023 and provided a provisional invoice to the project team. Then, NWSC partners sought management approval to use the Jinja lab, which was granted on August 30, 2023! Following this clearance, REAL-Water conducted a capacity-strengthening audit specific to the Assurance Fund program at the Jinja laboratory in October 2023 and recommended optimizing procedures.

During a five-day field visit by NWSC to the Eastern Districts of Luuka, Iganga, and Buikwe in Uganda to ascertain candidate water system distance and accessibility for the testing and sampling plan, one of the candidate systems demonstrated how they currently test chlorine levels onsite. None of the candidate water systems, however, could perform regular microbial water quality monitoring as required by national standards.
Photo credit: The Aquaya Institute, NWSC

Mapped findings from NWSC’s internal field report showing water system reconnaissance along transportation routes on either side of the Jinja district.
Image credit: Robert Bayo, NWSC

In planning the next steps for routine testing rollout, the researchers, unfortunately, learned that even the closest rural water systems could not routinely afford the sample collection and transport costs offered by NWSC. Sampling the twenty-two water systems in Buikwe district requires three days, costing an average of 75 USD per water system. This comes on top of analysis fees, which amount to 55 USD per water system. Moving forward with the Assurance Fund model, therefore, will require adaptations to the sampling protocol (e.g., reducing sampling frequencies or relying on alternative sample transportation methods) or providing the water systems with subsidies that reduce costs.

REAL-Water and NWSC staff convened to confirm the Jinja lab’s suitability for the Assurance Fund program.
Photo credit: The Aquaya Institute

Even so, the experience to date engendered valuable learning about the factors that will determine the Assurance Fund’s progress in different settings. REAL-Water continues to consider possible adaptations of the model to respond to Uganda’s specific economic, geographic, and institutional circumstances. Although the 38 rural water systems initially considered for enrollment were managed by communities or district governments, working in rural Uganda will also require engaging with the Ministry of Water and Environment’s regional Umbrella Authorities, tasked with overseeing most rural piped water systems in the country. Uganda’s diverse management arrangements will likely require different adaptations of the Assurance Fund model; for example, the expanding Umbrella Authorities may choose to build internal laboratory capacity rather than outsourcing water quality testing, while external testing services remain relevant for water systems managed locally by District Water Authorities, communities, private operators, or other institutions. In the future, persistence among partners and what Dr. Musonge calls “science diplomacy” may enable adaptation of the Assurance Fund approach in Uganda and provide greater reassurance about water safety to rural water consumers. 

Lessons Learned:

  • Uganda’s national urban water supplier is willing to flex internal policies to test a new model of urban-rural collaboration for water quality testing in eastern Uganda, which could serve as a model for other regions in the country and beyond.
  • While outsourcing water quality testing to professional laboratories is preferred for rural water systems that do not have the technical capacity to conduct monitoring onsite, the costs of sample collection and transportation by a central lab may be prohibitive for water systems located very far away. Remote locations may require a mobile laboratory instead.
  • Expanding a development innovation from one country to another can reveal new bottlenecks and require context-specific adaptations.

USAID Rural Evidence and Learning for Water (REAL-Water) is a five-year partnership (2021–2026) that develops and evaluates strategies for expanding access to safe, equitable, and sustainable rural water services. For further information, please visit: globalwaters.org/real-water.

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