A New Law, a Spark of Reform: What the Democratic Republic of the Congo can teach us about WASH governance


Sometimes, the strongest form of leadership is trying something new when the old way is not working. 

This was the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the government has undertaken significant reforms to improve water and sanitation access across the country. But this is not a story about digging more boreholes or building latrines. This is a story about reforming policies and institutions – a nuanced and complex undertaking – that can span years, and shows up as mundane organizational charts in human resource offices, and not necessarily shiny, photo-op ready infrastructure projects. But this type of investment can have huge payoffs. Strengthening water and sanitation governance promotes accountability for essential services and resources, and improves the responsiveness of government institutions to citizens’ needs. Ultimately, the goal is that the Congolese people have access to the high-quality services and resources they need, every time they need them, and know whom to turn to if there are issues. 

So what does this look like in practice? Take a journey with us as we unravel the story of how the DRC, with support from the United States Agency of International Development (USAID), established a strong foundation in governance to improve access to water and sanitation for its citizens. 

A New Water Law Brings Hope

For more than 85 years, the state-owned utility company Régie de Distribution d’Eau, or REGIDESO, held a monopoly in the water sector. Drinking water distribution? Water quality assurance? Expanding infrastructure? Equipment failure? The onus was on REGIDESO to manage everything related to water service delivery in rural and urban areas across the country.

As of 2015, water and sanitation access rates remained dismal. Only 12 percent of the population had access to safely managed drinking water, and only 15 percent had access to safely managed sanitation. Unsurprisingly, poor access to sanitation and water and poor hygiene behaviors figured in the top five risk factors for death and disability in the DRC.

Enter the National Water Law. Passed in 2015, it was a first step to reforming the water sector. The law envisioned a decentralized water authority that delegates control over water infrastructure and service delivery to the provincial governments, who would determine their own water-related priorities. Many hoped that the new law would revolutionize the sector and increase access. 

A Missing Piece

While passing legislation such as the National Water Law was a critical first step, the government realized there remained a lot more work to do. A lack of clear guidelines on how to put the law into practice left stakeholders at all levels unclear on what exactly they were supposed to do – impacting implementation, adherence, and accountability to the law.

As Benjamin Kibungu, Research Director at the Ministry of Water Resources and Electricity, put it, “Although the reform was put in place, procedures were still needed… The provincial level was now responsible for generating the water services, but they needed tools and other support to go along with the new reform.” 

Coordinated Partnerships Brings Clarity and Purpose

The Government of the DRC turned to its partnerships with USAID and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to work together toward finding solutions on how to make the National Water Law reforms function on the ground. Through the Strengthening the Efficiency of Drinking Water Services (RESE II) project, USAID and GIZ are enhancing the efficiency, revenue, and local human resource capacity of multiple entities. This includes measures to: (1) strengthen the performance of the public water utility, REGIDESO, (2) establish and operationalize the Provincial Water Sector Authorities, and (3) operationalize the national regulatory authority for the public water service (Autorité de Régulation du Service Public de l'Eau, ARSPE), as provided for in the Water Law and Policy. 

In six of the DRC’s 26 provinces, USAID and GIZ have worked together with the national government to establish new provincial water authorities and develop the building blocks of human resource departments such as organizational charts, recruitment and staffing plans, pay scales for employees, a code of ethics, and standard operating procedures.

Recognizing the importance of digitization, RESE II also implemented a digital database of drinking water supply in all six provincial water authorities. This database, with data collected via smartphones, is a fast and efficient tool for decision-making and performance measurement.

Staff in these water authorities are learning to meet the new demands of their roles. For example, project managers are strengthening their skills in work planning, organizational management, and staff development. 

According to Francoise Kangolo Maseki, Division Head of Human Resource Training and Development at REGIDESO, the partnership between the DRC government, USAID, and GIZ effectively clarified what the water sector reforms were meant to do and defined the roles and responsibilities under the new organizational structure. “Reaching a common understanding of who was to do what,” she said, “was critical for the stakeholders within the country’s WASH sector to work together to implement the vision of the 2015 Water Law and Policy.”  

Building Momentum 

The RESE II activity’s focus on local institutional strengthening underscores two of USAID’s core values: (1) locally-led programs are more responsive to local needs, and (2) capable government systems are critical for sustainably delivering services at scale, over time.

As for the government of the DRC, they are already looking forward to how they can expand the water reforms to the 20 remaining provinces. As Ms. Judith Bandila, head of the Water Infrastructure Office in the Ministry of Water Resources and Electricity, puts it, “We could…concentrate on big cities where water consumption is high. If we implemented the reforms there, the results of the project would be remarkable.”

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USAID Water and USAID/The Democratic Republic of the Congo
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