Intermittent supply in a rapidly growing city: the case of Kampala

Kampala © iStock / Danieloncarevic

Uganda’s National Water and Sewerage Corporation has been expanding supply coverage aggressively, requiring it to optimise use of intermittent water supply. Mahmood Lutaaya and Gilbert Akol Echelai report on the utility’s comprehensive approach in Kampala.


Utilities in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries, face challenges of intermittent water supply (IWS) to their consumers caused by a combination of factors, including water scarcity, system capacity constraints, and inadequate management.

National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) Uganda is a public utility company, owned completely by the government of Uganda. Established in 1972, the corporation’s mandate is to operate and provide water and sewerage services in the areas entrusted to it, on a sound commercial and financially viable basis. Since inception, NWSC operations have expanded from three towns – Kampala, Jinja and Entebbe – in 1972 to 258 urban centres across the country.

Over the years, NWSC has undertaken a multitude of long-term and short-term organisational development and performance improvement initiatives, aimed at improving performance and strengthening the institution’s capacity to deliver its mandate to the population of Uganda. Through deliberate strategic and tactical interventions, NWSC has been able to turn around its performance from a loss-making corporation to one of the well-performing utilities in the region.

The strategic focus of the corporation for the past eight years has been on accelerating the achievement of 100% water service coverage and providing safe water for all through a systematic and quite aggressive expansion programme. This has resulted in an increase in the number of NWSC service towns, from 24 to the current 258 across the country, and massive infrastructure growth, with an annual average of about 2000km of water pipe network extended across the country compared with an annual average of only 80km that used to be extended. This unprecedented growth and expansion has had a positive impact on NWSC’s overall performance and service provision. However, it has also posed a number of challenges, among them the intermittent water supply in a number of towns.

Because of the high rate of urbanisation and population growth, the demand for water in most NWSC service towns has increased drastically. Meanwhile, the infrastructure required for most of the towns has not developed at the same pace, largely because of the huge financial resources required for the necessary system upgrade and expansion.

In some of the towns, the intermittent water supply situation gets worse during the dry season, and does so also for places that experience intermittent power supply. Despite these constraints, NWSC is mindful of its mandate to provide safe drinking water for all and the target to achieve 100% water service coverage in all its towns of operation. As a short- to medium-term solution, the water available has to be shared under the principle of ‘some for all and not all for some’. Optimising IWS through a series of pragmatic interventions has, therefore, been critical in ensuring that NWSC keeps on track with its strategic priorities.

Intermittent water supply in Kampala

Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is the biggest operational area of NWSC, constituting more than 65% of its operations. It is also recognised as one the fastest growing cities in Africa, with annual growth rates of about 5.6%. During the past two decades, the city has expanded in all directions and incorporated former satellite towns such as Mukono, Entebbe, Mpigi and Bombo, and surrounding peri-urban areas. Just as with most cities in developing countries, the service area and population for Kampala is a moving target that the corporation has had to cope with in its efforts to provide services. Figure 1 shows how the service boundaries for NWSC Kampala Water have increased from 2013 to 2020 – from a radius of about 20km in 2013, to more than 40km in 2020.

The Kampala Water supply area has operated under IWS conditions over the past 10 years. As the geographical scope of the city expands, so does the demand for water services. This is against a water production capacity that has remained the same for the past 13 years, when the last major water treatment plant (Gaba III) was commissioned. Between 2007 and 2020, the Kampala Water customer connections base has more than tripled, from approximately 95,000 customers to the current 345,000 customer connections. Currently, the water demand is estimated to be about 350,000m3 per day, against a daily production capacity of only 240,000m3/day.

The water available has to be shared under the principle of ‘some for all, not all for some’

To fulfil its mandate and ensure that everyone gets some water, especially those in the new mushrooming areas in the periphery of the city, the corporation follows its adopted slogan of ‘some for all and not all for some’. The implication has been that water supply is intentionally rationed with a well-established schedule in certain areas, so that such customers are able to access water on specified hours per day.

Water supply intermittency has had a number of effects on NWSC performance, especially with respect to: revenue performance; customer service (inconveniences experienced by those who previously were receiving 24/7, but, at the same time, benefits to some who would otherwise not receive water at all); and increased operational costs to maintain and sustain the rationing programme. In addition, the corporation has experienced water quality-related challenges and persistently high levels of non-revenue water (NRW). Figure 1 shows that the level of water supply reliability reduces as the distance from the water treatment plants increases, increasing the extent to which supply is intermittent as the corporation attempts to extend the limited available water to the different customers across its supply area. The figure also shows the positive impact of NWSC intervention in optimising IWS between 2013 and 2020, despite the aggressive expansion programme.


Figure 1a. The water supply reliability status across Kampala Water in 2013
Figure 1b. The water supply reliability status across Kampala Water in 2020

Pragmatic interventions to address IWS

In the short, medium and long term, NWSC has intensified efforts to optimise IWS through a series of pragmatic interventions. These interventions have been well aligned to the corporation’s strategic direction and corporate plan. The effective implementation of the intervention has largely been driven by the full commitment from the highest level of the corporation (board and top management) to every member of staff.

The water supply area is demarcated into different accountability and management levels: two zones (Eastern Zone and Western Zone), 25 branches, 35 sub-branches and 159 territories. The territories form the lowest level of accountability and outreach to the customers, and most of the efforts to optimise IWS are operationalised at branch and territory levels.

As a long-term strategy, the corporation has invested in the upgrade and expansion of the water production infrastructure. Katosi water supply system, located in the eastern part of Kampala City, is in the final stages of completion and will provide a daily water production of 160 million litres of water for phase one, and an additional 80 million litres per day once phase two is complete. The completion of the Katosi project will address the supply deficit currently experienced in Kampala.

Ongoing construction works of the Katosi Water Supply Project © NWSC

The corporation is also diversifying its water supply for the different communities by developing decentralised alternative mini systems. Currently, about 14 underground water production wells have been developed in Kampala, which have helped in addressing IWS in some parts of the city.

Investment in the water storage capacity and online pumping systems has been critical in dealing with IWS. Kampala extends over 21 hills, and this has compounded the problem of IWS, as it requires higher pressure within the system to be able to deliver water to customers located at the hilltops. The corporation has invested in installation of water storage facilities and construction of online pumping systems to improve water supply in such locations. To date, 29 water storage facilities and 59 booster pumping stations have been installed across Kampala service area. There has also been a deliberate effort to install standby power supply systems, in the form of generators, to address the unreliable power supply in the different areas.

Non-revenue water management through a proactive leakage management programme, as well as an aggressive illegal use reduction programme (through the Water Loss Protection Unit – WALOPU), is a key intervention being implemented to optimise IWS. The corporation is also investing a lot in asset management and intelligent network systems, with the focus of ensuring that most of the solutions and tools are developed internally through use of NWSC staff and resources.

There has been an effort to install generators to address the unreliablepower supply in different areas

Kampala Water has, over time, put a lot of emphasis on documenting and understanding its network, in the form of systems that allow it to collect, document, update and manage the water network infrastructure. Documentation of the network started in the late 1990s and, to date, the corporation operates a fully fledged intelligent network driven by ArcGIS, MApKit and other internally developed tools and decision support solutions. The knowledge and efficient maintenance of the network infrastructure has enabled the corporation to manage the network effectively and optimise the IWS schedule with a lot of flexibility. Figure 2 shows some of the key Kampala network fixtures.

IWS increases the risk of water supply contamination within the network. The corporation adopted a water safety plan approach to water quality management, and has invested in robust and very dynamic regular routine monitoring of the water quality. More than 300 water quality sampling points were established across the Kampala Water supply area, which are monitored at varying intervals depending on their susceptibility to contamination.

NWSC customers attending a customer community engagement session with NWSC management © NWSC

At the corporate level, NWSC has understood the importance of effective communication and sharing of important information with customers. Different mechanisms and platforms (digital and social media) have been instituted that allow for effective engagement with its customers, especially with respect to the water supply schedules and any service interruptions. In addition, the corporation holds regular stakeholder engagement sessions, including water baraza (public meetings), which are face to face or use online platforms, such as social media, radio and television. These interactions provide an avenue for the corporation to give customers the relevant information regarding planned interventions aimed at addressing intermittent water supply and, most importantly, to get feedback and hear expectations from the customers. The experience has demonstrated that once the water supply schedule or interruption is communicated effectively to the customer and complied with, a sense of certainty is created for the customers of when they will be able to access water, and they, in turn, plan accordingly.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the corporation invested in connecting the public water taps that supply the vulnerable/pro-poor communities to smaller water storage tanks, where water is stored when available, to address IWS in such places. In the event that water cannot be provided through the pipe network, they have been supplied by a water bowser owned by the corporation.

Figure 2. A Kampala map extract showing the water network, fixtures and customer locations

Staff capacity and development is a very important aspect in addressing IWS. The corporation has established a well-balanced and strategically focused professional and capacity development programme for staff. The capacity development programme is guided by the annual training calendar, and implementation of the training programme is facilitated through our state-of-the-art training centre (IREC), and the vocational training facilities in Gaba that target skilling of the artisan staff. The corporation has also developed an effective and robust performance management system, with performance-based incentive contracts established for the different business units. At the individual level, staff have Individual Performance Contracts, which promote performance accountability and a basis for a transparent and objective performance appraisal system.

Future perspectives

Most of the urban centres in developing countries are evolving continuously as the cities grow and experience increased demand for water services with limited growth in infrastructure. Under these circumstances, most water utilities will find themselves in the precarious situation of an increase in the level of intermittent water supply alongside a failure to meet the desired level of service for their customers. Optimising IWS becomes a very important area of interest for any utility in such a situation. The experience of NWSC has shown that IWS, though not a desired state, can, if well managed and optimised, provide a solution for reaching more people with limited resources. •

Mahmood H Lutaaya is General Manager Kampala, National Water and Sewerage Corporation, Kampala, Uganda. Gilbert Akol Echelai is Principal Officer – GIS, National Water and Sewerage Corporation