The need for a mindset change on intermittent supply

Dr Rose Kaggwa, Nicolas Monterde Roca, Claudia Ronda, Anand Jalakam, Didier Sinapah and Mohammed Shafei


A panel responds to questions posed by Bambos Charalambous, Chair of the IWA Specialist Group on Intermittent Water Supply


Why must tackling intermittent water supply start with a change of mindset? Why is this needed at all levels, and why must it be sustained over time?


Dr Rose Kaggwa, Director Business and Scientific Services, National Water and Sewerage Corporation, Uganda

Intermittent water supply (IWS) is a phenomenon that is common in a number of developing countries but which cannot be solved simply with increased financing and infrastructure investments. We must acknowledge that all key stakeholders in the water business need to have a change of mindset.

We need to accept that IWS is a reality and determine how best all involved can make a difference. Creativity and innovation are paramount, but so is the commitment of all stakeholders, including the customers.

At the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC), for one area that had been a typical dry zone, Kampala City, we have been able to re-configure our network with our own resources. This involved everybody, including bringing the Board of Directors on board. We were also able to look at alternative sources of water, such as the sinking of boreholes in some areas to augment the water supply that was available from the bigger water treatment plants.

In effecting practical solutions to address IWS, we must sustain the motivation of staff. At the end of the day, it is the staff who decide what is to be done on a daily basis. The shop floor staff play a key role in this process, since they are the ones who interface with customers and also the systems.

At the NWSC, we are continually looking at how to retool and reskill our staff. We have introduced vocational skills development for some, as well as providing continued training for our skilled staff. We have been able to ensure a motivated workforce through an effective reward and incentive scheme.

Once everyone is on board, it is easier to make decisions and sustain change. This message can be echoed to others within the region through the African Water Association in order to create the much-needed change and paradigm shift that is required in the management of IWS.

Nicolas Monterde Roca, Head of Planning and Projects, Aguas de Saltillo, Mexico

When facing a shortage of water supply, our first answer is usually ‘let’s move into intermittent supply’. Unfortunately, this is the most intuitive solution. However, we know that an intermittent water supply (IWS) damages users and the water system in a growing spiral: users do not get the water they need, water quality is at risk, there is higher infrastructure stress, higher burst frequency, higher operation and maintenance costs, increasing water losses, and so on.

That is why it’s vital we have in mind that, rather than a solution, IWS is the cause of many of the problems we will have to face. If all the staff in the utility, from field operators to the board, as well as users, political actors and other stakeholders, don’t have this in mind and not all policies are aligned to achieve this main objective, it will be impossible to break this spiral.

In my experience, it is easy to make great plans regarding direction, but it is even easier to forget the people who make these plans come true. That’s why I believe that if we don’t work on our people, change their minds, and motivate them at all levels, we will not be able to move to continuous supply schemes.

That was the case in Aguas de Saltillo (a PPP between the City of Saltillo and SUEZ). Four years ago, we started an ambitious sectorisation and management plan for the network. At that time, the main goal was ‘only’ to improve system performance to reduce water losses, but we were still thinking in terms of IWS. After a while, and thanks to the valuable advice of some IWA experts and the expertise of the SUEZ Group, we learned that one of the most powerful tools to reduce losses was to move into continuous service. We are now supplying an average of 20 hours/user/day (23% more than in 2016) while reducing losses, and we are not producing more water. There is still much to do, but Aguas de Saltillo’s team is now much more focused and motivated.

Claudia Ronda, Director, Maintenance Department, Águas da Região de Maputo, Mozambique

Any change in society must first start in the mind. In the case of Maputo, it is currently rooted in the social mind that any new building needs construction of, or access to, water storage to ensure continuity of supply for when the distribution system pumping stations stop, adding to the cost of conventional housing construction.

At the same time, seeking to satisfy the right of access to the necessary quantity and quality of water where water supply systems have never delivered a continuous water supply – as is the case in Maputo – operation and maintenance become a major challenge. This is because of associated problems such as degradation of the quality of water supplied, increased leakage, financial losses, and other issues.

The vision of Águas da Região de Maputo (AdeM) is to deliver on water quantity and quality. There are challenges – service coverage currently stands at 57% and unaccounted-for water losses are about 42% – a major issue contributing to intermittent water supply (IWS).

IWS is a big concern, and AdeM has been bringing a change of mindset to this issue. In 2017/2018, AdeM allocated funds for small pilot areas in which to build more boreholes to meet growing demand. These have achieved continuous water supply, and AdeM’s aim is that this level of service in those areas remains 24/7.

AdeM’s focus in any new project is to provide water for longer than currently available. However, factors such as population growth have contributed significantly to this goal not being met. Public awareness campaigns have focused more on water theft and infrastructure vandalism.

Given that there are advantages to society for continuous water supply, awareness of the need to switch from an intermittent to a continuous supply should start at top government level with the creation of clear, focused policies, the design of strategies to achieve this objective, and, most importantly, a commitment to necessary and timely investment.

Anand Jalakam, Director, Jalakam Solutions, India

The mindset from the historical legacy of authoritarian regimes that controlled every aspect of people’s lives, including the timing of when the community received water, is at the root of intermittent water supply (IWS). Changing the mindset from treating the community as the receiver of state-controlled services to an egalitarian regime, where the customer has the fundamental right of equality of access to a quality service, is key to tackling IWS.

A change of mindset is important for addressing the most-often quoted concern – that customers misuse or waste water if provided with a continuous supply, resulting in the need for much greater water resources.

In a couple of demonstration projects for continuous water supply delivery in Karnataka State, India, these concerns were proved totally unnecessary. With sustained service, there was significant reduction in customer consumption, resulting from careful use of water as and when it was required.

Motivation for sustaining services must be founded on the fundamental objective of protecting public health, especially of poor and vulnerable communities who suffer most in an IWS regime. The risk of contamination from filling and emptying networks, coupled with the poor’s inability to invest in point of source treatment and household-level storage, should be motivating factors for utility management to sustain service improvement.

It is important to encourage belief that delivering a continuous water supply is not limited to policy intent or a one-time asset creation project but is a continuous programme of operational water service delivery improvement that requires change of mindset and motivation at every level of water utility management. Commitment at management level to reversing lack of financial equilibrium, and continuous action on network management and water loss control at street level, are key to sustaining service improvements over time.

Didier Sinapah, Head of Technology and Performance Team, Municipal Water, SUEZ, France

Intermittent water supply (IWS) currently affects more than one billion people who are actually connected to a water network, a figure so substantial that, for some, it is the only mode of supply they have ever known. Having water for only a few hours a day is a reality around which their lives are shaped. Coping strategies include installing storage tanks and using booster pumps and domestic treatment solutions. These coping strategies are part of a lifestyle people have invested in, and that some are fairly comfortable adhering to.

Similarly, for water operators managing IWS, establishing distribution schedules and opening and closing valves over the network is part of their day-to-day work, which operatives can do almost unconsciously without ever questioning themselves or their management.

The transition to a 24/7 water supply, or even improving water service quality while achieving an intermittent supply, cannot start without disrupting these practices. This requires a radical change in the mindset of every stakeholder involved in water supply. The said practices must be replaced by new schemes to re-engineer the way water is delivered – which start from a situation where the network is degraded, water is wasted, its quality deteriorated and distribution is inequitable – in an effort to regain the confidence of consumers and ensure better water service for all.

To this end, a transition period with a deferred payoff is inevitable, during which all relevant stakeholders must engage and motivate themselves and each other, keeping the objective of improvement in mind. Continuity cannot be achieved, for example, when leaks in domestic tanks are not addressed, and this falls within the consumers’ sphere of action. They must visualise the impact of their individual actions on the improvement of the overall system, and such awareness is not possible if the new mindset is not spread and embraced at all levels.

Additional input from Assia Mokssit, Research Engineer

Mohammed Shafei, Independent Water Consultant, Jordan

Many water utilities operate under rules of habit, not sound engineering. When a field operator faces the task of securing water to every customer in hydraulically challenging and water-scarce situations, the best course of action available may appear to be to impose an intermittent water supply (IWS) rationing regime. This reactive measure is by no means the most comfortable for the operator, or the most effective, but it is often the best, given the available resources.

When we speak of resources, we don’t only mean water supply availability. Field operators often work without the luxury of having qualified supervisors and engineers who can train, advise, or guide. Similarly, they lack essential tools such as bulk metering, pressure readings, accurate maps, and hydraulic models.

Each time a new generation of management takes over, they are faced with the system and its operations as they exist, and may indeed motivate their staff to continue the same mode of operations because it is the only tried and trusted method that they know will work.

In fact, it becomes easy to rationalise why IWS helps to secure water in conditions where water supply is scarce, when, in reality, it dramatically increases losses and reduces staff efficiency.

To address IWS, we have to delve into the details of what the lonely water operator has to face each day.

Issuing major contracts for hydraulic restructuring, metering and telemetry, SCADA and GIS are indeed required. However, these cannot suffice or have a lasting effect without being adopted internally and designed in a thoughtful way, in which the daily concerns of the operator are met, and where responsibility is rightly supported by a capable middle management that fulfils its role in understanding and documenting the system’s behaviour, and that advises, trains, and supports the operators and listens to their concerns.