Out of a population of 301,400, only 20,000 residents have access to water and sanitation, according to the 2021 peri-urban water supply and sanitation sector report.

North Western Water and Sanitation Company (NWWSC), the firm that manages water supply in the province, is struggling to keep pace with rising demand for water and sanitation services.

For the population with sewage connection, it gets worse. At 22.8 percent (794 connections), the province remained significantly below the acceptable benchmark. The country’s acceptable standard for sanitation coverage for the 2021-2025 period is 85%.

Table from the 2021 National Water Supply and Sanitation Council (NWASCO) report

In fact, NWWSC is not the only Zambian commercial utility that doesn’t seem to get basic water and sanitation right.  Other utilities that are worse off are Western, Eastern and Luapula water companies.

A rich province with a population without access to water

Despite the North Western being viewed as the “new Copperbelt and contributing massively to the national treasury, the situation is appalling. Take for example, the 2020 Zambia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) report, four of the five mining companies that contributed more to the treasury are from North Western (See figures below from the ZEITI 2020 report).

When mining investments arrived in the province, the general belief was that a much larger percentage of the taxes paid by the mining companies to the national government should be returned to the province to help address some of the challenges being faced.

These expectations have created anger that the mining companies have not provided the same type of benefits, including comprehensive social welfare services and facilities which characterised the Copperbelt under the state-run Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) and during the late colonial periods.

The rise infortunes

North western’s revival started in 2002 by First Quantum Minerals Ltd (FQML) of the old Kansanshi mine located on the edge of Solwezi town. Then Lumwana (then Equinox, now Barrick Gold) which opened in 2005 followed, and in 2010Kalumbila mine.

These investments have led to uncontrolled influx into the province of job-seeking outsiders, with the Solwezi town population increasing from about 70,000 in 2,000 to about 266,000 in 2016, according to official government statistics.

Before the mines, the province was a quiet rural area with a widespread, low-density population. But since 2002, enabled by the dramatic increase in the price of minerals, mining has developed rapidly.

In Solwezi, the provincial town, many reside in informal shanty settlements where the growing population has overwhelmed local services. One of the services that have not been supported by the new mining boom is the water and sanitation sector.

The case of Kimakolwe

Take the example of Kimakolwe, a sprawling township west of Solwezi, which started as an unplanned settlement. Residents drink water from shallow wells due to lack of piped water.

Astridah Mulyata, 34, has lived in Kimakolwe for the past nine years and has experienced first-hand what it means to live in an area without water.

“Only those who live near the three available boreholes do not feel the pain of walking long distances to access water,” she said. “Us who live far from the boreholes struggle to have water in our homes.”

Astridah, a single mother of four said the only available alternative source of water for Kimakolwe residents are shallow wells.

“We draw drinking water from boreholes, while the ones we use for washing plates and washing clothes is from shallow wells,” she said.  

Astridah is just one of thousands feeling the impact of the lack of water. It stretches far beyond this expansive settlement.

The water company

NWWSSC, which is supposed to fix the urban water challenges in all the 11 districts of the province, is grappling with inadequate and aging equipment. The company says it is “hopeful that our customer base shall grow further as the demand is high”.

“However, customer base in some areas is limited by the network which needs to be expanded to meet the growing demand, including those in new settlement areas,” said Barbara Kalunga Sianyabo, company public relations officer.

In addition, it is mired in huge debts. According to official documents seen by MakanDay, it owes statutory institutions and Zesco K20 million, and K310,000 respectively.

Added to the debt is a K10 million loan from MFT Germany, for the water treatment plant to address growing demand for water in Solwezi district, which accounts for 54% of the total customer base.

The company said the project cost was K20.8m, with 64% of the cost financed through a loan from Investrust Bank and 25.7% was through asset financing from MFT of Germany. NWWSSC financed 7.1% of the cost with the other 2.7 %, financed through Devolution Trust Fund (DTF).  

“The asset Loan with MFT has been paid off and 90% of the loan obtained from Investrust Bank has been paid, with final payment to be made in August2023,” said Sianyabo.

Last year, company managing director Happy Musumali, told Ministry of Water Development permanent secretary Joe Kalusa, during a visit to the province, that the company is struggling to repay the loan.  

Musumali also disclosed that the company’s monthly expenses include K1.2 million on salaries, K450,000 on electricity, and K500,000on chemicals and maintenance of the water plants.

He further said the company suffers from lack of investment in water and sanitation, as it still uses old water supply infrastructure, leading to losses from under reading in old meters.

Country situation

Studies and a visit to many densely populated peri-urban quarters or rural villages show that access levels in the country remain stubbornly low. As of 2020, only two-thirds of Zambians had access to basic water services, and about half had access to basic or limited sanitation. These access rates have remained almost stagnant over the past fifteen years.

Zambia aims for universal access to safe and affordable water and sanitation services by 2030. Yet, it is one of the countries that missed the MDGs for water and sanitation and is projected to miss the more ambitious SDGs.

The situation is compounded by the country’s low public investment in the sector. Experts say Zambia’s spending on water and sanitation has averaged only 0.3 percent of GDP over the past decade

“Put simply, the sector has focused on infrastructure rather than on strengthening the institutions that fix the pipes to pursue an efficient and sustainable system for service provision,” notes Josses Mugabi and Ruth Kennedy-Walker in their blogpost.

They observe that in the urban sector, capital investments have focused on large bulk water projects, with rehabilitation and expansion of aging water distribution networks, critically in small towns and peri-urban areas, not receiving the same attention.

The government and the NUWSSP must therefore shift its focus from financing large infrastructure to financing improvements in the efficiency of CUs (commercial utilities) to enhance their cashflows and enable them to contribute to the capital needed to expand access.

Additional reporting by Terence Katiki and Stanley Fwataki in Solwezi – North Western Province.

Main photo: NWASCO 2021 report