On 19 November 2020, CRIDF and ROCKBlue co-hosted an event with the Eastern and Southern Africa Water and Sanitation (ESAWAS) Regulators Association and the African Forum for Utility Regulation (AFUR) to look back at water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) efforts during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the title Effectiveness of WASH-based measures taken in the fight against COVID-19 and their impact on the performance of the sector, the webinar presented a clear message from the regulatory experience: every such measure is a balancing act.
The online panel brought Richard Cheruiyot, Monitoring and Enforcement Director at Kenya’s Water Service Regulatory Board (WASREB), together with Chola Mbilima, Senior Inspector for Financial and Commercial Management at Zambia’s National Water Supply and Sanitation Council (NWASCO), and Stockholm International Water Institute regulation expert Ivan Draganic.
Across Eastern and Southern Africa – as elsewhere in 2020 – water utilities have striven to provide uninterrupted services, amid recognition of just how precious water access is in a pandemic. The emergency measures that utilities have taken might have saved lives, but where utilities themselves are highly resource-constrained, their own sustainable provision of services may be on the line. Regulators have to look for a balance, and push to achieve it.
Business unusual in Kenya
As handwashing came to be recognised as a frontline measure against the coronavirus, said Cheruiyot, the Kenyan regulator’s main concern was whether utilities could cope with the public health challenge and keep water flowing. Utilities didn’t just put a hold on disconnections – they also mapped out vulnerable areas and extended services there, provided washing points, and embraced cashless services. Yet this meant that “we had public policy measures which one would actually say were in variance with the usual business practice, where, for example, utilities were required to not disconnect customers and to extend services to vulnerable areas”, Cheruiyot said. Billing dropped by an average of 12%, and collections by 38%, a dangerous fall in a country where the collection rate only reached 80% in the previous few years.
The utilities needed help, and the regulator responded on multiple fronts. They issued advisories to the national and county governments, ensured the operation of supply chains for essential inputs and protective equipment, and pushed for the extension of public subsidies and emergency funds to utilities. They also ensured that the government would clear any longstanding water bills of its own, and that power utilities would not disconnect water utilities.
Zambia’s call for access
“When this pandemic hit us, everybody was looking to the availability of water,” recalled Mbilima. “The call to have everyone access water supply was louder than any other time.” Zambia’s Ministry of Water directed utilities not to disconnect defaulters, while providing grants to cushion utility operations. The regulator coordinated utilities in developing Coronavirus Response Plans, in using bulk messaging systems to sensitise the public, and in adhering to water quality parameters, particularly for residue chlorine (while in circumstances of exceptional risk, allowing utilities to super-chlorinate water to suppress the spread of disease).
Grants, however, were not enough to make up for an 11% drop in billing and 25% fall in collection efficiency. As utilities ran out of liquidity, the regulator began to lobby the government to lift its non-disconnection directive, and challenged utilities to come up with innovative ways to encourage payment. While Mbilima can look back on good collaboration with and between ministries, big decisions could have been made better. “Some of the issues were coming as a matter of directive,” she said. “Prior consultation would have helped…. Suspending disconnections to all customers, regardless, was something that could have been done better.” Next time, she thinks it will be possible to target such a directive to vulnerable households, reducing the blow to utilities.
The three regulatory mindsets
Draganic reinforced these messages with his global synthesis of experiences. He identified three regulatory trends from different countries. Kenya and Zambia were among the governments that prioritised consumers through massive payment removal – but, Draganic said, with inadequate subsidy mechanisms for operators. Others, such as the USA and some European countries, prioritised the continuity of operators. A third group of mostly wealthy countries did not apply measures on either side, but instead relied on enhanced health communication.
“The sector needs even more, in the time of pandemic, neutral and consistent sector regulation,” Draganic believes. “Any measure taken by government should be coordinated through regulatory agencies. Subsidies, for instance, should not be granted to utilities by bypassing regulators, because only regulators are in a position to judge what is the adequate subsidy for each of their licensed operators.”
All three speakers emphasised that communities with utilities proved to be better protected from the pandemic and its fallout, and that the utilities that performed best were those with emergency plans in place. “Because we were found unprepared for this pandemic, our responses were really uncoordinated before we mobilised utilities to come up with a plan. The lesson there is that as regulators we need to be proactive – let’s have plans in place to try and respond to emergencies in any eventuality,” concluded Mbilima.
“As regulators, we’ve realised that there is nothing impossible. What people seem to put as impossibilities are actually possible when you have a crisis. So why not just begin to implement those activities?”