Water For Everyone Forever in the Land of 1000 Hills

Full access to sustainable water services

It is going to happen. Rwanda will achieve full coverage for water services — perhaps the first country in Africa to do so. I am re-convinced of this after recently spending a week in Rwanda, which always inspires my soul. I was able to see the progress we are making at Water For People on getting the missing water infrastructure built and functioning for the approximately 1 million people in Kicukiro, Rulindo, and now Gicumbi. I also saw first-hand how we are changing the way water services are being delivered in the districts where we work to be more sustainable; the plan for replicating this model happen across the country is promising.

Gicumbi District

Systems Change

Changing the system to deliver more sustainable water services in Rwanda means that District Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) offices are being created, and professionals — local experts — are being trained to run them. WASH investment plans are being developed that reflect the true level of capital investment required to bring districts to full infrastructure coverage, and funding is being sought. That is Part 1 of the journey to sustainable services: coverage for Everyone. Part 2 — services last Forever — is about sustainability. This includes charging the right rates to cover the operation and maintenance costs to keep the systems running, monitoring level of service and keeping it high, getting the right people employed and trained, and protecting the water resources. Water For People has an exit plan in sight — when all 27 rural District WASH offices are effectively running our work is complete. Then we have effectively shifted the equilibrium and changed the system in which we work (as shown below), and we can focus elsewhere.

Rwanda is unique for Water For People because the government matches the funding we bring. This is significant any way you slice it. Water For People has invested $25M in Rwanda since 2011 to complete $45M of programs, and we are currently committed to another $45M (and growing based on the outcome of this trip!). We work closely with the Ministry of Infrastructure (MININFRA) and the Water and Sanitation Corporation (WASAC) — the urban service authority/provider and the Districts.

Meet these Women leaders that are moving from the role of custodians of water in their homes to that of strategic thinkers for sustainable water services for all in Rwanda!

L to R: Marcelline Kayitesi — MININFRA — Water and Sanitation Division Manager, Perpetue Kamuyumbu — Water For People — Rwanda Country Director, Hon. Germaine Kamayirese — MININFRA — Minister of State in Charge of Energy, Water and Sanitation, and me

More Investment Is Needed

During my trip we had great discussions on how, together, we (Water For People + MININFRA) need to complete the district investment plans for all 27 rural districts (capital needs are roughly estimated at > $1B) and then attract investors to Rwanda to get this infrastructure built. Relative success in improving WASH services during the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) period has meant that WASH is not seen as such a pressing priority in Rwanda by some donors. In contrast, I believe sustainable water and sanitation is the basis for all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The perception that water and saniataion is “done” in Rwanda needs to change if President Kagame’s Vision 2024 is to be achieved. We hope to change this perception, and we are committed to joining our efforts with MININFRA and WASAC towards achieving Vision 2024.

Having water and sanitation services in place is the foundation for economic development and good governance. While food security has gotten much better in Rwanda over the past years, there is still malnutrition and stunting in parts of Rwanda. Stunting can be traced directly back to poor water quality and waterborne disease. If you have parasites and amoebas living in your gut they get the food first and you remain hungry. This, too, is preventable. We know how to do it — get safe water services established!

Innovative Technology Solutions in Sanitation

Here is a great example of innovation that I visited on my trip — a really beautiful decentralized fecal sludge treatment plant (DEFAST) that we just commissioned in the Gicumbi District. You can see my video about it here!

New Gicumbi DEFAST plant

No one is connected to a sewer in Gicumbi. That means pits and septic tanks for 400,000 people. We have a private operator that is out making money by emptying latrine pits and septic tanks. He brings the wastewater and sludge he collects to the DEFAST. The DEFAST provides treatment — liquids/solids separation — all by gravity. The solids get routed to a solar drying bed and reused to make compost. The district is agricultural, so farmers are eagerly awaiting the first batch. The liquids go through a series of tanks with passive biological treatment then to a wetland for polishing before reuse/discharge. The influent is a mix of septic waste and pit latrine sludge, so the sludge comes in thicker than wastewater (often > 4% solids vs. < 1% for wastewater) so less water to remove.

In Kigali, the situation is more complicated. There is a “temporary” wastewater dump site on the top of a mountain in Nduba.

Wastewater dump site

Two treatment plants are on the books for construction — a wastewater treatment plant and a fecal sludge treatment plant. The city is served by latrine pits and septic tanks, so we need better services to get those pits/tanks safely emptied and the sludge/septage taken to the treatment plants. We support Pit Vidura that runs a pit emptying service. We hope to see them be able to expand, with the support of the city and MININFRA, to increase the service coverage. We are partnered together to find ways to spark the market to attract customers who want their pits/tanks safely emptied and treated. The alternative to safe pit emptying is people digging more pits (and they are running out of room) or removing the sludge at night and dumping it illegally. Not good. And the total cost for digging a new pit and improper sludge handling is about the same as proper pit emptying and sludge management, so there is a compelling business case for homeowners.

The State of the World’s Wastewater & Sludge

Wastewater treatment currently serves only 27% of the world’s population (while 36% of the world has sewers). I spent the first half of my career designing beautiful wastewater treatment plants in cities around the world for this fortunate small percent of the world. Today I am working on getting good services to the 64% of the world that is un-sewered and using on-site sanitation. Safely managing human waste is a lot more complicated without a sewer! Yet on-site sanitation is considerably less expensive and the way of the future — driven by innovation from and for the global South. And reusing these resources, that we continuously create, for their nutrient and energy value, is especially exciting.

The Future

If I close my eyes I can imagine the verdant hills of Rwanda with a thriving economy supported by profitable businesses, healthy residents, a clean environment, and lasting quality water and sanitation services. It is possible. In 2019, on World Water Day (March 22), we will celebrate reaching Everyone with sustainable water services in the Rulindo district. Rulindo will be the first district to receive this distinction in Africa — one that all Africans deserve. The rest of the country will follow, district by district, of that I am sure. I can’t wait to see it happen!

New water system in Rulindo district