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Corruption limits access to safe water and the effectiveness of the Covid-19 response in developing countries: The case of Uganda

Handwashing is one of the most effective practices in the fight against Covid-19. Access to clean water and sanitation is crucial, but is still limited in developing countries such as Uganda. This is partly due to corruption. What anti-corruption measures can governments and their partners take to improve access to safe water and boost the coronavirus response?
8 June 2020
Local villagers waiting with plastic canisters to get safe water from public water well

The main technologies for water provision in rural areas in Uganda are boreholes, shallow wells, and springs. In urban areas, water is provided mainly through piped water supplied to residential and commercial buildings or to taps in yards or kiosks.

Water and sanitation in Uganda

Source: Uganda Water Sector Performance Report 2019

Poor people pay more and are particularly vulnerable

Poor people in urban areas mainly use public stand posts (PSPs) and must pay for the water. The price ranges from 50 Uganda shillings (UGX) to as high as UGX250 for 20 jerricans (1 jerrican holds 20 litres) in times of scarcity (US$1 = UGX3,770; 21.4% of Ugandans live on less than US$1.90 a day). The price is higher than that for water supplied to residential and commercial buildings. This is mainly because the public stand posts are run by private individuals seeking to profit from water sales.

The high cost of water, especially for the poor, affects how much will be used for hygiene

In urban areas, sanitation is provided through connections to the sewer or onsite sanitation using septic tanks. The operation and maintenance of public toilets is outsourced to private individuals, who charge per use. Therefore, the urban poor, most of whom live in informal settlements or slums, must pay to access public toilets.

Handwashing facilities are usually available at public sanitation facilities, although soap is rarely provided. This has direct implications for the pandemic response, as effective handwashing with soap is one of the most effective practices being promoted in the fight against Covid-19.

The high cost of water, especially for the poor, affects how much will be used for hygiene. This is as opposed to say, cooking and washing clothes. Moreover, the high cost means that some people resort to collecting water from unsafe sources, such as open water sources, springs or shallow wells that could be contaminated. This might expose them to water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera. According to the Ministry of Health, these diseases remain prevalent, with as many as 1850 cases and 45 deaths per year due to cholera.

Lack of access to safe water means [fishing communities, slum dwellers, and street children] are especially vulnerable to Covid-19

Fishing communities, slum dwellers, and street children are particularly vulnerable to cholera. Their lack of access to safe water also means that they are especially vulnerable to Covid-19.

Improving access to safe water as part of the Covid-19 response

The water and sanitation sector in Uganda is part of the overall national emergency response to Covid-19. Measures include the following:

  • governments departments, development partners, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and UN agencies have redirected budgets to provide equipment for handwashing and protective equipment for key workers;
  • the government has directed that the water supply cannot be cut off, even if users cannot pay their bills;
  • the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) is providing handwashing facilities in public places;
  • the NWSC has also increased the number of public stand posts, with water prices subsidised during the Covid-19 outbreak; and
  • the government has instructed business owners to provide handwashing facilities at their premises (although this is a threat to small and medium firms because of the resulting increase in operating costs).

Corruption exacerbates the problem

Corruption is systemic in Uganda. It is most pronounced in infrastructure contracts, where huge sums of money are involved. A report commissioned by the Ministry of Water and Environment in 2009 revealed that about UGX51 billion (US$13.5 million) had been lost due to leakage and corruption. Furthermore, 56% of respondents interviewed as part of the study had bribed or knew someone who had paid a bribe to have water connected to their homes or to by-pass water metres, so that they could reduce their water bills.

Corruption impacts on access to water in several ways. For instance, it results in the use of sub-standard materials in setting up water infrastructure. This in turn leads to frequent breakdown of parts such as taps and pipes. It may result in the provision of poor-quality services, such as irregular water supply and hard or smelly water.

The loss of huge sums of money to corruption has contributed to the … delay in expanding safe water coverage

Ultimately, this cost is not only borne by the government, but also by the citizens. The loss of huge sums of money to corruption has contributed to the Government of Uganda’s delay in expanding safe water coverage across the whole country.

Good governance indicators in Uganda’s Water Sector Management Framework

As part of improving good governance and anti-corruption measures, the sector has developed several good governance indicators. These focus on the principles of accountability, transparency, and participation, which are reported upon annually. The targets are:

  1. percentage implementation of the previous year’s audit recommendations of financial statements;
  2. average weighted procurement performance;
  3. percentage of pro-poor facilities that provide water at a price below or equal to the household tariff of the service area;
  4. the National Water and Sewerage Corporation’s customer satisfaction index;
  5. percentage of gazetted water authorities and districts whose performance is published annually by the regulatory body;
  6. percentage of water for production facilities with actively functioning water user committees; and
  7. percentage of permit holders complying with permit conditions.

Despite these efforts, anti-corruption initiatives in the sector have had limited impact. This is because sector performance reports often do not include data for the indicators above. This could be because reduced funding to the sector has led to money being directed to service delivery instead of capacity building and support to monitoring to reduce corruption. In addition, a project approach has been taken, whereby donors and development banks focus on infrastructure outputs as opposed to joint programming. This has meant that important activities such as good governance are not supported adequately. Another factor could be the focus on profitability and commercial viability in the sector. Again, this means that aspects such as equity and good governance are not prioritised.


The Uganda government, donors/development partners, UN agencies, and NGOs should strengthen anti-corruption efforts in the water sector. They could then improve access to safe water and sanitation, which is crucial to fighting disease outbreaks. They can strengthen anti-corruption efforts in several ways:

  • Support the good governance sub-sector working group to ensure that annual activities are funded and followed through.
  • Fund and participate in studies to expand the body of knowledge on how corruption affects access to safe water and sanitation.
  • Support monitoring and evaluation. This could include contributing towards the seven sectoral good governance indicators annual monitoring exercise (reporting and mid-term review).
  • Build sector capacity on emergency response, good practices, and standard operating procedures (SOPs) in Covid-19 response. Due to social distancing, this can be achieved by promoting cross-learning and experience sharing through webinars/internet-based platforms.
  • Crucially, strengthening anti-corruption should be part of the overall effort to re-balance the sector’s focus on profit-making, with a commitment to pro-poor services and equity in water-services provision.

You can find more resources on U4’s topic page on Anti-Corruption and Covid-19

    About the authors

    Monica Kirya

    Monica Kirya is Deputy Director at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre and a lawyer. Kirya coordinates the themes on mainstreaming anti-corruption in public service delivery and integrating gender in anti-corruption programming.

    Grace Waoko Katuramu


    All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

    This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)