On government must-do lists, sanitation and wastewater management can often fall below increasing the water supply. Bringing more water into the system is prioritised over making better use of the water that’s already in circulation.
That’s why the Government of Egypt’s strategic decision to fast-track wastewater management in the Nile Basin is particularly astute. Faced with upstream riparian competition from the other countries along the Nile, smarter water management is more important than ever before. Improving water quality can help to address the region’s mounting downstream problems around pollution and waterborne sickness, as a preventative measure.
The future of the country’s economy is at stake.
The Egyptian Nile Basin is densely populated and irrigated intensively for farming, as it has been for several millennia. Water matters for the health of residents, but also for agriculture and the economy. As tourism has declined during this past decade, so the importance of agriculture has increased for safeguarding the national GDP.
Water flows down the river, gets irrigated for agriculture, drained from the fields, and then irrigated again downstream. As such, water can be used three or four times before it reaches the Mediterranean, increasing in pollution at each stage. While Egypt’s water supply services are better than in many developing countries, there is still the increasing threat of sickness among the rural workforce, which can damage productivity in this vital sector.
Pollution can build up in household drains, near where children play or cattle drink. Sanitation is traditionally disconnected with waste stored onsite, usually within septic tanks or pit latrines. Untreated water can then leach away into watercourses or the groundwater. Coordination and communication between the central government down to the regional governorates and the local water companies has proved a challenge in the past.
Recognising the threat of water pollution to curtail the potential of Egypt, the government launched its flagship presidential programme known as the National Rural Sanitation Program (NRSP). Ultimately, the objective is to provide increased access and improved sanitation services to 4,000 unserved rural villages and over 27,000 satellite villages.
Focusing on the governorates of hot-spot tributaries and canals, the programme aims to strengthen regional Water and Sanitation Companies (WSC) and the related sector policies for sustainably improving rural sanitation in Egypt. The WSCs will be empowered to take a bigger role in the infrastructure and its management across the cycle of investment, from the initial studies to the tendering and then construction.
The World Bank has financed a section of the work through its ‘Program-for-Results’ (P4R) model, totalling USD 550M, with work due to be completed by March 2021. Known as the Sustainable Rural Sanitation Services Program (SRSSP), this will cover around 155-200 rural villages serving approximately 167,000 new households and around 833,000 people.
Mott MacDonald is leading a consortium that provides assistance to the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities, as well as the WSCs in each of the target governorates. New infrastructure is needed to collect wastewater, treat it properly and then dispose of it in a controlled manner so that it does no harm to the environment. Although rural, these areas of Egypt still feel very urban and their populations are dense enough to justify collecting wastewater through sewer networks and bringing it to a nearby treatment plant.
This project is a critical test case for the World Bank’s P4R approach, in its bid to improve the performance of water and sanitation utilities, and the effectiveness of institutional reforms in developing countries. The overarching principle of P4R is that money will only be released upon achievement of a number of target indicators and independently-verified results.
SRSSP therefore combines two priorities. Firstly, it supports the decentralised approach of empowering regional WSCs in developing their own assets and improving their operational, financial and customer engagement performance. Secondly, it bolsters the presidential commitment and sets out a clear incentive to all stakeholders to make this P4R a national achievement, paving the way for stronger regional utilities, better governance and services delivery.
The World Bank’s P4R approach is showing clear signs of success, with stakeholders in the ministry and WSCs incentivised and stimulated to work together. In the past, things used to happen slower and small obstacles would trip up progress. Now, these minor issues are resolved more quickly. Even though the new decentralised model of government asks more of employees than before and insists they face a lot of new responsibilities, they are ready to cooperate fully and make sure that it works. To date, they have achieved the World Bank’s indicators. The consortium has developed an excellent team spirit, with a mix of Egyptian and international designers and consultants. We’re gaining momentum across tendering and construction, and we are on track at the mid-term point.