DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — In the United States, access to running water is largely taken for granted. We turn on the faucet without ever having to wonder if water will come out.
Last May, Boston residents were thrown into a brief “state of emergency” when a pipe providing the bulk of the city’s water supply burst. For up to three days, residents experienced the inconvenience of boiling or buying water, something that is a daily reality for many people through out Tanzania.
In Tanzania, there is nothing simple about water access. In the working class neighborhoods of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, residents will tell you that water comes out of the tap only once every three days. Acclimated residents fill up buckets and large back-up tanks whenever they have the chance.
Tanzanians have a reputation as a reserved and non-confrontational people, which is cited as part of the reason for the peace that has been enjoyed among the country’s 120 ethnic groups. However, critics point to Tanzania’s non-confrontational political culture and say it leaves citiznes with poor infrastructure and access to basic services.
“To Tanzanians government services are like rain: If it rains we thank God. If doesn’t rain, who can you blame? You can just wait,” said Richard Mapendo, the Program Manager for a community development organization called Daraja based in the town of Njombe in southwestern Tanzania.
On the other hand, not every Tanzanian is taking the poor water service lying down. Some people have taken it upon themselves to get water for themselves. In Dar es Salaam, among other places in the country, it is common for people to illegally tap into the water line. That illegal water tapping is partially to blame for the erratic water service, according to the local water company, DAWASCO.
In trying to get more people to apply for a legal connection to be built to their home, DAWASCO has been active in going to neighborhoods to disconnect illegal connections and encourage citizens to report non-paying users in their neighborhood through a dedicated telephone hotline.
In rural Tanzania, the issue of water access becomes, in ways, an even more complicated issue. Without the infrastructure to supply taps to every household, the official solution is to use community water points. The Ministry of Water takes responsibility for construction of new water points, but the up-keep is the job of the community. Each community is tasked with setting up a water management committee with the job of monitoring the functionality of community water points, contacting a service contractor if the water point needs repairs, and collecting money needed for operations and management.
But does this model work? Are communities members willing and able to pay for use of a tap or well and can the community coordinate to make repairs when necessary? Also can they get the support they need from government water engineers when the repairs needed are complex? The raw numbers are not encouraging. The NGO WaterAid said in a 2009 report that only 54 percent of rural water points are functional.
In the community of Ramadhani, a suburb of Njombe, Pilly Mlwaw, a member of community’s management council, said that today all the public water points are not in operation. She explained that not enough people came to taps for the people running them to feel like they made enough money for the operational costs. Today, people in Ramadhani with the privilege of owning a private tap charge their neighbors who want to use it.
Mapendo explained in other communities people simply refuse to pay to use the community well or tap so when it breaks there is no fund for the repairs and the community just abandons it.
However, just 30 minutes away from Ramadhani, in the more isolated community of Uhambule which sits about 10km down a dirt path from the highway, the community management model does work. The village executive, Jacob Mkahalla, explained that in the community there are about 35 water points that are managed by the village government. When a water point breaks down, the village managers collect money and make the repairs. “People are very willing to give money when needed,” he said.
The water systems in Dar es Salaam and the rural communities around Njombe are plagued by complicated factors, including the Tanzanian government’s unwillingness or inability to pay and a political culture that does not always demand their rights from their government.
While the problem persists, people will continue to do what they must to fill their individual needs whether that means walking to the next community to access a functioning well, buying jugs of water from distributors, or tapping the water line.
For Tanzanian citizens, it seems a well-functioning and sustainable public water system is still many years off.