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Uganda Water Project Aims for 100 Percent Access in Urban Areas

Developing countries aim to cut the proportion of people without safe drinking water in half by the year 2015, as stipulated by the United Nation's Millennium Goals. Uganda has set a more ambitious target of 100 percent water access for its urban citizens as part of its National Poverty Eradication Action Plan. The country has launched a "pay-as-you-drink" public water project to pave the way.

With her baby strapped to one hip and a jerry can to the other, Aisha Nakawesa used to trek several miles from her home in the Ndeeba district of Kampala to get her family water. Once she reached the water point, she would pay eight cents to fill a 20 liter jerry can with water. Now, Nakawesa says she can fill six cans for the same price by inserting a token into a metal water unit right next to her home.

It is called a pre-paid water meter and this past year Uganda's National Water and Sewerage Corporation installed 400 of them in the impoverished Ndeeba and Kisyeni sections of Uganda's capital Kampala. The water points serve around 130,000 residents, a number that is expected to quadruple within the next year in Kampala with the launch of a World Bank funded extension of the project.

Residents pay standard rates directly to the government water operator each time they fill-up says Jon Bosco-Otema, Urban Pro-Poor manager at the National Water and Sewerage Corporation. "National water in the past used to bill customers at the end of the month and you don't know how much you have consumed, don't know how much you should prepare. But, with pre-paid meters you manage yout account and also pay-as-you-drink," he said.

This is the first step in Uganda's official pledge to make water access available in 100 percent of urban areas by 2015.

Several organizations warn the prepaid system can be abused. They cite Namibia where private operators installed prepaid meters that charge prohibitive costs to the poor. This arguably limits full access to water which is designated as a human right under Uganda's constitution.

Uganda's Pre-Paid Meter Project Manager Bosco-Otema responds that Uganda's system is fully regulated by the government and the minimal amount the poor do pay for the water saves them money in unnecessary health costs associated with contaminated water. "Clean and portable water is very important in the lives of the urban poor. Almost 40 percent of diseases are water related and as results like diarrhea, dysentery, cholera - all this can be avoided by just having clean water," he said.

Early next month governmental agencies from Tanzania and Kenya are scheduled to visit Uganda to discuss the expansion of prepaid meters across East Africa.