by Bubala Muyovwe-Mumba

The NGO Water Sanitation and Hygiene Forum (“NGO WASH Forum” or “Forum”) is a coordination platform of international, local NGOs and community-based organisations working to improve WASH services in Zambia. It was formally established in 2011, and is the government recognised WASH civil society platform.  Over the last 10 years the Forum has provided a mechanism for effective consultation and a market place for information sharing among NGOs as well as other stakeholders on the achievements and challenges faced in the sector. Additionally, this has allowed members to provide input into and participate in national level programmes, and mostly importantly, influence policy and practice in the water supply and sanitation sector.

To support this important work, in 2020, the Forum signed a year-and-a-half partnership agreement with Global Water 2020, a Washington DC-based advocacy initiative working to accelerate progress in the global safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene space. The project facilitated and achieved, among other things, new partnerships with local leadership and other like-minded Civil Society Organisation networks. More importantly the Global Water 2020 project supported the Forums advocacy around increased investment in the WASH sector in Zambia.

Since attaining its independence 57 years ago, Zambia has been on a steady path of development albeit with challenges. The long-term development plan, Vision 2030 aspires for the nation to become a prosperous middle-income country by 2030. Currently with an estimated population of 17,885,423 in 2020, Zambia is a country of young people with around 53.4 per cent of the population under the age of 18. Despite 56.9 percent of the population residing in rural areas, Zambia is relatively more urbanised and among the nations on the continent with a high rate of urbanisation.  Zambia continues to make steady process in increasing access to Water supply and sanitation services. The Vision 2030 which outlines the overall development goals for Zambia, aspires to provide secure access to safe potable water sources and improved sanitation facilities to 100 percent of the population.

According to the Zambia Demographic and Health Survey of 2018, 72 percent of households in Zambia now have access to an improved source of drinking water compared to 63 percent in 2014. However nearly half of the population in rural areas are without access to safe drinking water. While access rates to improved sanitation facilities have increase from 27 percent in 2014 to around 54% in 2018 at national level. While these show some progress, rural areas remain disproportionately disadvantaged as only 37% of that population have access to improved sanitation compared to 20 percent in 2014. The percentage of households where a place for washing hands was observed increased for percent in 2014 to 54 percent in 2018. With the advent of COVID-19, provision of consistent water supply, sanitation and hygiene available to all is critical in preventing the spread of the pandemic and other future waterborne diseases.  

Zambia’s rural and urban areas are now served by Commercial Water Utilities following the expansion of their mandate; this change will now require additional resources. The office of the Auditor General released a Special Report on Commercial Utilities for the financial year ended 31st December 2018. The World Bank Diagnostic Report on Commercial Utilities reported that from 2001-2017, Commercial utilities lost an estimated US$858 million from high levels of non- revenue water and low bill collection efficiency. Most of the losses to the tune of US$554 million occurred from 2011-2017 and was equivalent to about 20 percent of the capital invested in the National Urban Water Supply and Sanitation Program. Additionally, the Commercial utilities are owed large sums in unpaid bills largely by Government institutions and parastatals (a quasi-governmental entity).

Zambia has been in a constricted fiscal space, defaulting on its loans in 2021. The Minister of Finance, during the presentation of the 2021 national budget speech stated that Zambia’s external public debt stock stood at $11.97 billion.  This high debt burden and cost of servicing debt has left little to finance the Government’s developments plans. Further the cost of servicing public debt in Zambia has been rising, as the debt-to-service ratio increases, a result of over borrowing without a sustainable debt service plan. In 2019 for instance, debt servicing accounted for 21 % of the national budget compared to 9 percent for water and sanitation. According to the World Bank, 9 percent pf domestic revenues were needed to meet interest payments in 2013 alone, a ration that rose to 25% in 2017. A study conducted by the NGO WASH Forum and Water Aid Zambia showed that in the last 10 years WASH budgetary allocations had averaged between 0.5 and 3%. Further budget executionary performance has been less than desirable to meet the needs and accelerate access to WASH services. For most of the years, resources allocated in the national budget are not approved fully and therefore, taken out of the approved budget, leaving only a share to be disbursed resulting in low expenditure by the end of the financial year. These layers of funding demonstrate that budgetary allocations do not guarantee that resources will be utilised fully. Additionally, while the World Bank estimated that in order to achieve SDG6, countries in sub-Saharan Africa must spend at least US$25 per head annually from 2015 all the way up to 2030, Zambia on average has spent an average of US$8 per head. 

Over the years the Forum recognised the under-prioritisation of the WASH sector in Zambia. However, in 2020, in view of the prevailing economic situation, the Forum committed to raising the visibility of WASH in Zambia and in other regional and international platforms to put a spotlight on the challenges and opportunities for reform and enhanced service delivery. The advocacy initiative focused on engaging with Government, lawmakers and the general public. The activities included budget advocacy with the Ministry of Finance making calls for improved governance and accountability of the limited national resources, and the government need for critical areas of intervention with the potential to mobilize more resources into the WASH sector in Zambia. These included lobbying for innovative, equitable and sustainable resource mobilization strategies such as the use of a duty, or tax, on mineral water for revenue generation as a means of financing projects targeted at poorer communities. To scale up access in rural areas the Forum advocated for removal of a duty on importation of water equipment such as spare parts on boreholes; strengthening hygiene services especially with COVID-19; and the removal of a duty on production and importation of menstrual sanitary materials. The Forum also proposed the earmarking of a plastic tax for WASH and the environment. The network members were of the view that the Government should ensure that WASH funds were ring-fenced — meaning set aside for a specific need — and not spent on other national priorities as a means of safeguarding resources and ensuring that the sector obligations envisioned are met. The Forum also called for the Government to assist in improving the performance of Commercial Utilities which remain financially unsustainable as the limited fiscal space accentuates the problems of maintaining existing infrastructure and further extension of services.

In 2021, the Forum engaged with the two leading political parties in the run up to the General Election with support from Global Water 2020, with an analysis of the party manifestos which outlined their political development agenda if elected into office. As a network we were delighted to see the newly elected president demonstrate the Government’s willingness to progressively increase investment to the WASH sector.

It is evident that increasing financing alone to the sector will not improve WASH services in Zambia.  There is great need to support the sector with financial sector reforms by strengthening the regulatory environment and the governance structures. In addition to addressing the financial, technical and commercial performance of the service providers, we must include de-risking Commercial Utilities (CUs) thereby making them more attractive to possible “investors”. The country is in a tight fiscus, and central government funding to finance the WASH sector is absolutely necessary with the CUs at the forefront of providing services by enhancing their performance and creating an enabling environment.  Such a strategy would increase access to WASH in Zambia.




3 The World Bank, 2020


5 “Counting every drop, a decade in review the state of WASH Financing 2010 to 2020” NGO WASH Forum and WaterAid Zambia

Bubala Muyovwe-Mumba is the National coordinator of the Zambia NGO WASH Forum, with 10 years in working WASH as a policy and advocacy specialist. She is a Health Psychologist soon to be lawyer, with a passion for the human rights to water and sanitation. Bubala has keen interest in finance for water sanitation and hygiene and how it can be used to address WASH poverty and inequality.