Water management reform in rural areas of Senegal

Published on Pambazuka News, by Moussa Diop, June 7, 2011.

Changes to the water sector in Senegal that have seen a disengagement of the state and the promotion of the private sector have had unforeseen effects, writes Moussa Diop. Increased waste in domestic water consumption is one of the contradictions, while existing social relations also have a significant impact on the water delivery environment.

In the name of macroeconomic adjustment, the Bretton Woods institutions advocated shock therapy: reestablishment of internal and external stability through severe budgetary austerity, privatisation of public companies, price deregulation, currency devaluation, abandoning large infrastructure projects and policies of import substitution. All these measures combined with a dose of moralism: good governance. 

These measures for countries in crisis summarise what is conventionally referred to as the ‘Washington Consensus’ agreed to by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and later the World Trade Organisation (WTO). These international financial institutions (IFIs) would provide loans to numerous African countries in order to finance infrastructure projects on the condition that they redirect their economic policies according to these guidelines.

In Senegal, 57.1 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2001/2002, with enormous disparities between the urban centres and rural areas. In rural areas, 65.2 per cent of individuals and 57.5 per cent of households lived below the poverty line. Households who do not have access to drinking water must drink from unsafe sources; exposing themselves to water-borne illnesses (malaria, bilharzias, dysentery, diarrhea, etc) which are the primary cause of infant mortality. In 2003, one in three Senegalese did not have access to drinking water and one in two didn’t have access to an adequate sanitation system.

Through its action plan, Senegal has put particular emphasis on resource management to reach its Millennium Development Goals. Beginning in the 1980s, the state began a slow and irreversible process of disengagement in favour of multiple actors. In the area of water this process began in 1999 with the Reform in the Management of Motorised Water Pumps (REGEFOR) in rural areas which led to the overhaul of the organisation of users, the attempt to make operations technically and economically viable, the promotion of the private sector and the realignment of public services. This management model relies on a contractual agreement[1] between the different stakeholders and on the principle that the population has to contribute to and be responsible for the management and financing of the system.

Water pricing is meant to ensure the sustainability of the service through recovery of the operation, maintenance and equipment replacement costs.



In order to avoid an effect on social institutions, the operational and management functions are separated for the highest level of visibility and transparency. The management committees that assumed both these functions have been replaced on the one hand by associations of borehole users (ASUFOR), in charge of operational functions, and on the other hand by a manager recruited in the village, who is trained to manage the borehole. For a salary, this manager is responsible for selling water and collecting payments from users on account of ASUFOR. The originators of the reforms wrongly believed that it was enough to separate these two functions and establish explicit rules. Yet, in rural areas, even those in transition, these managers are bound by the logic of existing social rules. They define themselves by their affiliations, they seek to maintain them or reinforce them within the society in question, which they see as a system of socialisation, not a market. Therefore, they are often confronted with the same difficulties as the collection management committees for flat-fee users after the first reforms of 1984. In the village of Ndiass, just for the operating period of 15/12/2005 to 16/01/2006, the amount past due rose to 419,100 FCFA, for total cash revenues of 744, 200 FCFA.

Even if the budget project had set a price (170 FCFA/ m3) under which water could not be sold, the fact remains that water is indeed sold at a loss (150 FCFA/ m3) to farmers, herders, schools, health centers and mosques. To make up for this deficit and upon noticing that users consume more water when there is a public fountain at their disposal, the association’s policy has been to increase the number of private fountains by subsidising metres. As a result, the number of defaults has increased amongst users, as illustrated above. The group least likely to pay their water bills are users with private water connections, with past due payments totaling 195,200 FCFA. This raises the whole issue of nonpaying users, an issue not considered when the reforms were designed, on a backdrop of persistent tension between managers and users when water services are cut.

In rural areas of Senegal where poverty rates vary between 72 per cent and 88 per cent, with 57.9 per cent living below the poverty line, even if the price of water is ‘affordable’, certain users find it increasingly difficult to pay their water bills on time. This most often results in accumulated back payments, leading users to explain their problems to managers, who cannot remain indifferent as trust is built through social interactions.

Faced with nonpayment from certain groups of users, the established managerial norms would require the manager to cut the water service; however, managers prefer to work out a compromise, which in turn threatens the financial viability of the system. Therefore, managers prefer to either accept payments in installments or use their own salaries, either through a cash advance or even going into debt to cover the deficit while waiting to collect the unpaid water bills. This is because in these villages the individual is a part of multiple networks, each with its requisite solidarity and corresponding pressures. The managers belong to the same social landscape, with its particular logic, as the consumers. To completely ignore this logic and to strictly apply the required sanctions in cases of nonpayment is to renounce solidarity with the group to which one belongs. In other words, if a manager breaks the social contract which links him to the other inhabitants of the village, he would be showing his ingratitude to the group, thus choosing the path of social exile by risking a rupture in the social network.

In addition, maintaining these networks is the most secure way of protecting oneself against the uncertainty and vicissitudes of rural life in Senegal. In these villages, creating ties is to give in to the group solidarity because the primary function of these ties is to organise this solidarity. It is participation in these different social networks that results in practice in the very functioning of these societies. Thus, multiple forms of authority are at work in the daily management of water service in rural areas. Faced with the changes introduced from improving the efficiency of the water service and social issues in general, administrators have forced change to the traditional systems alongside the new system without neutralising either.

Water management, as it is currently practiced, reveals the existence of several norms of legitimate practices, which follow either explicit or implicit rules. At least three types of rules co-exist in the management of water service: traditional rules, official rules founded on the rational-legal model, and the pragmatic rules resulting in the confrontation of the first two. In lieu of a sustainable regulation, these are situations of fusion and confusion, discrepancy and competition amongst norms creating a situation of anarchy in water management.


Reforms have further transformed the Senegalese administration into a ‘client-oriented’ administration. Contracts have complicated management by demanding that consumers master the terms of legal recognition, licensing regulations, management contract models, water management contracts and management tools when only one in four Senegalese living in rural areas is literate. Users associations often find themselves isolated and alone at the hands of powerful representatives who impose conditions on users without providing any guarantees of the long-term viability of the service. For example, the strategic guidelines for transferring maintenance to the private sector has been made potentially profitable by guaranteeing private companies a minimum number of maintenance contracts as well as exclusive operation rights in the reform test zones (the Thiès, Diourbel, Kaolack and Fatick regions) for the first valid period of the agreement (five years). An explicit condition for the users associations who want to see their infrastructure restored is to sign a maintenance contract with a private company (EQUIP PLUS), which has been a partner of the state since the very beginnings of the reform. In 2004, 66 ASUFORs had signed maintenance contracts with EQUIP PLUS; however, the maintenance operators are experiencing difficulties due to the fact that they do not have enough contracts to make their operations profitable after having made such large investments. The risk in the medium term is that these companies will back out of the reforms at the end of the contract if they do not reach their objectives; with the associations left in charge of the highly technical maintenance since the state is no longer present.

The standardisation of management has resulted in a great variation of water prices. Depending on the locality, the price can double, presumably to ensure the viability of the water system. This raises the complex issue of the social aspects of access to water. Even if price supports are not precluded, the viability of these reforms requires the establishment of a system of cross-subsidy. The extent of the phenomenon of unpaid water bills results in the precariousness of living conditions for certain segments of the rural population following the social failure of the Senegalese state. Not taking into account customers that cannot afford to pay for the service during the development phase of water reforms raises the problem of solidarity in the context of commercialised public services. If the principle of commercial access to water and consumption-based pricing went along, in the present-day version of the public water service, with a vision of the ‘client’ understood in the strictest sense as a ‘paying customer’, the socio-economic evolution which marks our century creates new groups of consumers which no longer fit this paradigm. How then to integrate this new category of consumer into the management of public water service without giving up the undifferentiated and established model of the ‘client’? (full long text).

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