Somaliland: Citizens Acces Mobile Phones but not Clean Water

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Nobody is left behind in the mobile phone craze of somaliland

Somalilandsun-Recently released survey indicates 93% of Africans have access to mobile phones, but 63% have access to piped water. The survey covered 35 African countries excluding Somalia. But Somalishave higher rates of mobile access in comparison with some of the African countries. Somalia is ahead of the curve in terms of the telecom connection in comparison with the region. Telecom service providersare easily accessible and most importantly, rates are by far cheaper. 

A recent Knowledge, Attitude & Practice (KAP) survey commissioned by UNICEF released on August 2015 indicates that Somalia is off-track in achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for Water, Hygiene and Sanitation (WASH), a challenge facing Somaliland as well.  

This piece will shed some light on this development by comparing two services, which are different in nature. The services are: access to mobile phones and access to clean water. Evidently, access to mobile phones is much higher compared to basic water services.

According to Pew Global, access to mobile phones is widely appreciatedin places such as, South Africa & Nigeria.  It is arguable to note that the phone usage/ownership in S. Africa and Nigeria is comparable to that of the United States of America.

However, Sub-Saharan mobile accessibility is not quite true for rural areas. Rural residents in Ethiopia & Uganda may not have access to mobile phones. But a growing number of rural residents in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to modern telecommunication devices. Signal reception is improvingwhere the roads are even unpaved.

UNICEF & WHO Joint Monitoring Programme in 2015 indicatesthat only 16% of people in Africa have household water connections. Both Somalia and Somaliland have missed the target opportunity of meeting the Millennium Development Goals of 2015 for water and sanitation. According to the latest KAP survey commissioned by UNICEF and WHO, 2012 figures indicatethat only 29% of Somalia’s population has access to improved source of water and 23% has access to sanitation facilities.

Could the answer be found in the public versus private argument?  Possibly yes! Mobile communication networks are always managed by private companies who are profit – seeking,while rural water supply is managed by web of networks, such as, public and/or private utilities, local governments, small scale private contractors and operators, aid agencies, communities,service users & sometimes associationsRecently, in Somaliland, Water User Associations (WUAs) have been established in 4 towns under European Union water project namely: Burao, Borama, Wajaale and Erigavo to safeguard the water aspect in their respective towns.

Due to pastoral community needs and competition for water and pasturesometimes access to water in Somaliland can be a sourceof conflicts. For example, in the Kalshaalearea,it has been reported in the past that there was some bloodshed in early 2011 stemming from attempts by overstretched pastoralists in gaining access to water for livestock and human consumption.Currently, there is on-going conflict in the Eil-Afweyn area due to water accessibility. Unfortunately, both conflicts have resulted in the death of some pastoral community members.

Water versus air 

One can argue that the physical difference between the two (water & air) can be attributed to the following  fact: one cubic meter of water weights one ton; while one cubic meter of mobile air time weighs zero. Definitely, it is easier to deliver something that weighs nothing to people than something that weights a ton. Hydro geologically speaking, water is not available where it is often needed, therefore; water must be transported. Water transportation & distribution requires heavy duty pumps, energy, gravity, pipes, storage, and treatment. Above all, water needs sound utility management. Currently, Hargeisa Water Agency (HWA) is facing such challenge of delivering water to urban areas let alone in rural areas which, roughly 25% of Hargeisa residents are connected to dried up pipes.

4G++ versus pipes

Rural and urban dwellers of Somaliland have ease of access to mobile phones and networksAnyone who is close to a network sub station can access the signal reception as far as 32kmradius. Microwave technology is very expensive, but much cheaper than fiber optics and laying ground pipes.For instance, the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) has contracted out 18KM pipe lying civil work in the vicinity of Wajaale. I assure you it is not an easy process. MoWR has to deal with land dispute issues, etc.

Central versus De-centralization

Telecom companies can manage their businesses at central locations, while water management needs to be de-centralized at district levels. MoWR through the decentralization process, has strengthened the regional and district offices throughout the country. The telecom business can be maintained & configured remotely. My experience at Bellshouth Telecom in Atlanta, GA, is case in point. I used to manage and configure trunk lines remotely.

Market versus community ownership

The telecom giants in Somaliland are Telesom, Somtel and Nation Link. These providers build their networks with the intent of seeking profit. They monopolize the customer base and do not tend to lose the market share. It is very difficult to duplicate their infrastructure and capital. On the other hand, water users can create their own makeshift water points, such as, hand dugwells or collect unclean water from springs, lakes and rivers. These waters are free of charge and can be found within 30 minutes of walk in some areas, but the majority of pastoral communities fetch water 3-5 hours per day.

Lucrative investment opportunities

Mobile usage is relatively new business phenomenon, allowing for booming investment opportunities. Capital investors are willing to invest in the telecom business as the rate of return is very promising. On the contrary, remote area water supply is very difficult to manage, thus the rate of return is unattractive for the investors.

New technologies, such as, mobile banking through ZAAD and E-Dahab can enhance the hard to reach areas and further attract potential customers. Somtel, which is a subsidiary of Dahabshil Group, is at the forefront in developing & researching new tech tools in facilitating online and mobile banking technologies for development purposes. Somtel is connecting the fragile breakaway republic to the global community in the telecommunication sector by providing affordable rates and fast Internet Service Provider (ISP).  

According to World Bank’s Financial Global Inclusion Data Base (Findex), it is stated that Somalia is one of the most progressive countries that utilize mobile money transfers and 26% of the population reported using mobile money transfer to pay their bills which is the highest rate in the world. With population of 3.5 million, Telesom has reported 1 million mobile connections in the fiscal year 2013.

Bear in mind that, it has been recently permitted the Cubans who live 90Miles from the state of Florida the access of modern telecommunication, due to Obama administration lifting sanctions from the Cuban government.

Finally, the water sector is comprised of Governments: local, regional and central, donors, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs), private and public sector utilities that all have competing mandates and interests.Thewater sector in Somaliland has a lot to learn from the telecom sector. Urban and rural water supply & service in Somaliland needs to be over hauled to catch up with the current demand driven by the consumers. Mobile service providers are listening to their customers and are constantly updating their infrastructure and the level of service. Water providers both public and private need to adopt the same principals and approaches.

Feisal HashiFaisal Hashi, MBAis an independent consultant who writes onissues aboutdevelopment, Water, Hygiene & Sanitation (WASH) and is the founder and managing director of Adam Financial Consulting Services and is currently based in Hargeisa, Somaliland. He has worked for National City Bank, Bank One, J.P, Morgan Chase & City of Toronto as financial analyst in the US & Canada.

Hargeisa, Somaliland

He can be reached at: Hashi44@hotmail.com

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