Water tankers and bicycles: a lifeline in South Sudan

Mariana Matoso, PhD Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Around 80% of Juba’s population relies on tankers and bicycle vendors for water. But as prices have soared, amid ongoing conflict and instability, water has become unaffordable. Oxfam has set up two initiatives working within the existing market to ensure the poorest can access clean water, as Mariana Matoso explains.

Drinking water is a premium commodity in Juba. Since the latest conflict broke out in July 2016, the cost of a 250 litre drum of drinking water has more than doubled. Households now spend nearly 30% of their income on water, six times more than the internationally recognized “burden-threshold” benchmark of 5%.  Some households have been forced to halve their daily purchase of treated water. Many have decreased the volume water they use to 5 litres per person per day. The World Health Organization states that a minimum of 20 litres is needed for basic needs.

Most worryingly, the proportion of people relying on the River Nile as their main source of drinking water has increased dramatically since September 2016, with half of Juba’s households now fetching untreated water from the river. Due to the cost of fuel treating water has become very expensive, and the cost of home water treatment products has also increased tenfold. 

the proportion of people relying on the River Nile as their main source of drinking water has increased dramatically

In a city where cholera outbreaks are an annual recurrence not having access to drinking water can rapidly become a matter of life and death. Coping mechanisms vary, but they all compromise the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable households to survive, bounce back and recover from conflict or a health-related crisis.

Communities are eager for resolutions that address chronic issues such as dilapidated infrastructure, lack of investment and fair pricing. Ongoing safe access to potable water in this context represents a step towards thriving and developing a sense of normality. The water market can also be a source of income. To advance this process, Oxfam is working alongside community organizations, water tankers and bicycle vendors to ensure that water quality, affordability and accessibility are within reach of Juba’s poorest households. We are supporting supply chains to improve distribution of water during times of non-crisis and crisis in a number of ways:

Firstly, we have built a solar powered water treatment plant in one of the poorest areas of Juba (Gumbo). This is helping to reduce dependency on fuel – one of the main reasons for the increases in the price of water. In the long-term, this will lead to substantial savings. The treatment plant will be handed over to the community at ‘zero-cost’ and we are working closely with the Water Users Committee to set up a community-based social enterprise to run it. The approach has the potential to improve the livelihoods of the community, by building their capacity to withstand crisis and decreasing their reliance on external organizations.

Secondly, Oxfam is launching a pilot ‘WASH Market Engagement Scheme’ that forms part of a citywide response to the crisis. Under this scheme, water sellers can apply for small grants to improve their operations on a daily basis and/or enable them to remain operational during a crisis.

Both the solar technology and the managerial model are innovations in South Sudan and working through markets in this way is a relatively new concept within the context of emergency relief and countries experiencing protracted crisis.

Although we are still in the initial stages, we hope these initiatives will help us to learn more about how to support markets and help people to access water in protracted emergency situations. By engaging directly with markets in the context of ample legal voids, we are also beginning to address more contentious issues around water quality compliance, price regulation and accountability.

These activities are part of Oxfam’s Global Humanitarian Team two-year program funded by USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance aimed at increasing disaster resilience and effectiveness of WASH related emergency responses through market-based programming.


Anna Kondakhchyan