Assessing Institutional Capacity Among Town Water Utilities in Ethiopia
Maya Gainer

As climate change, shifts in population, and other global factors contribute to unpredictable and uneven access to safe drinking water, it is becoming more important than ever to have frameworks in place that manage water supply in vulnerable geographies. The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal 6.1 calls for "universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all," but equity cannot be achieved if local utilities lack the adequate capacities to deliver these essential services. Truly sustainable water supply can only be realised when there are strong systems in place, guiding water operations at the national, regional, and local level.

Athena Infonomics and Jarco Consulting have been contracted by UNICEF Ethiopia to implement a project entitled "Diagnostic Assessment of Ten Town Water Utilities' Systems and Capacity in Six Climate Resilient (CR-WaSH) Programme Regions of Ethiopia." The project will develop a framework to assess the institutional capacity of town water utilities (TWUs) in Ethiopia, adapting existing utility assessment frameworks to the particular challenges of service delivery in Ethiopia's small towns and the data limitations of small-town water utilities.

We will carry out this assessment in ten TWUs across several regions of Ethiopia, including the Somali, Oromia, Amhara, and Afar regions, as well as the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region (SNNPR). As part of this assessment, we will work closely with utility staff and other stakeholders, including communities, local and regional governments, water boards, and development partners to ensure that our findings respond to felt needs. We expect that the extensive involvement of TWUs and other local stakeholders as co-producers of knowledge will result in greater transparency regarding the utilities' challenges and increased commitment to designing and implementing meaningful action plans. Based on our assessment, we will develop detailed action plans for each TWU to strengthen its capacity. Furthermore, Athena Infonomics is developing a user-friendly dashboard through which the TWUs, the Government of Ethiopia, and UNICEF will monitor progress and gain insights into how TWUs are performing, specific areas for improvement, and comparisons across utilities.

This project will provide critical evidence around the performance and challenges of TWUs. Though TWUs are responsible for professional management of piped water schemes, comparable to large urban utilities, the scale of service delivery, the financial and human resources of the utility, and the systems in place tend to be much more limited. To simply treat TWUs as scaled-down versions of large utilities is to ignore the contextual factors that make delivering sustainable, high-quality services particularly challenging in small towns.

Our assessment will provide a framework for systematically analyzing institutional performance in a small-town context, and will hopefully produce valuable learning on needs and opportunities for capacity development that can be applied more widely to strengthen water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) service delivery in Ethiopia.