THE DRINKING TRUCKS: In a city that borders River Nile, Covid-19 curbs access to clean water for South Sudanese (Photo Story)

By Diing Magot

Juba city relies on water trucks that deliver water extracted from River Nile, which have increased their prices during the pandemic

Residents in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, find it difficult to access clean water. Many households rely on water trucks to transport and sell it to them. The water is collected with a generator, directly from the Nile River or at water points across the city. Water trucks are specialized vehicles designed to transport and distribute water.

The White Nile in Juba. Water trucks fetch water from the river here.

Most water trucks are equipped with tanks that can carry between 2,000 and 4,000 gallons. However, in Juba, there are some water truck tanks designed to hold as much as 10,000 gallons or even 70,000 in the case of some off-road models available on the market.

In almost every corner of the city, as residents go about their daily lives, blue water trucks inscribed with the words “CLEAN WATER”, pass by. They are either going to the river to collect water, various water collection points in Juba, or to a household, private residence, hotel, hospital, government building, school, or private institution. 

Water trucks line up at the river in Kator, Hai Cassava, Juba.

In 2016, the Mail and Guardian referencing Oxfam reported that there were about 300 registered trucks supplying water in Juba. The current number is unknown. Bicycles and donkey carts also carry water in the city.

Due to instability and lack of investment in the water sector, water access is still a major challenge in Juba, leaving hundreds of households from all socioeconomic backgrounds to depend on the trucks to bring water to them. A few households have taps, a few others community boreholes and others collect water directly from the river. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of households have found it difficult to access water due to fuel price increases, which has also led to the increase of water charges by water truck companies.

Precious Phillips and Celestina Phillip pose with jerry cans at the entrance of their neighbour’s house on June 4th, 2021 in Jebel Yeshua.

A large drum of water costs between 500-1000 South Sudanese pounds (USD $1.13-2.27), and a jerry can cost 100 pounds ($0.77). Before the pandemic, it used to be cheaper, about 300-350 pounds per drum. The price of water depends on the distance and the tank used.

The South Sudan Urban Water Corporation sells water to the trucks at 40 pounds per drum at two filling stations along the Nile, but the extra cost is incurred through transporting the water long distances, according to Yar Kuol, Managing Director of the Urban Water Corporation.

: After the truck is filled with water, it is distributed to households across Juba. A family that is in the outskirts of Juba in Jebel Yeshua watches as water is being poured in a bucket.

Rhoda Daniel, a resident from the Jebel Yeshua neighborhood on the outskirts of Juba, says that she stores her water in a blue container which lasts up to three days. The water is used for drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing clothes. When it gets low, she usually calls the water truck driver to bring her water, or sometimes her child and other neighborhood children run after water trucks when they are close by. She says that she can go for days without water, and sometimes when she cannot afford it, she shares water with her neighbor and this reduces cost.

Rhoda Daniel pours water into a jerry can.

“Sometimes we can get two days, three days, the water cannot reach here; those people they are complaining [of] the problem of fuel and this place is very far; this is what they normally used to tell us,” notes Rhoda, further revealing that “before Corona, the water was 400 SSPS; now some are selling it at 1000, 900, 800. These prices are so hard for us to get water because, for some of us, we cannot get that 1000 [and] earning it is very difficult for me.”

Precious Phillip, Celestina Phillip, and Lucy Cirilo, children from the neighboring house, wash hands with the collected water in Jebel Yeshua.

Samson Taban, a water truck driver working for a private company, says he makes about five trips a day delivering water. 

He says customers do not believe that the prices have increased. 

“In trips, we always charge sometimes 5,000 in a trip, but always the challenge we get is that when you tell somebody that the money is raised up because of fuel, this person cannot listen to you; they can tell you ‘you’re joking – you are doing this.’”

A water truck driver sells water to Quality Plaza, a building with mGurush, and a clothing store in the center of Juba town.

On 19th June 2021, a water truck lost control and ran over a boda-boda (motorbike) rider at Mobile Roundabout in Juba town, leaving a famous South Sudanese musician, 27-year-old Trisha Cosmas dead, after she was rushed to the nearby hospital.

Taban says the accident has made community members hostile and suspicious towards water truck drivers. He also says that boda boda (motorbike) riders can sometimes be on the wrong, but people always see the water trucks badly. There have been several other minor and major accidents involving water trucks in Juba.

Ethiopians or Eritreans are the majority of the truck drivers, and Taban says he faces discrimination. When he is transporting water, he says he has to put on a mask – otherwise he will be chased away. 

Sometimes we get some challenges; they look at you like this; you are Habesh, they call you Habesh, and you are South Sudanese. That is the challenge we find with them and they even quarrel with you, ‘don’t pour water in my house; don’t do this.’”

Aisha Amanda collects water at the water collection point in Kator, Hai Cassava, Juba. 

Solomon Tardese, the manager of water truck company Desam in Kator Hai Kasava water point, says that he used to make a lot of money before Covid-19, but now he has lost more than three-quarters of his water trucks, which supply water to almost every residential area in Juba.

He says, “After Corona, business is not good. Those days we had 300 cars; today, 70, 80, or 90 cars in a day. I used to get 700 thousand but now 200, 150, 130, after Corona.”

Tardesa says that when people do not buy water, the company sends its trucks to wash buses and even motorbikes, and sometimes the workers go to construction sites to work and provide water.

A water truck driver fills up his tank while a boy queueing at the water point waits for his turn at the water collection point in Juba in May 2021.

Deng Koul, a security officer at the water truck company Desam at Kator Hai Kasava, says that Covid-19 has affected their water business due to the two lockdowns that stopped movement and affected businesses. Now, restrictions have been lifted in South Sudan.

Dr. Andrew Lexon Athibe, an assistant professor in the University of Juba, Department of Environmental Studies, School of Natural Resources, says that people are living in dire situations and that they are not able to afford water.

He notes, “In places like Lemon Gabba, one barrel of water is 1,000, and in some parts of Gudele it is 700 [referring to two nearby communities on the outskirts of Juba]. This is putting more pressure on communities; some people are living in desperate conditions. They don’t work; they don’t generate income, so this means they are in trouble.”

Dr. Athibe says the water policies have not been implemented and are not effective. 

“Water is supposed to be free, to people, to the community but you know the main issue we are facing is our water laws are still under discussion; it has not been passed; as a result there is nothing to control the water system,” he says. 

He laments that water fetched from the river into water tanks is not always treated. When water is not clean, it can lead to waterborne diseases.

Anthony Badist climbs on a water truck at the collection point in June 2021 in Kator, Hai Cassava, Juba.

Emmanuel Ladu Parmenas, the undersecretary at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, says that the capacity of the water treatment plant installed in Juba is currently below the total volume of water required for the people living in the city.

However, the water collected directly from the Nile is at least disinfected using chlorine in the tanks before it leaves the source, he says. 

There are five working water treatment plants and formal distribution networks in the country, but these cover only about 1.9 percent of the population, according to the South Sudan Urban Water Corporation Corporate Plan 2018-2021. In Juba, formal connections cover only 0.3% of the city’s estimated population as of July 2018, with most people accessing water from wells, boreholes, and informal distributors like the trucks.

While the two official government tanker filling stations treat their water, there are another 8 private businesses managing tanker filling stations along the river, where the Urban Water Corporation has not tested the quality, said Managing Director Kuol.

Out of 118 water samples taken at various water points and public institutions in Juba in 2019, 74 percent were poor, very poor, or unsuitable for consumption, according to data from the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources. Only 26 percent were in good or excellent condition.

War, delays in policy development impede the regulation of water supply 

Rhoda Daniel stores water that will last her for three days.

The government’s 2007 water policy, passed two years after the government signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, identified key principles and objectives of the national, urban, and rural water policy but called for the development of much more detailed strategies for “institutional, administrative, technical and financial arrangements for policy implementation,” including setting up management structures.

Regulations and strategies were later passed for 14 water and sanitation facilities, but when the country went into war, aid agencies constructed water supply projects without any involvement of the government, Ladu Parmenas says. This included more than 19 water harvesting infrastructures developed between 2013 and 2021 that are no longer functional – some of them having caused the deaths of children and livestock.

Out of 12,497 total water points in South Sudan, at least 1,520 water points are non-functional . This includes 1,232 boreholes, according to 2019 data from the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources. Central Equatoria state, which hosts Juba city, contains the highest percentage of non-functioning water sources in the country: at least 24.1 percent.

Despite the country’s substantial natural water resources, water is distributed unevenly throughout the country and varies widely due to major droughts and floods, the 2007 policy states. Water demand is expected to increase due to population growth, while human activities are already causing “increased pollution, reduced river flows, lowering of the water table in urban areas and contamination of both surface and ground waters.”

Seba Martin drinks water directly from the water truck, while Evana Paul comes near the water container in Jebel Yeshua.

Public funding to the water sector was deeply cut in 2012 when the country shut down its oil production. The government could no longer fund programs designed to control floods and mitigate drought. However, the government has recently approved nearly USD $30 million to manage and control flooding and water supply in the country, Ladu Parmenas says. He says this is proof that there is no financing gap in the ministry, but funds will be available when an institution “has the right plans to improve its service delivery.”

Ladu Parmenas also says that the implementation of the various policies has not been adequately taken on by the municipalities. Overseeing the tanker trucks and developing specific laws to regulate them is also the responsibility of the local government, he says. 

One of the water trucks fetching water from River Nile in Juba.

According to Yar Kuol of the Urban Water Corporation, the city council regulates the prices of water sold by water trucks.

Following the WASH strategic framework adopted in 2013, a proposed Water Bill was developed, but it was recently recalled under a directive of President Salva Kiir to make technical changes with the support of the U.S.-based Centre for Water Security and Coordination. The proposed Water Bill would lay out management tiers in the urban water supply.

Efforts to increase clean water

The White Nile River in Juba, the main water source for many of the city residents.

The Japanese International Cooperation Agency recently announced it will soon resume the construction of a clean water supply project in Juba that was disrupted by war. According to JICA, the water project is aimed at providing clean water to more than 25,000 people in Juba by 2025.

The project is expanding the urban water treatment plant from 7.2 cubic meters per day to 18,000 cubic meters per day, according to Ladu Parmenas. It is about 65 percent completed, Kuol said.

The next phases include installing household pipe networks and expanding the capacity of the water treatment plant, but these depend on the sourcing of enough funds. 

The government is also planning to construct a number of water kiosks including water tanker filling stations with an aim to diversify the water sources for city residents, Ladu Parmenas says. According to Kuol, this will also reduce the cost of water from the trucks by reducing their transport costs.

South Sudan is currently negotiating with Egypt to help construct a small water distribution system, which will reduce the costs of transporting water long distances by trucks. The two governments are also in negotiations to install a water treatment plant, but the ministry is waiting on the Minister of Physical Infrastructure, Land and Housing in Equatoria State to allocate land so that the company can design the plant, Ladu Parmenas says.

Rhoda Daniel carries water to store it inside the house on the outskirts of Jebel Yeshua.

This #EverydayNile story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development. Editing, data analysis, and visualizations by Annika McGinnis.