Tell us about yourself
My name is Robert Gakubia, I’m a civil Engineer specialised in water. I’m a graduate of the University of Nairobi. I’m a professional Engineer registered by the Engineers Board of Kenya. I have been working in the water sector for the last 35 years.
In the course of your development to the level you are at now, what challenges have you encountered?
As a Civil Engineer, our job faces several challenges. Our profession is based in the public sector; as a result, when the public sector is dysfunctional we suffer. Look for example at the water sector, when there is little investment in the sector there is very little engineers can do. Sometimes those problems are much larger.
Talking about young engineers, in the water sector do you also experience the skills deficit from graduates that other industries complain about in this country.
Yes, I have been involved in the recruiting of young engineers and I notice the level of skill deficit in the new recruits during such exercises. There is a fundamental skill deficit from some graduates and I think the Engineers Board of Kenya is trying to address this through quality assurance. I am lucky having gone through a well-structured and balanced Civil Engineering programme at the University of Nairobi. Besides graduates, based on feedback from operators, I also think we are suffering from a lack of artisans. That is why we are challenging the Kenya Water Institute to really focus on that mandate of training such people because that is what the sector lacks.
Would you take up teaching at the university if you had the chance, considering there is a deficit of experienced engineers as tutors?
No. I can talk to students on practical things but not teaching them as a lecturer, I have never liked teaching. That does not mean I cannot talk to students. The fundamental principles in engineering never change.
How about continuous professional development, does it help in the course of one’s career as an engineer?
Yes it does, personally I have taken several courses to develop my skill since graduation and even went for Masters. There are some companies that help young engineers with this, having established internal structured programmes. However, professional development remains the responsibility of the engineer. I have seen many engineers identify their skill gaps and then taking a conscious decision to improve themselves.
Tell us about the new Water act and its implications in the Water sector
For starters it’s not new at all. The act you refer to came about as an attempt to comply or to align the industry with the Kenya Constitution of 2010. The real change in the water industry came with the act of 2002 when the water sector was restructured guided by a number of principles most of them globally accepted. So the water act 2016 was intended to deepen what was set in motion by the water act of 2002 and align the sector to the 2010 constitution.
The water act of 2002 restructured the governance of water resources by mainly separating the roles of service provision and regulation. It also separated water resources from water services. It also brought in the need for cost recovery to enhance sustainability of water services. It brought in the aspect of the right to water. The water act 2016 deepened this because the new constitution, in article 10, quantified those principles.
Historically, we tended to forget water resources or the challenges of water services tended to overwhelm water resources yet water resources is basically the foundation. So for us to really address or focus solutions on water resources it was thought necessary to separate the two. If you look at it critically, water resources is essentially a political function and is very difficult to go hand in hand with the critical immediate need of water services.
In view of the above could you briefly discuss the Mandate of WASREB.
Basically the mandate of WASREB is regulation. And like all regulators our biggest role is consumer protection. Consumer protection aspects of our mandate are set out as guided by article 46 of the constitution. You make sure consumers are protected such that they receive good quality services.
Tell us about your strategic plan 2013-2017 at WASREB and how well it was implemented.
I think it went on very well. Like all public institutions we all have a common vision 2030 and we are implementing it through what we call medium term plans. So the strategic plan 2013-2017 was in line with medium term plan 2 and we had five strategic objectives in the plan.
Before we came up with them, we had to analyse the scenario and discover what the issues were that if addressed the sector would go forward. For example, we had to ask, what are the government policy objectives? The government wants to increase rural and urban access to clean water and to reduce non-revenue water. The issues we then identified include, governance, sustainability of service provision, regulatory of water services and stakeholder participation. Using these, we came up with the following strategic objectives in the plan; to enforce the legal and regulatory framework governing the provision of water services; to ensure efficiency and viability in the provision of water services; to monitor sector progress in realizing universal access; to strengthen WASREB’s institutional capacity; to promote stakeholder participation in the delivery of water services.
So when you look at our efforts to ensure that water services were better organized, we were implementing a governance motto to separate governance from utility operations and we actually succeeded to a large extend to ensure that we have autonomous water service operations by having a situation where the government continues to own yes but doesn’t manage, it only provides oversight. That is how water service providers were created. Until 2013, they were owned by government through water service boards. We still have issues in a few counties but I know its just a matter of time before all this is fixed.
How wide is the work you are engaged in, in order to achieve the desired universal clean water coverage?
The job we are engaged in is huge and wide; we have to make sure that people follow the right standards. We have to enforce the design standards and correct management practices in the water sector. This job is moreover complicated further by the ongoing conversations between the National and the County government on the issues of jurisdiction. The primary responsibility to provide clean water is with the National government; however, the infrastructure must be set up in the counties.
In terms of water access itself our assessment for this year is that we have achieved 57% water access up from 55% last year. This figures are in the regulated sector which covers approximately 22 million people, just about half of Kenya’s population. The challenge has been getting data mainly from the rural areas. That is why we are soon coming up with Rural water service delivery models based on our reality. We have already had workshops with counties to agree how we are going to better organize rural water. Essentially all urban areas in this country have a water service provider before looking at performance. So you already have a management arrangement as a foundation for growth. Once we setup the models for rural areas we will also be better placed to collect data and have a better picture in terms of water access for the country.
How do we ensure everyone gets clean water? Or at least a bigger improvement from 57 to the regions of 90%
I think we have to start with efficiency, how efficiently are we utilizing the resources, financial or otherwise, that we already have at our disposal. We have situations now where we are talking of multibillion projects but even when it is done, 3-4 years down the line the water has yet to reach the consumer. We need to find a way that whatever infrastructure we have is focused on the fastest way for water to reach the consumer. We also have to make sure that we have management capabilities for whatever infrastructure we put in place because we seem to be having a challenge in this area. We have to remember that the fast phase of the project, which is implementation, is very short. The longest phase of a project is the operational phase so we have to put more focus into this phase. The other aspect of course is money but money has to come into an environment that attracts it hence my focus on operations. We have a gap in terms of the required money to provide universal water access but public finance then comes in. We have to fund priorities. As a sector we also have to reduce overreliance on government to fund us. Could there be things we can do to attract commercial partners and private investors. This requires an organized sector and that is what the regulator focuses on, to have an organized sector with good stake holder relationships.
Many boards and regulators in Kenya experience challenges with enforcing the regulations and standards they have set in place. Do you experience similar challenges?
Enforcement is a big challenge. We now have a devolved system of government, when enforcing we encounter people who think that this should be the mandate of the county governments. The enforcement is further complicated by issues of capacity. The water boards and companies must make a conscious effort to build the capacity required. The water boards must also be constituted properly.
Comment on the state of the sewerage and sanitation services in the country.
Very poor! Which is really unfortunate. It is really sad that in this day and era we still have sanitation problems to address when others are thinking of relocating to the moon. We have a big problem in that, we have very low access to sewerage system, and it is a major issue. In our last report, the access was at 16 percent, which is very low. We can take consolation that the world average is at 25% but we are still below average. Matter of fact we are considering the introduction of a sewerage levy.
We are a fast urbanising population and a proper sewerage system is needed. But the surest way to fix our sanitation problem is through public finance. But it doesn’t mean that the sanitation issue will be solved by sewerage, not in the short and medium term and even in the long term. So we have to seriously think about onsite sanitation with responsible sludge management because that is really what messes our sanitation.
How do you review the performance of the utilities under your jurisdiction?
I have a lot of hope, the situation is improving but most utilities are not performing well and for that reason they can’t recover cost which is brought about by many factors like dilapidated infrastructure. The sector suffered from long periods of neglect while all this time the population and the demand was growing.
The boards have targets and performance indicators that we review. There are nine key performance indicators that we consider including; water coverage, drinking water quality, hours of supply, non-revenue water, metering ratio, staff productivity, revenue collection efficiency, operation and maintenance cost coverage and personnel expenditure as a percentage of the operation and maintenance cost.
What roles do engineers play in your organization?
In order for people to get water as a service, there is infrastructure that has to be put in place and it is engineers who are in charge of putting up this infrastructure with considerations of the right standards both in terms of planning, design, implementing and operation. We have two engineers and just added a third one, the technical department is the core department in our organisation.
We deal with quality standards and employ technicians to carry out the inspection of installations. We have engineers working in projects among other professionals like economists and accountants.
What opportunities exist for Engineers in the water sector?
There is a big opportunity for engineers in the sector but engineers who are ready to change their mind-sets because technology is advancing. We have to stay up with advancements like smart water utilities. We are discussing data as the next big thing so even as brick and motor remains important we have to advance with technology. There is also the equity aspect of service provision such that as an engineer you have to design for everyone. So opportunities are there for people who are willing and ready to embrace changes that are happening around them.