10 March 2019

Uganda: The Coming of Water, Sewerage System to Kampala

The struggle to have piped water for Kampala started with a January 26, 1927, letter from then acting governor for Uganda, Mr EB Jarvis, to the colonial office in London.

"If Kampala is to await the installation of a pipe-borne water supply until such time as it will pay for itself then I venture respectfully to think that no such supply will be forthcoming within a period of time which need now to be taken into consideration, and the community must perforce continue to drink polluted and contaminated water, and to be exposed to the risk of epidemics of a serious nature and the loss of valuable lives," wrote Jarvis.

His letter was reviving a proposal first tabled in 1913, but shelved due to the outbreak of World War I.

Before Jarvis' call, the chief engineer of the Public Works Department (PWD), GW Morris, had in 1924 asked for the possibility of having piped water in the township. At the time, Kampala was divided into parts controlled by the colonial government and that by Buganda Kingdom, the kibuga.

Morris's request also sought to provide water to areas under Buganda like Makerere College, Mulago hospital and the two mission bases at Rubaga and Namirembe.

Under the arrangement, the European and Indian population would have fulltime supply of water while Africans in the township would be rationed to 90 litres of water a day. It was planned that later the Kibuga, Mengo hill and the king's palace would be supplied with piped water.

The start

The initiative was from acting governor Jarvis asking for permission from the Colonial Office in the UK to have a public water supply constructed on Lake Victoria.

In the September 4, 1926, dispatch to the UK, he said the supply should be "built at Kirwa Island (Ggaba)".

But his efforts were frustrated by the Colonial Office. Although the officials appreciated the need for a clean water supply, they didn't see a need for piped water in Uganda.

Besides, they were concerned about the cost, saying the Africans and the two missions were not in position to pay for such services.

The colonial administrators in Kampala were not ready to take no for an answer. They changed tactic and presented the need for clean water as the only way to improve health standards.

The director of medical services in the colonial government, on January 10, 1927, submitted a township health report urging for the introduction of piped water as the only way to deal with typhoid and cholera outbreaks.

As the back and forth discussions between the protectorate office in Uganda and their masters in London went on, Morris, in March 1927, presented to the colonial administration his plan for Kampala's waterworks plant.

"The intake point was at Kirwa Island, a sand filtration and pressured pumping was at Kiruba, with a capacity of 2,000 cubic meters per day," he wrote.

The proposed plan had the provision of being upgraded when demand increased, with a proposed extension to Luzira prisons. The initial plan was to supply water to 14,700 people, both in households and government institutions.

However, government changed Morris's plan and decided that Nakasero, which was the base of the colonial administration in Kampala, should be the first place to receive a water network.

Places such as the king's palace in Mengo, Namirembe and Rubaga in the Kibuga were named in the proposal, but subject to the approval and commitment of the Kabaka and his government to towards paying for the services.

In July 1927, the director of PWD reported that "negotiations had failed to secure commitments for water connections in Mengo and at the missions. Although they were supportive of the project at large, they were not willing to connect to the water supply scheme for financial reasons".

As a result, the network was diverted to cover Mulago and Makerere College.

With the Kibuga out of consideration, a new plan was drawn. The final plan and proposed budget of £88,000 was submitted to the colonial office in Britain. At the time, the exchange rate was Shs20 to £1.

With the design approved by the crown agents in 1928, the East Africa Loan Committee in Britain approved the budget and acted as the guarantee for a loan to fund the project.

But soon after households were connected to the water system, outdoor taps became the source of abuse by people who didn't want to pay for the water consumed. As a result, the demand surpassed supply. By 1937, PWD started rationing water.

Bucket system

A sewerage system was introduced in 1916, in what was called the bucket latrines, which were used until 1930 when the water-borne sewerage system was

The buckets were emptied at night into ox-drawn carts, which took their contents on the fringes of the township for burial. The night collection got the name, night soil. A tax on each household was levied to fund the collection.

This kind of taxation, according to historians Elkan and van Zwanenberg, not only determined which area one stayed but also their living standards.

"Life in the municipality (township) was healthy but expensive, whereas in the Kibuga, which made no attempt to provide any sort of services, it was insanitary and cheap," they wrote.

Due to its unhygienic conditions, Gutkind and Southall in the book Townsmen in the Making called the Kibuga "the septic fringe".

As the township expanded, eating up parts of the Kibuga, the township authorities started planning for a bigger and developing Kampala.

In his January 7, 1929, letter to the Colonial Office, governor William Growers asked the UK office for specialists in the areas of town planning, malaria control and sewerage system management.

"Much remains to be done if Kampala is to extend on the lines of a modern township and if the health of its inhabitants is to be reasonably safeguarded," he wrote.

The Colonial Office responded by sending Lt Col James, a malaria expert from Kenya, two sewerage experts, Humphrey and Hall from Howard and Humphrey and Sons, a company that had carried out similar works in Nigeria, and Mariams, a planning expert with 15 years' experience in town planning in India.

Flushing the city

In 1930, a year after the arrival of the sewage experts, Hall and Humphrey developed two separate plans for the drainage and sewerage systems for Kampala.

They planned to start with Mulago and Makerere, unfortunately the construction was shelved due to funding constraints of the proposed £328,000 budget.

According to Howard and Humphrey, the sewerage system was supposed to cater for 20,000 people.

Six years after the first technical designs for the drainage and sewerage systems were done, work finally started.

The work started when the protectorate government was in a better financial position and it proposed changes to the plan.

According to a May 1940 communication from governor Philip Mitchel to the UK office, after the extension of both systems covering more than 39 miles and 30 miles, sewerage and drainage systems respectively, to Nakasero the total cost came to £440,000, which was four times higher than when the project was first proposed in 1930.


There is an outstanding legacy in Kampala connected to the laying of the sewerage system. Ebenezer House on Colville Street, just opposite Communications House, was originally owned by John Mackenzie, who did a considerable job during the setting up of Kampala's sewerage and drainage system.

As a token of appreciation the colonial government gave him a plot of land there where he built Ebenezer House and completed it in 1937. He left Uganda during former president Idi Amin's era and the building was later bought by Uganda Bookshop, an arm of the Church of Uganda.


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