Learning for Sustainable WASH: my four lessons from yesterday’s event

The Sustainable WASH Learning Event, hosted by Arup yesterday, was overall an honest assessment and discussion by different actors involved of where the sector has got to on thinking about sustainability, and how this general awareness of the challenges needs to translate into actions which lead to a long-term service delivery approach. Many thanks to the organisers for bringing it together, particularly the team from Aguaconsult and IRC. I know they are busy collating the presentations, videos and discussions – and hopefully plenty of new stories for Sensemaker – but in the meantime here are the four lessons I took from the day:

Analyse local and national politics

Analyse donor politics

Think about scale

Talk about subsidy

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What Theories of Change apply in the water sector?

“Change is hard” in the rural water sector is the message from the Impact and Learning team at the Institute of Development Studies, who have been acting as external learning facilitators for the Triple-S initiative. They explain that so far Triple-S has based its efforts to promote change towards an approach of sustainable service delivery in the sector on three elements:

  • Relationship-led (i.e. using champions to mobilise change)
  • Value-led (i.e. leveraging peer pressure and creating coalitions for change)
  • Evidence-led (i.e. providing proof that the current approaches don’t work and proof that other ones do)

However, Triple-S and the Impact and Learning team are now reviewing progress to see if these Theories of Change need to be revised, and should be reporting back next week.

How do these thoughts compare with the Theory of Change put forward by WASHCost, Triple-S’s sister project? On the surface, their theory suggests a strong belief in the evidence-led aspect of change – the idea that better information on costs of water, sanitation and hygiene will lead to better choices: Read the rest of this entry »


Rural water services after 2015: what vision should replace the MDGs?

In my last post I referred to the concept of a ‘danger zone’ for rural water services – a term developed by the Triple-S project to describe the tension in many countries between the increased coverage created by new rural water infrastructure and the ‘slippage’ caused by older systems failing. This idea highlights the importance of allocating sufficient resources to recurrent costs and capital maintenance expenditure as coverage levels increase. Stef Smits recently reflected on the contribution of the Millennium Development Goals to this tension:

… the MDGs are one of the biggest competitors to the approach of sustainable services at scale … [they] have been great in mobilizing public investments for WASH… However, the focus on increasing coverage makes it also difficult to fund all the other life-cycle costs of water supplies, such as replacement of assets or post-construction support. In that sense, there is a competition brought about by the MDGs on whether to invest in coverage or dedicate funds to the sustainability of services. We would argue that both are needed, but that there are trade-offs between them. Therefore, a careful balance is needed in investing in that, a balance that even shifts over time. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Mali in the sustainability ‘danger zone’?

I’m back in London for a few months, and gave a presentation to staff in the WaterAid office here last week on progress made by WaterAid and its partners in Mali in using WaterAid’s Sustainability Framework to analyse and address the challenges in developing sustainable rural water services. To illustrate one of the key challenges – finding the balance between financing new investments to increase access to water services, and financing ongoing costs to keep services running – I adapted a diagram developed by the Triple-S and WASHCost projects for a presentation to the World Bank last year.

Triple-S, 2011

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One more myth of rural water supply – what people really want

Back from the RWSN Forum and starting to blog some of the ideas that were discussed. Patrick Moriarty picks up on the ‘myths of the rural water sector’ paper and suggests that we need to add ‘the biggest myth of all’:

… this is the myth that there is an inherent demand for ‘clean’ drinking water in rural areas. In my experience there isn’t. There is a demand for water – of course. There is a demand for convenient water (that you don’t have to march for miles lugging a jerry can to collect). There is demand for (no adjective added) drinking water. And for livestock water. And for irrigation water. And for business water. And much of this demand is well captured in myth no. 4 – “what rural dwellers need is 20 litres per person per day of clean water”. Which makes the point that actually people need far less than 20 litres of clean water (probably only about 5 for actual drinking and cooking) and quite a bit more for other uses.

… But … the assumption is still there that there is demand for these 5 litres of clean water. And there isn’t – at least not always. Of course, from a public health perspective people need at least five litres of clean water. But without basic education and behaviour change interventions people do not demand it.

WaterAid’s Sustainability Framework is clear that demand – and subsequent willingness by the users to pay certain costs – is the first element of the whole framework, without which everything else fails. So any intervention has to test that assumption of demand, and/or promote behaviour change to create the demand.

The challenge is that testing demand is very difficult before the actual water service is up and running. Rural water infrastructure investments typically require an initial contribution to this cost from the users as a proxy for ‘demand’, but this is not necessarily a reliable indicator of their ability and willingness to pay over the lifetime of the service.

The quote from Patrick above, and a comment from Stef Smits on one of Patrick’s previous posts about demand, also emphasise that people actually want water for a variety of uses, and what they demand (in terms of accessibility, quality, reliability etc) varies according to the use. The ‘myths’ paper summarises the implications of this:

… there is urgent need for: (i) consideration of other water requirements, such as for livestock and crops and how these needs can be better linked to requirements for clean drinking water; (ii) full consideration of household values with respect to water (particularly distance to source and reliability alongside water quality) and (iii) presentation and demonstration of real and affordable choices for household water supplies.

This implies a significant effort on the part of service providers to understand what rural water users already do for themselves, and how ongoing external support can help them build on that – luckily these were key elements of the discussion sessions at the RWSN Forum on multiple-use services, post-construction support, and self-supply. I’ll follow-up on some of these later in the week, including getting started on one of the crucial questions: if better external support is needed to promote demand, support multiple-use services and improve sustainability, how much does this support actually cost?


Myths of the Rural Water Supply Sector

In a week or so I’ll be at 6th Rural Water Supply Network Forum in Kampala, Uganda. The event’s theme is Rural Water Supply in the 21st Century: Myths of the Past, Visions for the Future. RWSN set out their “seven myths” of the rural water sector in a paper last year (I’ll address the vision in my next post). These range from “Myth 1: The best way to utilize public funds is to heavily subsidise hardware” to “Myth 7: There is a quick fix for rural water supplies.” But just as interesting is the overall message to sector professionals:

… you may decide that some of these are not myths at all, but are glaringly obvious. Take the example of the myth that “building water supply systems is more important than keeping them working”. Your reaction may be that this is not a myth, and that you are well aware of the importance of operation and maintenance. But then ask yourself what you are actually doing in your programmes to address this major problem. Many of us are well aware that the issues set out in this paper are myths. Nevertheless, most of us carry on as before.

This is a good reminder that while it might be organisations that sign up to Sustainability Charters, we need significant self-reflection and commitment to long-term aims as individuals too.

The ultimate myth is that there is a quick fix for rural water supplies; a simple idea, such as a new pump or a clever way to organise a village committee. We argue in order to provide a basic level of reliable service to all rural dwellers, there is no quick fix to substitute for many years of political negotiation, institution building, education, long term investment and innovation.

I hope the debates at the RWSN Forum promote useful reflections from both personal and organisational perspectives on these issues. I’ll be blogging from here and hope to contribute via the WaterAid and RWSN event blogs as well.


Admitting failure: the “naked truth” for water and sanitation?

Here is Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People, standing naked next to a handpump in Uganda (safe for work thanks to two strategically placed jerrycans). Why? To illustrate the “naked truth”: this project is going to fail, because the long-term financing needed is not in place.

This is part of recent moves in aid towards “admitting failure”, and I’m going to take it as a starting point for discussing what this idea means for the WASH sector, as part of the Second Aid Blog Forum organised by Tales from the Hood.

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What will the WASH sector look like in 2020?

A team from IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre has been “horizon-scanning” – trying to identify the possible trends in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector leading up to 2020. The analysis combines predictions of how key on-the-ground programme issues may develop, and anticipates their interplay with national and international political and economic changes, especially changes in approaches and levels of funding from international donors. Putting together these trends suggests four possible scenarios for 2020:

  • Scenario 1: “Two steps forward; one step back for the sector.” An increased focus on aid effectiveness means that donor funding is reduced for unstable and middle-income countries. Support continues towards poor but stable countries, and better indicators and monitoring are adopted which focus on sustainable services rather than simple coverage – but the “maintenance backlog” and limited accountability mean that sustainability is still a long way off.
  • Scenario 2: “New players in a less stable environment.” Financial and food price crises return, but traditional donors continue give similar levels of aid (perhaps because of political inertia). However the sector as whole becomes more chaotic as newer donors with differing priorities emerge more powerful from the crises.
  • Scenario 3: “Towards a post-aid WASH sector.” Political stability, worldwide economic recovery and growth – aid is reduced and focused on a handful of very poor and fragile states. The global focus shifts to water scarcity and resources management.
  • Scenario 4: “A multi-polar WASH sector.” Economic growth leads to more new donors, especially through increased regional cooperation. Financing becomes more haphazard although there are some efforts between donors to seek effective division of labour and specialisation in their activities. Read the rest of this entry »

Sustainability of rural water services: what next for WaterAid in Mali?

Time for some reflections on the WaterAid West Africa workshop on the sustainability of rural water services I attended recently. On the last day of the meeting, each country’s team presented the key points to take forward in their work. This is what the summary of the ideas for WaterAid in Mali looked like:

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Sustainability of water, sanitation and hygiene services: where does my research fit in?

I’m going to be at a WaterAid West Africa workshop next week to discuss the challenges to the sustainability of rural water services in the region and help plan action research in each of WaterAid’s country programmes to address these problems.

The process is going to be based around the wider Sustainability Framework that WaterAid published this month, which also considers sanitation, hygiene and urban water supply. The full document and press release is available on the WaterAid website. Put simply:

Sustainability is about whether or not WASH services and good hygiene practices continue to work and deliver benefits over time. No time limit is set on those continued services, behaviour changes and outcomes. In other words, sustainability is about lasting benefits achieved through the continued enjoyment of water supply and sanitation services and hygiene practices.

Why has sustainability been such a problem in the WASH sector? The document identifies three reasons which stand out:

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