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?

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3 Comments on “One more myth of rural water supply – what people really want”

  1. Good observation; demand has many aspects, it’s important not to mix it up. Focus should be where demand is realistic and meetable. However, the “Ford-innovation concept” applies: he indicated that “if I would have asked what people wanted, they would have said “give me a faster horse”. So in order to make real progress, you have to realize that there may be a large gap between what people need and what the want”. Having said this, the resistance that some people have against innovative (but also more simple) new technologies such as the BluePump becomes understandable. Obviously this takes time to settle. Similar rural people would never ever have asked for a mobile phone, though now they love it and even pay for these services!
    Times change, so NGOs and Governments should be open for innovations and don’t try to stop that with handpump standardization or mistrust in new developments, such as making BlueZones with the reliable BluePump & regional professional support. Demand will pick up whem people see the benefits!

  2. Phil says:

    Hi Stephen, As you know my research deals with why it is silly to try to get people to pay for water and sanitation as a private good. The whole idea of microfinance for WatSan rests on the assumption that there is an intrinsic demand to be met, and as you&Patrick point out, the question is: demand for what? In my work I’ve seen that demand creation often is ridiculously, even harmfully, abbreviated… To the extent that it becomes sheer marketing instead of education; or often enough as well the promise of a subsidy in order to coax out additional money from the household. Guided by a very simplistic economist worldview, there is an all too common misconception that if people spend money on something, they genuinely value or understand it. I saw quite a few majority-self-funded broom closets with toilets in them… The households obviously valued a house extension subsidy; but in’t the point instead to deliver them what they need? Need does not equal demand. Best, Phil

    • Thanks for the comment Phil – did you see Ned Breslin’s latest ‘naked truth’ video? I suspect you and he have differing views on the use of microfinance for watsan in general, but at least he is pointing out the futility of loan payback as a measure of success (it’s another broom-closet-with-toilet-in type example in the video).
      Regarding demand creation, there were some interesting debates linking CLTS and self-supply of improved wells at the conference – but still a lack of detail on what the actual promotion techniques used were (in the self-supply example). I’m trying to follow up on this and will post an update if possible.


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