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

Analyse local and national politics – Girish Menon, International Operations Director of WaterAid, characterised the current lack of sustainable services in the sector as a failure of governance. This is not in itself new, but there seems to be a growing move in the WASH sector to more explicitly analyse political economy issues – I’ll write more on this soon. For the moment there were some interesting examples considering political incentives that came up in the discussions, such as Nick Burn from Water For People suggesting the hypothesis that as countries do increase their coverage statistics (towards the ‘danger zone’), water ministries may be more keen to start addressing longer-term support issues in addition to new investment in order to justify a continuing role for themselves.

Analyse donor politics – But as well as analysing the rest of the country context, donors and NGOs need to take a look at themselves. Commonly-known internal constraints to supporting sustainable services were repeatedly mentioned throughout the day: short-term project cycles, pressures to disburse money quickly, targets based on numbers of new users rather than sustainable outcomes. At least there is some openness about this which means we can discuss more productively which donors might be able to fill which gaps. For example, at another recent Triple-S presentation to the World Bank, Sharon Murry from USAID admitted their constraints on giving direct budget support (video here). So perhaps other donors can do that while USAID works out how it can contribute towards sustainable services in other ways. The Triple-S project itself is an example of a positive move by the Gates Foundation to fund programmes which focus on building ‘learning alliances’ at country level instead of any form of infrastructure implementation. But in the absence of equivalent lump-funding for similar initiatives in other countries, we need to be creative in piecing together coalitions with similar aims but from multiple funding sources.

Think about scale – Harold Lockwood from Aguaconsult opened with the observation that the model of community management has proved impossible to scale up successfully; rather we need to focus on the direct support to community management (usually decentralised local government) and work out how to scale this up across a country. However, I argued in presenting initial findings from WaterAid in Mali that we need to consider if decentralised local governments are actually the right scale to support rural water services. Each local government may have the legal mandate for its own area, but for reasons of economy of scale (for example, having a geographic area with enough waterpoints to make a full-time technician cost-effective) we may need to explore sharing resources and staff across administrative boundaries.

Some initiatives such as this already exist in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso. However, the examples I have seen so far are for collectives of larger villages which have small piped systems or boreholes with electric pumps and tanks rather than boreholes fitted with handpumps that are typical in smaller villages. Willingness to pay by users for services from the former systems generally seems higher than for handpumps, meaning that pooling money and risk across systems becomes more practical.

Another opportunity for sharing resources to help economies of scale is across sectors. The discussions were focused more on water services than sanitation and hygiene but the point was made that where local support staff are in place, hopefully they can follow up on long-term sanitation and hygiene issues such as whether CLTS communities are still open-defecation free after a few years or not, as well as support to water services. Alternatively, where local field staff exist for other sectors such as health, perhaps they can form part of the monitoring and support for WASH services.

Talk about subsidy – Patrick Moriarty from IRC presented a simple form for doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation on the predicted life-cycle costs of a particular service. Data from WASHCost and Triple-S shows that for a typical borehole fitted with a handpump in a rural village, this cost is in the order of magnitude (the figure obviously varies according to context) of 5 USD per person per year. Doing this simple calculation (and splitting the cost up by the categories used by WASHCost) helps open up the debate about who pays for what – and if the total costs can be covered by the “3 Ts” of tariffs (from users), taxes (from local or national government) and transfers (from international donors). This was perhaps the crucial final question – if we agree that basic access to water, sanitation and hygiene are human rights, who pays if it turns out that sustainable services are more expensive than we once thought?

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4 Comments on “Learning for Sustainable WASH: my four lessons from yesterday’s event”

  1. Jack Barrie says:

    Great Blogs Stephen!

    You are providing a great insight into sustainability in Mali and fantastic links to other research. Can you recommend any other WASH blogs that are worth uploading?

    Thank you for getting in touch with us, we have uploaded all of you blogs to our database fore public viewing at http://www.tastethewater.co.uk

    Click here to see your blogs: http://www.tastethewater.co.uk/index.php/most-recent-water-blogs

    Keep up the good work!

  2. […] money to riskier ideas with less predictable outcomes – see reinventing the toilet. Secondly – as we discussed at the recent learning event on sustainability in London – not all donors are like this, so as sector actors we need to look at how we can piece together […]


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