WaterAid is responding to a problem seen around the world: governments and charitable groups install water pumps, wells and other village water systems, but pay insufficient attention to keeping them running. Surveys show that between 30 and 40 percent of water points in rural Africa are out of commission. Many will never be repaired.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In the bad old days, groups that installed water pumps swept in from outside, planned their project with very little input from local villages, did the work, took a lot of pictures and left.
Well, we’ve learned better. We’ve learned that water by itself is not enough — to be healthy, villagers also need latrines; they have to understand why hand washing matters and make it a practice.
We’ve also learned a lesson that applies to all kinds of development — the deus ex machina usually fails. Villagers themselves need to choose what they need and how to do it. If they don’t control the process, it won’t be theirs and it won’t last. They need to participate in its design and construction, and most people believe that villagers need to pay to use it, just a little bit.
Now the state of the art for water projects is to work closely with the village. The water organization helps a village organize what groups in this field call a WASH committee — for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. The committee members participate closely in decisions about where to put a pump and how to build it. They organize villagers into teams to help with construction and to contribute money or materials. They also have the job of educating their neighbors about hygiene. Another task is for them to charge users to collect water from the pump — maybe a penny for each 20-liter jerrycan filled — and save that money to pay for maintenance and repairs.
For a few years, the conventional wisdom among water groups was that with increased village involvement, water projects would live long and healthy lives. Unfortunately, they still don’t. WaterAid wrote in one important analysis of the problem: “The evolution of community management as a pragmatic response to weaknesses in public service provision, and its subsequent promotion as the ideal model of service delivery was a triumph of hope over realism.”
No one makes the argument that village involvement or WASH committees are a bad idea. A World Bank study of 121 rural water systems in poor countries found that the most important ingredient of a functioning system is the participation of beneficiaries.
The involvement of villagers is absolutely necessary — it just isn’t all that’s necessary.
Even a well-organized, highly motivated village can’t repair a water pump if there are no parts or tools available, or there is no one trained to carry out repairs. No business would ever make this error, but nongovernmental groups seem to do it all the time. For example, there is not a single dealer of spare parts for pumps in northern Uganda, Pat Klever, who works with the Christian water group Lifewater, wrote in an e-mail. To solve this problem, Lifewater and its Ugandan partner Divine Waters Uganda are planning to open a store that sells parts for the most commonly used pumps. Divine Waters also trains locals to repair these pumps — so it is creating clients for the store.
One reader, Jacquesdaspy of Lafayette, Ind., sent another suggestion: “Perhaps special pumps could be provided that are simple and common enough that a local pump repair person could maintain them.”
Water4, an Oklahoma-based group, has done just that. It did something very similar to what NASA technicians in the movie “Apollo 13” did to save the stranded astronauts — they piled onto a table every piece of equipment the astronauts had in their capsule, and from those fashioned a solution. Water4’s staff assembled various pieces of plastic and metal available in hardware stores even in the most remote towns of Africa, and built a pump from those. The materials for a complete pump cost $18.
That became the basis of a remarkable service: Water4 makes a drilling kit in a duffel bag. The bag has everything needed for hand-drilling down to 150 feet and installing a low-tech pump, no power tools needed. (Cement and PVC are bought locally.) Water4 works with established water charities on the ground — for example, it is working with World Vision International to drill 1,000 wells in Angola. Water4 trains teams of four local men to drill wells — each well takes a week, but they can install eight water points for the cost of installing one with heavy machinery. That means a village can have several pumps — so women can spend less time in line and haul the water for shorter distances. The village will also have back-up pumps if one fails. Using the drilling kit, the team can even haul up a dead high-tech pump and slip a new low-tech one into the same well. With the drilling kit, the team of four can install about 50 pumps, and run a side business repairing them. The pump design needs tweaking; the same 30-cent fitting breaks often. But it can be found in any hardware store.
A reader, HubertB from Westchester, wrote that growing up in South Alabama, people built their own wells and outhouses. “Why are these charities coming in and doing for these people what our daddies taught us to do?” he said.
One reason is that these are villages so poor that women have a tough time deciding whether to pay a penny for a jerrycan of clean water or to walk four hours to scoop dirty water from some stream. A penny matters that much. And in some areas hit hard by drought, villagers would have to drill hundreds of feet (too deep for the Water4 pump) to reach water. This cannot be D.I.Y.
Dire poverty also creates other obstacles. WASH committees are supposed to collect user fees, but this has proven very difficult. Many people can’t afford anything, and some don’t like to pay because they suspect — often with good reason — that their money will never see its intended purpose. Even villages that can collect a few dollars still don’t come close to covering major repairs.
It comes down to this: someone has to pay for repairs, and it’s not going to be a village. The same organization that installed the well is one obvious candidate — just make repairs part of the program. Water charities don’t like to do this for several reasons. It’s unglamorous and hard to raise money for; it’s nearly impossible to monitor thousands of different places indefinitely to make sure the money is well-spent; and it runs counter to the ethos of creating projects that villages can take over and run for themselves.
One of the ways that we learn is by studying positive deviants — when everyone else is getting it wrong, who’s getting it right? The Kigezi Diocese Water and Sanitation Program, in southwest Uganda, has been successfully providing water since 1986. It’s run by the local diocese of the Church of Uganda, which is Anglican.
This program does lots of things right that others also do. But its big advantage is one other programs can’t copy: if a village can’t pay for a repair, the diocese will cover it.
In effect, the local church is standing in for government.
So where is government in all this?
Chris McDermott from Kabul, Afghanistan, commented on the WaterAid program profiled on Friday, which uses government funds. “Public financing — through Indian government tax collection and payment — it’s very un American as it relies on government. But, ideology aside, it’s a working model. and that’s something to applaud and to continue.”
It’s un-American to rely on government for water? Since when? HubertB may have drilled his own well, but most Americans don’t. Local governments build our water systems. And they are financed not only through user fees, but taxes and municipal bonds.
It should be government’s job everywhere, but it doesn’t happen in many poor countries. Since poor rural people have zero political clout, they tend to get zero services from government. District government officials have very little training (including few skills in how to get projects done) and their offices have very little money to spend. Most people with talent and education don’t go into the district government — they go to the capital.
Water charities today that are serious about their mission now realize that they have to work with district-level government — not only to get permits, but also to help officials do their job. Unlike with the WASH communities, no one has any illusions this time.