Handpump management: a rearguard battle or a necessity?

Stef Smits (IRC)

Summary of Post-Webinar Discussion on LinkedIn Group Regarding Handpump Management (click to read and join in)

Stef Smits summarises some key points arising from the webinar and the discussion that followed:

Handpumps have still a role to play in 1) small dispersed rural communities [of less than let’s say 2000 people], and in 2) bigger or more dense communities as a complementary or back-up source to piped supplies. They are and will remain an important source of supply and need to have proper management arrangements. These arrangements should – as much as possible – follow arrangements for other communal supplies, or even drawing on good practices from urban management and when they are located close to a town they could even be managed by an urban provider under a “service area” approach

Professional management arrangements exist, but they do cost. The case of Vergnet comes down then to about 3 US$/family/month or 36 US$/family/year. This is in line with the WASHCost findings, which showed that all minor O&M ánd capital maintenance would be about 3 US$/person/year, or some 15 US$/family/year. But if you add the costs of professional support to that (e.g. in the form of handpump mechanics, or local government support), another 15 US$/family/year should be added, summing to about 30 US$/family/year. So, if we accept that this figure gives the right of order magnitude, rightfully the question may be asked on who pays for what.

Much of our research has shown that there are communities where people do pay such amounts (but they are rare) and they have to pay in lump sums as and when pumps fail and need to be repaired. So even if that amount could be feasible – and as Professor Richard Carter says that is questionable – the fact is that this is not common practice. In spite all the effort that has been put into promoting payment for water and cost recovery, this simply doesn’t seem to happen at scale: some families, some communities pay for water, but looking at the macro picture, it is not the case. I see therefore an emerging consensus – but stand to be corrected – that, as Dr Patrick Moriarty said in one of his blogs, public finance is no longer a bad word, also not to pay for some recurrent costs. Personally, I am very much on that line as well. Many urban water supplies, both in developed and developing countries, receive substantial amounts of funding from general taxes. Only in very few cases do tariffs cover the full costs of service provision. So, I don’t see a reason why handpumps cannot receive such a subsidy, maybe not in cash but in the form of dedicated mechanics that are fully paid for by government or so. I think that is also what the comment of Jonnalagadda Murty is alluding to, if I interpret it correctly. My sense is that for the future discussion on handpump management, it would be good to look into mechanisms around which there are direct or indirect subsidies for management of handpumps. Maybe a topic for a future webinar?

I am also glad that Baghri Sohrab brought up the issue on service levels. As you may know, I have been one of the proponents of the MUS approach, which very much turns around the question of service levels for multiple uses. Yes, there are different service levels that can be provided with handpumps: some are more easy to operate than others and can provide a bit more water. But in general, this is a basic level of service and there is limit to how far you can stretch that. Making a step change to another service level will require putting on a motorised pump or turn it into a small piped system (if the borehole yield allows it). Sure, investment and recurrent costs may be higher, but often people are more willing to pay for such a high level of service. In fact, I am increasingly thinking that there is non-linear relationship between service level and willingness to pay. Triple-S studies in Ghana and Uganda found that many people were using much less water from boreholes than the nominal 20 liters, not because handpumps were performing badly, but because people only purchased the little water they needed for drinking and cooking from the handpump. Water for all other needs was taken from (free) open sources. Total revenue for the pumps was as a result too low. My sense is that there is a threshold effect that only when there is an intermediate service level (let’s say 50 lpcd or so) are people much more willing to pay, as they can use it for multiple uses. There is some emerging evidence from that, for example from the work by Dr Ralph Hall who looked into the correlation between the extent of multiple use and financial performance indicators. however, these were all small piped systems. Again a topic for further thoughts – and I look forward to your ideas on this.

To conclude with, I also have a question. Richard often mentions the issue of manageability or the management effort that is required as an important indicator of success. I sometimes feel that for handpumps, management structures that are too heavy get set up. A single handpump may have an 8 or 9 person management committee – all volunteers – who have a limited task in keeping the place clean and doing minor maintenance, and calling a handpump mechanic in the case of major failure. What is striking is that many piped systems in Latin America have similar structures, sometimes even smaller, to manage more complex systems. It makes me wonder whether we really need such big committees for each and every handpump? It is good to draw on lessons from management of piped supplies for handpump management, but wouldn’t that mean sometimes simplifying things. Why not have smaller (3 person) committees per pump? or a big committee for all pumps in an area with a single contact person for each pump. the bigger committee could even be remunerated for their work, as we also see often big limitations to volunteerism. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the heaviness of some of the management structures around handpumps and how to address these.

Stef Smits one of the coordinator of IRC’s programme in Latin America, where he works on issues around sustainable rural water supplies, including monitoring systems and support to community-based service providers. Stef has authored several publications on sustainable rural service delivery. He is a member of the Executive Steering Committee of the Rural Water Supply Network.

2 thoughts on “Handpump management: a rearguard battle or a necessity?”

  1. Very relevant to this discussion is the latest issue of Water Alternatives:
    Most of the topics mentioned here are discussed further in the articles.

    One important thing to note is that, as much as community management has its faults and is not applicable in every setting, it became the current paradigm because public services were continuously failing their job leaving a “no-one is responsible” situation in place.

    While public service might have improved in some places during the last 30 or so years (since “community management” became the standard), I don’t see a really significant change in that for most rural communities.
    Community management isn’t the “gold-standard” by far, but one has to be careful advocating for different set-ups that when (likely) fail leave an even worse vacuum again.

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