by Jonathan Annis, WASHPlus
I’ve spent the last week in the Mopti Region of northern Mali supporting a USAID/WASHplus WASH & Nutrition initiative led by CARE. While behavior change communication related to household- and community-level sanitation, hygiene, and infant nutrition practices is the primary focus of the project, a small sum of funds is dedicated to rehabilitating community water supplies.
The conditions in Mali, as in much of the Sahel, have attracted a plethora of international NGOs, foundations, and do-gooders of every size and intention; increasing access to safe water is a focal point of many of their interventions. The functionality of rural water supplies in Mopti is difficult to ascertain. A number of my colleagues agree that the database of water points maintained by the regional office of the Ministry of Water includes less than 50 percent of the water points existing in the countryside.
Based on the handful of communities I’ve visited in three districts, the number of improved water points is far more than I imagined there to be, a testament to the staggering level of investment made over the past 20 years. Remarkably, each village (population between 500 – 1,000 persons) has a mix of water supply technologies: hand-dug wells (some installed by self-supply) and boreholes fitted with hand pumps. The Malian government considers a large diameter well with a bucket and pulley and appropriate environmental protection to be an improved water supply technology able to serve up to 400 persons. When we asked each community which technology they prefer, the hand-dug well was the unanimous choice. Women in these communities reported no significant variation throughout the year in the quality or quantity of water drawn from hand-dug wells.
A clear pattern began to emerge after the third or fourth visit; all of the hand pumps were abandoned, while the hand-dug wells continued to be used. Examining the underlying causes of this phenomenon generated quite a discussion amongst the team this morning. An older gentleman who worked with the Ministry of Health for many years mentioned that rural communities are not interested in repairing hand pumps if the alternative of a “free” hand-dug well exists. We were left asking the question, why did anyone ever install hand pumps in these communities?
Bloggers on this site frequently cite inadequate understanding of costs and cost recovery mechanisms as common sources of failure for rural water supply. This is certainly the case in many instances, but in this case I suspect the reason is less about costs and more about service levels. For most rural Malians the difference in service level (i.e., value for money) between a hand pump and a hand-dug well is indistinguishable. Most of the factors that are truly important to rural users—reliability, accessibility, appropriate level of management burden—are essentially the same across both technologies. In fact, one could argue having to queue to use the hand pump is less convenient than using a large diameter well that permits multiple women to fetch water at the same time, using their personal ropes and buckets no less! Water quality is the only dimension of service that is arguably better with pumps, but we know water quality is not an aspect rural dwellers typically assign much value. This seems to be the case again in Mopti.
I’ve commented in the past that sustainability of rural water supplies takes an ecosystem of support. Research by CARE and other organizations point to governance being a proxy indicator for sustainability. In Mali, despite a high degree of devolution and decentralization, the government is unable to provide the level of regulation and institutional support needed to keep water flowing from boreholes on a large scale. So why have so many organizations insisted on (and continued to support) installing hand pumps in zones where hand-dug wells are more valued locally and impose less of a burden on the fragile ecosystem to maintain? I suspect donors justify the investment in terms of the expected health benefits realized by users between the time the hand pump is installed and it breaks, perhaps up to two years in some cases. Do up to 730 days of health benefits justify a multi-thousand dollar investment in a technology that underlying social and governmental conditions indicate is destined to fail? This is the conundrum organizations working in fragile states like Mali face.
As for WASHplus, we intend to use our small investment to update the ministry’s water point database for all 18 communes we work in and retrofit a limited number of hand-dug wells to make them more environmentally safe and ergonomically sound for the women who frequent the wells, at the same time promoting point-of-use water treatment and safe water handling in the household. Certainly not a package of solutions that will grab the headlines at Stockholm, but ones that seem most appropriate given the community and institutional circumstances we operate in.
Jonathan Annis is a sanitation and innovation specialist with the USAID-funded WASHplus project (www.washplus.org). His views do not necessarily represent those of WASHplus, USAID or the U.S. government.
 Some African countries, Madagascar for instance, do not consider hand dug wells with a rope and bucket to be an improved source.