By Sara Marks, Senior Scientist at Sandec / Eawag
In 2012 we learned the exciting news that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for drinking water access had been met, nearly 3 years ahead of schedule. Yet an important question still looms large: What will it take to ensure that those who have gained access continue to enjoy their water services well into the future? And how will sustainable water services be extended to the remaining unserved?
To address this concern, an international panel of experts concluded that
“…in addition to extending access to unserved the populations [in the post-2015 period], targets should address the challenge of sustaining services to ensure lasting benefits.”
Despite such enthusiasm for improving the water sector’s sustainability track record, we know surprisingly little about how to achieve it. Some highlight the importance of demand-oriented planning, while others focus on the role of post-construction support services for ensuring successful projects. More recently, the 13-country Triple-S study highlighted the need to shift away from simply installing infrastructure and toward a service-oriented approach.
Our recent study of 200 rural communities with handpumps in Ghana (available for free until July 31 in the Journal of Planning and Education Research) contributes new evidence by investigating the key activities during planning and construction that are associated with better project outcomes. The study highlights 4 main findings that are applicable to rural water supply planning broadly:
1. Not all forms of participation are desirable.
Past studies of demand-led water supply projects tend to lump “community participation” into a single variable, e.g., Did community members participate in planning and implementing their project? (yes or no). By contrast, the JPER study unpacks community participation into its various elements, including cash and labor contributions toward construction of the well and handpump, attendance to planning meetings, and involvement in technical- and management-related decisions about the project. The authors found that some, but not all forms of participation are associated with more sustainable outcomes. For example…
2. Depth over breadth.
In the sampled communities, handpump sustainability was associated with depth, but not breadth, of residents’ involvement in the planning process. For instance, water committees that had held relatively more planning meetings with community members were more likely to be collecting user fees sufficient to cover maintenance and repairs several years later. Further, financial health of the project was positively associated with households’ mean cash contribution toward its construction, whereas the share of households in the community contributing something (often token amounts) was not. These findings are particularly important given the widespread practice of engaging as many households as possible in water project planning – often for the sake of building community members’ “sense of ownership” for the project than for practical reasons. The results from this work suggest instead that meaningful forms of participation (which may only engage a small subset of the community) are more important for achieving sustainability goals.
3. Water users versus engineers.
Another key takeaway from the study is that, all else constant, project outcomes are better within communities where a greater share of households reported participating in management-related decisions, and worse in communities where more households participated in technical decisions. This trend was observed across multiple decision types and models of sustainability. Interestingly, these findings are consistent with prior research on infrastructure performance and suggest that efforts to engage community members in the planning process must be balanced with the technical demands of the project, which may be better suited for trained staff.
4. Several dimensions of sustainability.
A final insight is that the use of multiple sustainability indicators can provide a more nuanced understanding of both short- and long-term prospects for reliable service delivery. In particular, the authors included measures of water users’ perceptions of their service, a critical element of infrastructure longevity considering user fees are expected to cover 100% of recurrent costs for operation and maintenance.
Turning evidence into action
Despite laudable progress in recent years extending improved water services to the unserved, the sustainability of water infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa remains a serious challenge. As we prepare for the post-2015 period, it will be more important than ever to hone in on tools and strategies that support long lasting projects. The study described here represents one such effort by calling into question some key principles of participatory rural water planning as it’s currently practiced.
Marks SJ, Komives K, and Davis J. “Community Participation and Water Supply Sustainability: Evidence from Handpump Projects in Rural Ghana.” Journal of Planning Education and Research, available online April 2, 2014.
Summary by Sara Marks, Senior Scientist at Eawag’s Dept of Water and Sanitation in Developing Countries (Sandec).