4 lessons about handpump sustainability in Ghana

By Sara Marks, Senior Scientist at Sandec / Eawag

Water users in Ghana (photo: S. Marks)

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).

Author: RWSN Secretariat

RWSN is a global network of rural water supply professionals. Visit https://www.rural-water-supply.net/ to find out more

9 thoughts on “4 lessons about handpump sustainability in Ghana”

  1. Some comments: I don’t want to spoil the party, but it is unfortunately absolutely not correct to state that the MDGs in water are on track; they are not. Some fiddling by some Bobo’s with statistics including sub-burbs and new water schemes may suggest this, but reality in the real rural areas shows different.

    Secondly, the MDSs are just a number on coverage, and no indication whatsoever on perceived impact on the final goal of poverty reduction and well being. In other words, it makes little sense to have a near 100% cover when people are forced to pay half or more from their daily income on keeping the system going. Clearly something is wrong there in defining progress and development!

    In Saudi Arabia they have sparkling water from golden taps, but these guys can afford this, so it’s fine with me. However, a poor rural family should not pay more than 5 to 10 US$ per year to keep a pump in operation, otherwise it will just drain their pockets and at the end the pump will be abandoned anyway because of a high cost repair.

    In the end poor people prefer to fetch clean safe water at a cheap price up to 30 minutes away, and not to pay for it; not because they don’t want to pay, but because they don’t have the capacity to pay.

    I am happy that more and more the NGO water sector starts slowly to acknowledge that “Community Participation” and “Senses of Ownerships” are not anymore the golden keys to sustainability.

    This remains a tough NGO nut to crack, also because this social feeling of Community Participation is a very good fundraising tool and argument for NGOs. They say; Yes yes! We do involve the community in the project, we do not have a top-down approach, but we are very participative, etc. etc. and donors love that phrase. So put this in your project proposals and the money starts flowing in. You think I am joking? I wish I was!

    So we know now, that reality is different. Is Community Participation (CP) wrong? No, off course not, but there is in fact a simple rule: The Larger the Community, the less CP becomes an effective management tool and the more it will cost. Simply because the more people, the more issues and interest will get in the way.

    That is why the: Self-Supply” movement is becoming popular; you simply deal with a few families and a rope pump and you have a perfect maintenance model that is loved by the donors, every family will participate and we are all happy: NGOs are funded and have nice jobs and donors see “communities” participate. But is this the proud development rural Africa should aim for? I guess not and in fcat just a minor section in the community water problem.

    We have therefore to make a very important distinction between “Community Water Supply” (CWS) and “Family Water Supply” (FWS); otherwise the whole discussion becomes messy and vague. CWS is still going down and down, in spite of now massive funding for rehabiliation proejcts, but of course, again with the same old problematic pluf-pumps

    About pumps: It is 100% clear that any pump can be maintained if the right parts and expertise is available. So discussions about pumps should be focused on these 2 issues. With the BluePump we extreamely limited the number of parts and interval needed, which makes already a large difference and gives a high service level at a very low operational price.

    I didn’t see that BlueZone model in most of the actual studies on handpump O&M, it’s just still again and again about VLOM and users contributions for repairs and not how to limit these repairs. Why not? Who’s afraid of Blue?

    Turning evidence or lessons into actions? I still don’t see that discussed. One of the returning lessons is that it gives too many problems if users’ regular pay a small fee for maintenance, the money is simply not there when you need it, for whatever valid reason. So the lesson should be, do not regular pay to a caretaker for maintenance, but collect in the village when the money is needed. (and have a more reliable pump of course…)

    But still this is not done most of the time. NGOs often impose the contribution model and call that “Community Participation” so the donor is happy, but the users of the pump are not. Seems NGOs rather make donors happy, not the poor in the field?

    Anyway, we with FairWater promote the BlueZone model, people use as much water from the pump as they want, and sometimes pay for supervision only. Incase of a problem, they call for assistance and pay transport cost and a bit for the work.

    So far with some 800 BluePumps out there, very little assistance is needed, so the model with a more reliable pump seems to work and all the community participates, not in collecting contributions that dissapear, but in collecting clean and safe water every day, Hakuna Matata!

  2. Paul – it is correct to say that the MDG target has been met globally, because that’s what the JMP report: http://www.wssinfo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/resources/JMP_report_2014_webEng.pdf

    HOWEVER, most of Sub Saharan Africa is off track and how well the MDG reflects reality is also debatable (and has been debated at length in the Post-2015 process). With your other points – have a look at Susan Davies’ most recent post, which supports some of your criticisms of many NGO interventions.

  3. Sea, yes, thanks for the fine-tuning of my comments on the MDGs, it’s all about statistics indeed and the poor in Africa are not impressed with the results so far! And of course, fortunatley, there are of course also a lot of good NGOs that really do care for their targets groups. For instance, we have a MoU with IRD and Swaziland Government to further expand the BlueZone there which already includes over 100 BluePumps, all steady working at low cost.

    Hope to see you at the Sustainability Conference next week in Amsterdam and you and others are welcome to visit the BluePump factory and see a life BluePump; seeing is often believing!


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