by Sean Furey, Skat Foundation/RWSN Secretariat Director
UN Water, the body that coordinates water issues across the United Nations, is currently running a consultation in its draft report: “SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation”. You can read the report and add give your feedback. Below are some comments that I have posted in the dialogue section:
By Andrew Armstrong (Water Mission), RWSN co-lead for Sustainable Groundwater Development
Solar pumping is the trendiest technology in rural water supply today. Policy-makers and practitioners are eager to better understand its benefits and limitations and the private sector is responding with a variety of product offerings. Much of this interest is motivated by the Sustainable Development Goal to increase water service levels in the most remote areas. A more compelling driver is that rural water users are willing to pay for service that is accessible near or within their homes. There is currently no more promising technology for meeting these expectations in off-grid settings than solar pumping. Despite this high interest and the fact that solar pumping technology has been around for decades, a great deal of misinformation is being propagated.
This post aims to address a few of the most common misconceptions.
Myth #1: Solar pumping is too complicated and not appropriate for remote, rural settings
The most common barrier to adoption of solar pumping is misunderstanding of its complexity and applicability. The technology is often avoided because of perceived technical and management challenges, which are in fact common to any rural water supply system. In reality, the design and installation processes associated with solar pumping are no more complicated than other motorized pumping schemes. Operation and maintenance is more straightforward than with handpumps and generator powered schemes which, as indicated in recent evaluations published by UNICEF and the Global Solar and Water Initiative, likely leads to higher functionality and reliability rates.
Solar pumps are applicable across the same head and flow profiles as grid- and generator-powered pumps, and most solar pumping equipment available today is essentially “plug and play”. External power backup for periods of low sunlight are rarely necessary if water demand is estimated and storage is sized appropriately. In addition, current off-the-shelf computer software tools simplify equipment selection and automatically consider daily and seasonal weather and solar irradiation fluctuations when estimating water outputs.
The high capital cost of solar pumping equipment often brings its large-scale applicability into question. However, the life-cycle cost benefits of solar pumping are well documented and are within and on the lower end of IRC’s WASHCost benchmark ranges for piped schemes and boreholes fitted with handpumps. There is no fuel cost associated with solar pumps, and the cost of maintaining power generation equipment is greatly reduced because solar modules have no moving parts and long functional lifespans. Furthermore, the cost of solar modules, which represent the most expensive element of a solar pumping scheme, continues to decrease at a rapid rate.
Myth #2: All solar powered water pumping equipment is created equal
Equipment manufacturers have taken advantage of demand and have flooded the market with solar pumping products of all varieties and price tags. Unfortunately, many are of poor quality and likely to fail in a fraction of the lifespan of higher priced, higher quality equipment. Low-quality products seldom come with warranties covering the first few years of operation during which failures are most likely to occur. Uninformed customers often fall into the trap of choosing cheaper equipment without considering that low-quality equipment fails quicker and costs more to maintain in the long-term. This results in solar pumping schemes which were expected to function for years failing and being abandoned after a few months in operation. The best way to guard against this is to stick with brands that have a proven track record for durability and reliability, even if it costs more up-front. It is also important to verify that products adhere to internationally-recognized certification and testing standards.
Another related challenge is that imitation spare parts for major brands are easier to find than authentic ones. Logos and barcodes can be forged such that it becomes difficult to detect if a part is counterfeit. This issue can be resolved by sourcing products from trusted dealers with good technical support capacity. The private sector can also have a positive influence on product quality. By providing local dealers with exclusive access to advanced training and support networks, major manufacturers can incentivize sales of quality equipment. In fact, some solar pumping suppliers such as Bluezone Malawi are choosing to base their business model solely on high-quality products.
Myth #3: Scaling-up solar powered water pumping will lead to widescale depletion of groundwater aquifers
There is concern that solar pumps, because they can operate automatically whenever the sun shines, could pose a long-term threat to groundwater resources. It is true that exploitation of groundwater paired with low or misunderstood aquifer recharge can lead to potentially irreversible depletion, and there is a deficiency of good hydrogeological data in countries where the most interest is being placed on solar pumping. However, abstraction technology is just one of many factors that influence aquifer sustainability and solar pumping should not be devalued because of potential risks which can be mitigated. It is also important to note that the risk of groundwater depletion due to over abstraction with solar pumps depends on the application. Domestic supply withdrawals, in comparison to agriculture and protracted emergency applications, are likely to have negligible impacts.
Below are some actions that can be taken to mitigate the risk of groundwater depletion:
Proper borehole development and pump sizing to safe yield – Ensures solar pumps are physically incapable of depleting aquifers. A good resource for this is the RWSN/UNICEF Guidance Note on Professional Water Well Drilling. Simple control measures such as float valves and switches can also be employed to prevent wasting.
Water pricing in the form of tariff collections and abstraction charges enables sustainable and equitable allocation of groundwater resources, but requires sound management built on transparency and accountability. Prepaid water metering technologies may also play a role.
Resources are available to equip rural water professionals with knowledge and skills and stop the spread of misinformation about solar pumping. Of note:
Numerous universities, such as Strathmore University in Kenya, offer in-person courses designed specifically for working professionals.
In order to generate rich discussion and continue raising awareness of existing resources around solar pumping, the RWSN Sustainable Groundwater Development theme will host a three-week e-discussion from 28 May to 15 June 2018. For more information or to participate in the e-discussion, join the RWSN Sustainable Groundwater Development DGroup.
RWSN Secretariat Director, Sean Furey, took part in a consultation meeting on accountability in relation to Human Rights to Water and Sanitation.
by Sean Furey, Skat/RWSN Secretariat
What does ‘accountability’ mean to you? When it comes to the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation what progress has been made to ensure that Duty Bearers (Governments) are accountable to their Rights Holders (Citizens)?
Such legalistic sounding terms can seem distant from the needs of family in rural Mongolia or fast-growing city in India, but the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation form the legal back-bone to which signatory governments (which is nearly all of them) have to comply.
Like his predecessor, Catarina de Albuquerque , Prof. Heller has been collaborating with the network to engage with rural water supply practitioners so that he can communicate the global issues to those working on national and local implementation and policy, and likewise learn from the those who working to making Human Rights a reality at a practical level. This included the recent e-discussion on Social Accountability.
In his draft report, Prof. Heller drew points from this discussion, particularly regarding the accountability of non-governmental organisations:
“Participants [of the RWSN e-discussion] discussed that accountability is enhanced when reducing dependence on external funds, and through ensuring meaningful participation of citizens in all process relating to water, sanitation and hygiene processes.”
The principle of accountability as a core human rights principle does not have a set and agreed definition. The three dimensions that were used to frame the discussion were:
“Responsibility” which means “what” Duty Bearers are accountable for; “who” carries out the duties; and “how” those WASH service responsibilities are done.
“Answerability” is need for public officials to communicate what they are doing and why and how decisions have been taken. This is important because governments, as the Duty Bearers, are required to demonstrate the “progressive realisation”, which means maximising available resources to ensure universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
“Enforceability” is about making sure that there are the mechanisms in place to ensure that rules and laws are enforced, and that there is a fair and accessible means for complaints and conflict resolution.
A lot of the discussion focused on factors and barriers to effective accountability, such as corruption and the lack of protection for whistle-blowers. It was also highlighted that civil society, and civil society organisations (CSOs), have a vital role to play in holding governments to account – not least where responsibility has been delegated to private sector service providers, community management or self-supply.
In the wide-ranging discussion it was clearer that there are lots of threats to accountability, not least because it involves changing power dynamics, which will be resisted by those in power. Defining clear roles and responsibilities is critical for accountability, which is why those are who are to be held accountable have an interest to keep such things vague.
“The fight for Human Rights is against human wrongs”
For rural water supply – as for rural issues generally in low and middle-income countries – a key problem is that formal legal processes and agencies, such as courts and lawyers, are often physically distant, expensive and not trusted. So where does that leave traditional social or religious mechanisms for conflict resolution? Do those working to extend a rights based approach work with these structures (at the risk of entrenching existing discrimination) or try to extend legal and judicial mechanisms?
What is clear is that these issues around accountability, rights and justice are not unique or special for rural water supply, or even for WASH, so it was great that in this meeting we had representatives from outside the sector, who highlighted, for example, the strong links between the Human Rights for Water and Sanitation with other Rights, including housing, food and dignity.
To keep up to date with this discussion and for opportunities to submit your ideas and experiences, follow Léo on Twitter.
To find out more have a look at these RWSN resources: