Resilience of Water Supply in Practice: Experiences from the Frontline

Guest blog by Leslie Morris-Iverson and St. John Day

The protracted Covid-19 pandemic has restricted international travel, cancelled or shifted international conferences on-line and confined many of us to working from home. These changes, along with an awareness of growing and intersecting threats to water supply means it is increasingly important to hear the voices and learn from the experiences of practitioners who continue to work on the frontline. We have edited a book “Resilience of Water Supply in Practice: Experiences from the Frontline” (published at the end of 2021) to help us listen to those voices, people working for utilities, contractors, catchment organizations, or non-governmental authorities, on how they are implementing to address these increasingly complex resilience challenges.

Many service providers are striving to improve the resilience of their water supply services in some very challenging environments. This refers to improving or maintaining service levels, so they can resist, recover from and withstand multiple growing pressures and shocks, such as increased water demands, aged and crumbling infrastructure, environmental pressures (including climate change) and natural or human-made disasters.

In the book, we highlight there needs to be renewed focus on strengthening resilience to raise service levels and improve professional standards of service. If service levels decline or systems breakdown there will be little prospect of getting at least basic services to people, let alone the more ambitious target of safe, adequate and affordable water supply services for all.

To improve resilience, service providers need to imagine what a resilient water supply service will look like. They should conceptualise the key factors that underpin resilience and introduce approaches that will strengthen each component. They also need to ensure inter-linkages between these component parts. This requires detailed analysis of water resources, high quality infrastructure – fit for the local context, strong management arrangements and an adaptive or iterative approach so that learning, adjustments and improvements are continuous. This means decision-makers and service providers should be concerned with wider systems strengthening work, but at the same time they must also identify immediate actions and areas where they can achieve maximum impact.  This is often referred to as ‘doing the right thing and doing it right’.

In the book we present several case studies from different contexts. It consists of eight different examples, contributed by different authors, all of whom are highly experienced in water supply service provision. Each case study brings a different context, challenge, experiences and some practical findings and conclusions. Examples range from: managing water demand in the United Kingdom, to the Cape Town water crisis, to rebuilding water supply services in Freetown; from the challenges of rural water supply in Eastern Sudan, Tajikistan and Iraq, to improving service levels in post emergency situations.

This network is devoted to the important issue of rural water supply. Over the past decade or so, there have been numerous studies highlighting underperformance and shortcomings in community-based maintenance approaches. In this book many of the challenges faced by utilities are highlighted, and, in our opinion, much work is required to improve service levels and increase customer satisfaction. One of the main challenges, as demonstrated in the Sierra Leone case study, is how to strengthen resilience in a systematic manner, when development projects are short term, projects are pre-conceived and often fail to address the most critical problems the utility is facing.

One of the main conclusions from the book is that resilience is being improved through an iterative and adaptive approach. Frontline operators often need to start by ‘doing what they can with what they have,’ while setting realistic and achievable targets. There must be a strong focus on ensuring interventions are relevant to the local context and implemented professionally to prevent reworking and excessive costs. In editing the book, the importance listening to service providers who really are on the frontline – has become ever apparent.

We would like to thank everyone who contributed to this book being published and for assisting in making the book open access.

Author: RWSN Secretariat

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

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