Two decades of Self-Supply in RWSN  – how far have we got?

This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Rural Water Supply Network was formally founded. From very technical beginnings as a group of (mostly male) experts – the Handpump Technology Network- we have evolved to be a diverse and vibrant network of over 13,000 people and 100 organisations working on a wide range of topics. Along the way, we have earned a reputation for impartiality, and become a global convener in the rural water sector.

RWSN would not be what it is today without the contributions and tireless efforts of many our members, organisations and people. As part of RWSN’s 30th anniversary celebration, we are running a blog series on, inviting our friends and experts in the sector to share their thoughts and experiences in the rural water sector.

This is a guest blog by RWSN Member Sally Sutton, based in the United Kingdom.

2003 saw the emergence of the more colourful RWSN butterfly from the HTN chrysalis – and my first venture with dirty hands from practical water supply development into the heady heights of international conferences.  The move from whether to use foam or mud, ABS, stainless or mild steel casing, resistivity or water diviners, had for me begun two decades earlier to embrace issues of health, social cohesion, equity and marketing (and even childcare (see photo below)). These aspects combined the technical and social issues in rural water supply, which equally reflected my interests and training.

Sally and her daughter Sarah supervising drilling in Western Province, Zambia.  Never too young to learn? (Photo credit: Sally Sutton)

2003 was also the year of the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, a meeting of 24,000 participants. Mingling among them were Piers Cross, Rupert Taylor, Erich Baumann, and Peter Wurzel. All key players in the HTN network committed to turning it into a broader organization, covering more aspects of rural supply.  By chance, as a result of leading a four year DFID-funded research project, I had won a ‘Water Action Prize’ bursary to present a poster session on ‘Community-led improvements to rural water supply’ in Kyoto. I was a very small fish in a big and truly awesome pond. Piers et al were looking for someone to build up a new theme on small water supplies and seeing my poster session, they seemed to think that greater household/community involvement was one way to go. They, as HTN, gave me four months to set up the theme and organize a full set of papers and presenters as part of the Durban conference at which RWSN was born. This was quite a frightening task since the theme didn’t exist and I didn’t know many people in the sector, or the organisation and until Kyoto hadn’t been involved in international conferences at all.  Truly a baptism by fire.

The name of the theme has been heatedly debated many times from that day on. ‘Small group water supplies’, ‘household and small community supplies’, and ‘household solutions’, amongst many other alternatives were discussed at meetings, in Durban, St Gallen, and Vienna.  With the help of Joe Narkevic as the link to the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) at the time, ‘Self-supply’ emerged as a pithy title, which accentuated the key element of owner investment which the other options lacked. It has many drawbacks but is also gaining ground as a label for similar approaches in other fields, such as electricity. Here the parallels in off-grid solutions justify the adoption of the same name. So RWSN has stuck with ‘Self-supply’ and it has slowly gained ground as a concept.

Ground-gaining is not the same as acceptance, or adoption into everyday practice.  It is a start in what seems to be a long-term development process- reminiscent of turning around the Queen Elizabeth 2, (a most cumbersome ocean liner).  And here RWSN plays a vital role. It provides continuity, linkages, platforms for dialogue and discussion and a credibility on which progress can be built in the introduction of new approaches and technologies.  For instance, in the first eight years, pilot studies were established through RWSN’s links to WSP, which funded both coordination and pilot projects to explore what self-supply could mean on the ground. The same is true for groundwater development and links to UNICEF with Kerstin Danert at the helm. With four sub-Saharan countries exploring self-supply through WSP and UNICEF / WaterAid (see photo below) and two more through other channels (WeltHungerHilfe and SHIPO/SMART centres), some of the potential and lessons learnt on the ground became clearer and strengthened RWSN’s ability to lead the field. These and many other self-supply experiences in developed and developing countries are examined in our recently published book. (see below in notes about the author for more information).

Piloting brings cooperation between both government and non-government organisations in action research (Photo credit: Sally Sutton)

With Andre Olschewski and subsequently with Matthias Saladin as theme leaders, a strong network of interested members has been fortified through forums, Dgroups and through e-discussions, notifications of articles, conferences, and much, much more. It highlights the importance of networking, and particularly the roles of committed individuals, national champions and the international dimension that RWSN brings. Yet rural water supply remains the ugly duckling, with limited donor interest and their continued devotion to business as usual, and with little or no inquisitiveness into who the remaining unserved really are and what they want, rather than what they ‘need’ (see photo below). The ‘Need’ with an outsider’s perception leads only to solutions outsiders identify and with which they are familiar, impacting on long-term sustainability and   necessitating donor dependence.

Self-supply encourages pride in ownership and choice in what colour boot polish or paint to use to show it! (Photo credit: Peter Morgan)

RWSN with its themes of self-supply, sustainable groundwater and leaving no-one behind embraces aspects which are particularly relevant to the remaining un-served, reflecting the voices of the more marginalized, the more expensive to supply with standard solutions, and looks more at how to reach them equitably and sustainably. Its history shows it has the potential to channel donor interest into more relevant hybrid strategies,  mixing levels of service and technology options to fit different socio-hydrological conditions,  a potential which is increasingly, but not yet adequately fulfilled.    The strength of voice is being magnified through the linking by RWSN of many NGOs who are of the same view but individually are unheard. RWSN is a unique and invaluable asset, hopefully with the power to shout even louder in the future and with even greater effect. A luta continua!

About the author: Sally Sutton was originally a geographer, who explored both physical and social aspects of the subject and is happy to have found a field which employs both equally. After 8 years of  – doctoral research in hydrogeochemistry and then in Omani traditional groundwater systems in the 1970’s, she acted as principal hydrogeologist for a major consulting engineering company, mainly in the Middle East.  After ten years she moved to work in Africa building up Zambian government services in drilling but also focusing more on aspects of sustainability of systems and different service levels for different socio-economic and hydrological situations. From 1997 onwards her principal focus has been on household investment in individual and group supplies, all over Africa, culminating in the swan song book written with John Butterworth ‘Self-Supply, filling the gaps in public water supply provision’. This explores self-supply in developed and developing countries.

Photo credits: Sally Sutton; Peter Morgan; Rik Haanen.

Did you enjoy this blog? Would you like to share your perspective on the rural water sector  or your story as a rural water professional? We are inviting all RWSN Members to contribute to this 30th anniversary blog series. The best blogs will be selected for publication. Please see the blog guidelines here and contact us (ruralwater[at] for more information. You are also welcome to support RWSN’s work through our online donation facility. Thank you for your support.


Author: RWSN Secretariat

RWSN is a global network of rural water supply professionals. Visit to find out more

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