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 rwsn.blog, 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, Brian Mulenga who is the Sanitation Officer of Water For People Malawi.
Take a walk around rural communities of Malawi, and you will come across at least one borehole that’s either broken down or completely abandoned. Numerous village meetings I have attended end with the usual request by local traditional leaders for more boreholes…even in communities that technically have an adequate number of boreholes as stipulated by government policies. Worse still, users do not know what to do next!
With the recent elections in 2019, we are yet to see more boreholes being sunk in villages that were promised as a strategy by politicians to get more votes. But one could ask: “Should we continue sinking more boreholes while the numbers of non-functional ones continue rising?”
Keeping water systems in rural areas functioning forever, without communities ever again depending on material support from any outside organization, has proved to be elusive. Yet this represents one of the top sustainability accomplishments that most organizations in the water sector aim to achieve.
While many organizations and governments have heavily invested in designing sustainable models which empower communities to own and manage rural water supply systems, some organizations want to be seen as ‘working’ and thereby ‘baby-sitting’ communities. Such organizations always want to be there to rehabilitate any small borehole fault or even offer to drill more newboreholes without regard to government policies or sustainable models. With noble intentions, some charity organizations or generous individuals have not only destroyed the very communities they aim to help but have also strained their limited resources which could have been more wisely used to support other communities in dire need of safe and adequate water.
For decades, experts in the water sector have argued, and come up with diverse theories, on why rural water supply infrastructure, especially boreholes, fail quickly or become non-functional before their prescribed life span, leading to stretched periods of downtime or even abandonment. Some experts believe that the ability of a community to effectively conduct planned borehole maintenance and collect properly-calculated tariffs from users to buy and replace worn-out borehole parts provides a glimpse of a sustained water system…but this does not fully articulate what will motivate and equip a community to keep a borehole functioning at all times, forever.
So how can we improve community ownership and sustainability of rural water supply systems? One simple intervention practiced by rural communities in Chikwawa District in Malawi seems to be providing a solution to this age-old question. Borehole banks use a simple yet effective business model that allows water users to borrow part of the borehole maintenance fund, use it for their own various economic activities, and later pay it back at an agreed-upon interest rate. This not only multiplies funds for borehole operation and maintenance but also enhances the economic livelihoods of water users in the community. It eliminates the challenges encountered by poor rural women related to securing a small loan at a commercial bank, such as traveling long distances, tedious paperwork, and interviews. While technical considerations in borehole drilling and installation remain vital, transforming a borehole into an economic epicenter in the community has motivated users to secure their boreholes and ensure they are fully functional at all times.
The success of borehole banks in rural communities of Chikwawa District represents a huge milestone toward the sustainability of rural water supply infrastructure. They say, “water is life.” Deep in the rural communities of Chikwawa District, this idiom is not only synonymous with healthy living, but also the economic benefits that water now possesses.
About the author: Brian Mulenga works as Sanitation Officer at Water for People in Malawi. His professional background is in Environmental Health (Public Health). His job entails providing technical support and guidance to partner non-governmental organizations that they work with on sanitation and ensuring that the number of latrines/bathrooms reported corresponds to what is physically in impact areas.
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]skat.ch) for more information. You are also welcome to support RWSN’s work through our online donation facility. Thank you for your support.