Charting the evolution of rural water services delivery across continents

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 Lilian Pena P. Weiss based in Washington DC, USA.

I started working in the rural water sector in 2002, in my very first assignment with the World Bank, when I was part of a team assessing the social and environmental impacts of rural water systems in the dry northeast part of Brazil.  As a recent engineering graduate, I was very much focused on the infrastructure – but I quickly learned that sustainable rural water services need to take into account a lot more than that. I remember vividly exchanging with the rural users on how to organise the community associations for managing water services, discussions on tariffs, Operation & Maintenance, and support from local governments amongst others.  Since there, I never stopped working on delivering rural water services

In the early 2000s in Latin America, I worked on many projects in rural water services to indigenous and Afro-Latin communities that had been financed by the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. Through those, I gained a better understanding of how these communities value water, the related cultural connections, and their willingness to have and pay for better services! This underlined the importance of working on the social side, especially behavior change and communications to make rural water services sustainable. At the time, the Demand-Responsive Approach (DRA) was the mantra with rural water practitioners! Some of the lessons learned from my engagement with Indigenous communities in Latin America and the Caribbean were later captured in this publication.

Around 2010, we started to develop a joint rural water information system, SIASAR, with Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, which has since turned into a rural water platform across 14 national or subnational governments, from Costa Rica and Uganda to Kyrgyzstan.  Developing SIASAR has been one of the most interesting and rewarding initiatives of my professional career so far; we worked hand in hand with multiple countries to develop – from scratch – a new governance and structured information system that focused on service delivery and sustainability with active participation from local users up to central governments harmonized across a wide range of countries.

It was around 2012 that I became involved in the Rural Water Supply Network. At the time, I was co-chairing the internal rural water thematic group of the World Bank together with my colleague Miguel Vargas. The interactions with the RWSN I believe were a win-win for us and for them. The RWSN with its powerful outreach and strong presence in Africa could deepen our dialogue and understanding of how to reach the last mile in rural water supply and give us the opportunity to exchange lessons and initiatives with so many institutions working on the same topic. At the same time, the World Bank’s global perspective also helped the RWSN to expand beyond Africa.

Later in 2015, I was fortunate to join the World Bank’s team in Vietnam, to lead a new generation of rural water projects where financing was fully based on results. It was fascinating to evolve our dialogue from delivering tanks and connections to really focusing on ‘how can we make sure these systems will deliver 24/7, reliably, with O&M cost recovery and sustain over the years? The work started in Vietnam has scaled up globally; this blog gives a good overview of the lessons learned from this approach in Vietnam. To date that the World Bank has supported more than 20 programs for results in the water sector globally.

Although so much progress has been achieved in rural water over the last 20 years, from an old top-down, infrastructure-based approach, to the evolution of the CBO-based models with institutionalized backstopping support, and growing Private Sector Participation,  the challenges ahead remain complex. Not only do we need to continue working to ‘leave no one behind’,we also need to promote better and more efficient levels of service (ie. household connections, 24/7 supply, financial sustainability, etc). Moreover, climate change and its impacts on water security are perhaps the greatest challenge for this decade. Rural systems and their water sources are naturally more vulnerable to extreme climate events. The role of Development Partners, including the RWSN, become increasingly important to work with Governments, rural water practitioners, academia, and the private sector to develop and deploy effective solutions and advocate for the necessary funding to ensure universal, sustainable and climate resilience rural water services.

About the author: Lilian Pena P. Weiss is a Lead Water Supply and Sanitation specialist at the World Bank, based in Washington DC, USA. She has been working for over 20 years with World Bank operations, in Latin America countries, in East Asia and more recently in South Asia. She has led over 20 World Bank-financed investment projects in the water and sanitation sector, mostly focused on the rural water and sanitation sector. Lilian has also worked with water sector reforms, institutional strengthening of water utilities, environmental sanitation topics, community-driven development (CDD), results-based approaches and water security. She was the co-chair of the World Bank’s Rural Water Thematic Group from 2012 to 2015. Lilian is a Brazilian national, civil engineer, has a master in water resources management and environmental technology, and has a MBA in financial management.

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.

Photo credits:

  1. Inauguration ceremony of a new water system in Panama. Photo credit: Lilian Pena P. Weiss. 
  2. SIASAR information system. Each point represents a rural community and the colour defines the status of rural water services.
  3. Visiting a rural water source in Vietnam. Photo credit: Lilian Pena P. Weiss.

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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