A third of the glass is three-quarters full

The results of the water and sanitation SDG baseline report are as surprising as finding safely managed drinking water in rural Honduras. But we should be cautious in jumping to conclusions.


It is surprising to meet people like Kristel Castellanos. She is the operator of the drinking water treatment plant of the rural municipality of San Matías in Honduras. She makes sure that the people of San Matías get water that is safely managed. Her work is not common, as rural water supply systems in Honduras rarely have a treatment plant. At most, operators may chlorinate the water, and even that is a big challenge.

Photo: Kristel Castellanos, operator of the San Matías treatment plant, checking the water flow (photo credit: IRC)

As surprising as finding such good water quality management in rural Honduras, were the data on safely managed water supply in the baseline report for the water and sanitation SDGs. According to that report 71% of the World’s population has the same level of service as the people in San Matias, i.e. piped supplies with household connections that is available 24/7 and that has good quality water, or ‘safely managed water’, as the JMP calls it. More surprising is that 56% of the rural population has such water.

Ahead of the publication of the baseline report, there was lots of talk in the WASH sector that thebaseline would come as a big shock. With the adoption of the SDGs, the bar for water supply has been raised. Under the MDGs, we measured whether people had an improved supply. The SDGs require people to have safely managed water. And by raising the bar, it would only be logical that a larger part of the population would not meet that bar. And indeed, the press release that accompanied the report was brought as a shock, using the headline figure that 2.1 billion people don’t have safe water. I found that a way too alarmistic take on the findings of the report. With 71% of the World population having safely managed water the glass is not half full; it is three quarters full!

The figure however is surprising, as the MDG end-line indicated that in 2015, some 58% of the world population had piped on premise (33% in rural areas). Piped on premise doesn’t fully coincide with safely managed services. Safely managed services also require water to be of good quality and availability. One would expect that the percentage of population with safely managed services would be lower than the population with piped on premise in 2015, as there are always piped supplies in which quality and/or availability are not adequate. But, instead we don’t have a glass being half empty; we have one that is three quarters full.

However, we can only see a third of the glass, as Ben Harris mentioned. Sufficient data on safely managed services are only available for half of the countries. No data is available on the biggest countries in the World: China, India, Brazil and Indonesia. Most of the countries for which data are available are in the higher and middle income regions of Europe, Central Asia and Latin America. Only one region – Central and South Asia – has sufficient data on safely managed services in rural areas.

The report is very clear about these methodological limitations. And I think it is truly impressive that the JMP managed to make these estimates in such short time. But, it could have therefore also been more cautious in the message it sent out. It should have either said “more people than expected have safely managed services”, or better “the first estimate shows 2.1 billion don’t have safely managed services, but the data are too limited to jump to strong conclusions”.

Nevertheless, I would say to all sector colleagues: read the report; it really is obligatory reading. And if anything, read the methodological sections. They are not always the most exciting sections to read in a report. But if we don’t understand how the SDGs are monitored, the numbers will really take us by surprise. And by 2030, we should no longer be surprised to find as nicely safely managed water supplies in rural areas as the ones managed by Kristel Castellanos in San Matías.

For  the 2017 JMP report and related data, go to https://washdata.org/

The  original version of this blog is available here: https://www.ircwash.org/blog/third-glass-three-quarters-full.


Handpump management: a rearguard battle or a necessity?

Stef Smits (IRC)

Summary of Post-Webinar Discussion on LinkedIn Group Regarding Handpump Management (click to read and join in)

Stef Smits summarises some key points arising from the webinar and the discussion that followed:

Handpumps have still a role to play in 1) small dispersed rural communities [of less than let’s say 2000 people], and in 2) bigger or more dense communities as a complementary or back-up source to piped supplies. They are and will remain an important source of supply and need to have proper management arrangements. These arrangements should – as much as possible – follow arrangements for other communal supplies, or even drawing on good practices from urban management and when they are located close to a town they could even be managed by an urban provider under a “service area” approach

Professional management arrangements exist, but they do cost. The case of Vergnet comes down then to about 3 US$/family/month or 36 US$/family/year. This is in line with the WASHCost findings, which showed that all minor O&M ánd capital maintenance would be about 3 US$/person/year, or some 15 US$/family/year. But if you add the costs of professional support to that (e.g. in the form of handpump mechanics, or local government support), another 15 US$/family/year should be added, summing to about 30 US$/family/year. So, if we accept that this figure gives the right of order magnitude, rightfully the question may be asked on who pays for what.

Continue reading “Handpump management: a rearguard battle or a necessity?”

“A bit more for some” may not be a bad idea

A great report from Stef on the RWSN Management & Support workshop two weeks ago

water services that last

Two weeks ago, the “management and support” working group of the RWSN had its first meeting. This meeting focused specifically on management models and support arrangements for piped water supply in small towns. As rural settlements become bigger, a shift is made from point sources – like boreholes with handpumps – to piped systems. This trend has happened in Latin America and parts of Asia, and is now about to start in Africa and South Asia as well, as argued in the background paper by Marieke Adank. And as there is a shift to piped systems, users may actually want to shift towards higher levels of service. The question is whether that is not a bad idea?

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Don’t shoot the messenger, but embrace the sad stats

water services that last

Driven amongst others by the mobile phone applications, more and more statistics are becoming available on the state of water services. These go well beyond the coverage data we were used to in the JMP reports (and which this year gave us some reason to be mildly optimistic). The new stats provide more insight into the functionality of infrastructure and the level of service being provided. And these are saddening. Just have a glimpse at the overview of these sad stats made by Improve International. Though the specific figures differ from one country to another, but the order of magnitude of non-functional water points is around 30%, with another 10-20% being partial functional. Of the ones that are functional only a small percentage provides services that meet standards. Going a level deeper, one can find more details, such as the percentage of water committees that perform according to…

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