Covid-19 gave me the chance to commit to paper (or electronic form, if you prefer) some of my understanding and experience gained over several decades. The outcome is a book, published earlier this year, entitled Rural Community Water Supply: Sustainable Services for All.
Many hundreds of millions of rural people – the exact number is not known, and it is immaterial, except that it probably lies between one and two billion – experience inadequacies in the supply of the water which they use for drinking and other domestic uses.
These inadequacies are partly reflected in the ‘normative criteria’ as defined by the human right to water which apply to water services globally. These criteria ask whether and to what extent water services are available, accessible, affordable and acceptable, and whether their quality meets national or international standards. They also highlight the importance of cross-cutting criteria (non-discrimination, participation, accountability, impact, and sustainability).
This is a guest blog by Meghan Miller. Meghan is completing her PhD in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has conducted both her masters and doctorate research through The Water Institute.
The Water Institute recently published a systematic review on external support programs (ESPs) that target rural, often community-managed water systems. ESPs are of vital importance to long-term functionality and sustainability of rural drinking water service, as all water systems fail eventually and rural water committees can lack the resources and/or capacity to rehabilitate the systems independently.
The purpose of the systematic review was to determine how ESPs in low-, medium- and high-income countries are described and measured. The aims of the analysis were to: create a typology of ESP activities based on ESPs for rural drinking water systems; identify barriers to ESP access and implementation; and determine how ESPs effect the sustainability of rural water systems.
So what do external support programs do?
The types of ESP activities described in the literature were: technical assistance, financial assistance, monitoring and regulation, communication and coordination, administrative assistance, capacity-building, and creation of policies and enforcement of regulations. Technical assistance, financial assistance, and capacity-building were described in the majority of publications included (66%, 57%, and 53% respectively).
Need for a typology of activities and precise language
The language used to describe ESPs was not consistent between publications about low-, middle-, and high-income countries. When ESP activities go underreported, knowledge transfer is limited and support for ESPs is reduced. Communication and coordination between ESP providers is further limited by inconsistent and imprecise language. We identified twenty-one terms that were used to describe ESPs. Some terms imply that support occurs at specific phases or with specific actors. Post-construction support, for example, assumes that projects have a single construction event. The terminology should reflect how and when support is provided. The better ESP terminology is defined, the better we can compare ESPs in different settings.
External support was the most commonly used term (27% of publications) and we propose using the term “external support programs” to describe the continued support for water systems. Based on our analysis we propose the following definition for ESPs: “the set of activities provided by NGOs, government, private and community-based entities to community-member managers to ensure continued safe operation of a drinking water system.”
What are the barriers to external support programs?
Barriers to ESPs were grouped into six categories: inadequate resources, inadequate ESP support, restrictive policies, lack of communication and coordination, little access to ESPs, and insufficient training of water system managers. The barriers to ESP varied by country income classification. Lack of communication within ESPs and between ESPs and stakeholders was most frequently mentioned in publications about high-income countries (36% of the publications); lack of communicate was often characterized by unclear roles and responsibilities, lack of trust between ESPs and stakeholders, inability to resolve disputes and misunderstanding of local context. Insufficient training of staff and insufficient resources for ESP wa identified as the most common barriers to ESP in publications about low and lower-income countries (57% and 45% of publications respectively).
Little comprehensive monitoring and assessment of ESPs
Twenty studies evaluated the effects of ESPs on water service levels. Most publications described ESP activities but did not undertake data collection to assess the programs. Without a rigorous assessment of ESPs, it is difficult to identify the most effective components of ESPs. Proper monitoring requires that stakeholders understand the activities and models implemented by ESP providers. Presence of ESPs and access to spare parts were used as the indicators of ESP activity by studies assessing the effect of ESPs on households and water systems. Better monitoring would include indicators that measure the six types of ESP activities, such as the frequency and attendance rate of water committee training events. Indicators should also measure the effectiveness of different providers – these outcome indicators should be developed according to the type and purpose of the ESP. Additional assessments of ESPs will help stakeholders identify which ESP activities and models promote sustainability. Support programs can then incorporate those that promote sustainability.
Majority of publications report on ESPs for point sources
The majority of publications addressed ESPs for point sources. The focus on point sources ignores water sources in community institutions and the implementation of more complex water systems. Community institutions, such as schools and health care facilities, have different water use characteristics and management structures than community drinking water systems and support to these community institutions will require adaptations to existing ESPs. Piped water systems, compared to point sources, are more complex, have larger one-time repair costs, typically require repairs more frequently, may require specialist technicians, and may require more expensive parts. Descriptions of ESPs in community settings and for more complex systems will improve knowledge about how ESPs for can be adapted to better serve community needs.
The full article is available as:
Miller, M., Cronk, R., Klug, T., Kelly, E.R., Behnke, N., Bartram, J., 2019. External support programs to improve rural drinking water service sustainability: A systematic review. Sci. Total Environ. 670, 717–731. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.03.069
Figure: Model of the variables that affect and are affected by external support programs based on data from quantitative and qualitative evaluations of external support programs and review of the literature. Plus signs represent a positive relationship and negative signs represent a negative relationship. The dashed lines represent relationships that have been identified in the literature, but were not assessed in the ESP evaluations. Credit: Authors.
by Lena Farré, recent Post-Graduate from University of Basel, Switzerland, summarises the findings of her Masters degree thesis
This exploratory case study carried out in the Kilombero Valley in southwestern Tanzania shows the mechanisms and challenges communities of a rural village face while seeking water access and maintaining their water pumps. The Tanzanian Government and non-governmental organizations follow a Demand Responsive Approach (DRA). According to the water source providers, communities should demand, own, and maintain their water sources as well as contribute to implementing costs in cash or labour. This participatory approach has been criticised to shift the states responsibility to provide water service towards the community level. To design better policies for interventions that will ensure a sustainable and equitable water provision, it is necessary to understand how communities themselves perceive and deal with this implemented community management system. Here, three key findings are presented, which must be taken stronger into consideration when formulating recommendations for practitioners, since they have been found in other case studies as well.
1. Women bear the most time and physical strength consuming tasks
While men mostly get the leading position within a water source committee, the role of the secretary or treasurer is mainly given to women. Women are responsible for the house-to-house monthly fee collection from the families using the water sources. Most social conflicts between the committees and the water source users are linked to the monetary contribution. This results in women being directly exposed to these conflicts and therefore less willing to participate actively in the committees.
2. Mutual mistrust and low transparency
The vulnerable livelihood of the community makes water source users and committee member mistrust each other concerning the payment or safe guarding of the maintenance fees. The need for a sudden financial resource, was mentioned as a reason why water source users doubted that committee members put the entire collected amount of cash onto a bank account. Furthermore, the ability of the committees to control and record the payments of the water source users are restricted due to different reasons: A lack of administrative and accounting skills and remoteness of widely dispersed settlements challenges communication flows. The organization of meetings between water source committees and water users is therefore also difficult. This low transparency fuels mutual mistrust.
3. Social mechanisms to equalize water access exists
Sanctions such as imposed fines or denied access are assumed to push users to pay their monthly fees. However, they were rarely applied. The committee members often grant exemptions after evaluating the socio-economic situations of the water users. Conflicts between the committees and the users occurred if a household is assumed to be able to pay but refuses it. Private water sources within the community caused conflicts as well. Households who purchased a private one feel under pressure to share it with their neighbours. The system of sanctioning community members for not contributing the payment fees or getting a private water source correspond to market rules. However, water is perceived as a free good by many people. Hence, denying water access to a fellow member of the community transgresses cultural norms and behaviour. Sharing water and preventing someone from getting a private water source, are social mechanisms to equalize water access on the village level.
Behaviour based on the social value of water need to be acknowledged
If a sustainable water source management shall be achieved – community mechanisms have to be understood and acknowledged. Sharing water, conflict avoidance and other behaviour which equalizes access amongst the community members can be seen as obstacles towards the community management of water sources within a Demand Responsive Approach. However, it is suggested to evaluate these social structures positively, allowing the poorest of the community to access water. The government’s responsibility to provide water access and to accomplish the Human Right to Water for its citizens should nevertheless not be denied.
The study showed that the potential of collectively managing water sources based on a barely existing consumer culture must be questioned. Additionally, it is recommended to focus more on the understanding of the social values that water has within a rural community. How they look like in more detail within a rural, Tanzanian community is presented in the study.
“Communities themselves, when a borehole is drilled, are supposed to be responsible. They are supposed to have fundraising for maintenance. This is challenging. Often breakdowns are due to simple things. They say ‘we are lacking x, y ,z’. And we ask ‘don’t you have the funds’? But they say ‘no we don’t have money, we are poor, we can’t contribute’. And we try to tell them ‘but this water point is for you, it is yours to look after.’ They don’t take it as their own. They have to take responsibility. Sometimes they go to the councillor or MPs for support.” (Extension worker, Malawi)
In November I wrote a blog describing my first impressions of life in Balaka, Malawi, where I am doing my PhD fieldwork. To recap, my research concerns the sustainability of rural water services. I am particularly interested in the role that actors at the district-level play in developing and, crucially, maintaining these services. Several months on, I am starting to make sense of my experiences shadowing extension workers in their day-to-day work. What strikes me is how these actors have to navigate competing interests and find creative ways to get their jobs done. In this blog I focus on their relationship with communities (service users).
How do extension workers secure cooperation from communities?
In my conversations with government and NGO staff, it was evident that the ‘community-based management’ (CBM) model for water governance is not only enshrined in national water policies, but has become deeply embedded in development practice. CBM means that while government or other external agencies may provide the infrastructure, responsibilities for day-to-day management lie with communities. In other words, communities are expected to look after the water point and cover the costs of repairs. Extension workers play a supporting role, providing training, monitoring and technical advice. This approach is meant to empower service users and ensure that services are more efficient and effective.
As the opening quote illustrates, extension workers have internalised key elements of the CBM model and this does inform their decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously. But policy implementation also entails negotiation. Extension workers have to mediate between the demands of formal policies and government institutions, the interests of communities and their leaders (which are not homogenous) and the influences of other actors such as NGOs or politicians.
In this respect, policies on paper are often an inadequate guide to action. I find the concept of bricolage (Cleaver, 2012) useful to understand how extension workers navigate between these different interests, drawing on a variety of resources. The bricoleur is a kind of amateur handyman, making do with the tools available, whether old or new. This might include formal and informal institutional arrangements, social relations or networks, material and financial resources, ideas and technologies, and so on. The result (policy in practice) is often a hybrid.
How is an extension worker a bricoleur?
Firstly, my research participants tend to see themselves as a bridge between state and citizen, not only representing their Ministry but also communicating people’s needs to the District Council and development partners (donors/NGOs). In carrying out their roles, extension workers shift between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ positions, drawing on social networks, their status as government employees, and cultural norms.
The insider: Often extension workers are not originally from the areas (or ethnic groups) which they currently serve, hence they have to make an effort to gain and maintain trust from communities. They do this primarily through the development of personal relationships, in other words building social capital. For example, participants talked about stopping to drink beer or attending funerals as an important part of their job.
The outsider: Extension workers are afforded a certain status vis-à-vis community members in recognition of their technical expertise and as government employees. Government employees can also leverage support from local leaders such as village headmen who are expected to facilitate policy interventions.
Cultural norms play a role in reinforcing these relationships. Hierarchy is accepted and less powerful people tend to depend on more powerful people, whether traditional or state elites. In rural contexts of Malawi, these hierarchies can undermine community self-help as ordinary people tend to wait for orders or assistance from ‘above’ and rarely question the activities of their ‘betters’. This might give extension workers a degree of authority but clearly has disadvantages for a CBM model aimed at citizen empowerment.
Secondly, cooperation from communities is by no means guaranteed but is essential for CBM to work. Extension workers do meet with resistance, and express frustration when community members make their task difficult. For example, a common problem is the collection of water user fees, which in theory provide the funds needed for water pump repairs. People will often assert they cannot afford to pay, labelling themselves as ‘too poor’.
Extension workers employ several strategies in dealing with resistance. The first is evident in the quote above, namely reiterating key elements of the national water policy. Communities are reminded that they have responsibility for managing the water point and raising funds for its maintenance. It is emphasised that they are the ‘owners’ of that water point. Moreover, if they do not take action there are consequences – they will not have water.
Another strategy is to enlist the support of the village headman, for example calling a meeting in which a problem is discussed communally and a solution agreed. This seems to be an effective way of securing consensus, at least verbally. Extension workers can also resort to threats, for example removing the handle of the pump (effectively cutting off the water supply) until the community has complied. For new projects, the infrastructure can be built in a different village, one where the community is more willing to cooperate. However, antagonistic strategies are a last resort and consensus is generally preferred.
To sum up, extension workers play a crucial role in translating policy into practice, operating at the interface between state and society. Shadowing individuals in the field and getting involved in community training and water points repairs is helping me to better understand what this means in reality. I have seen, first-hand, the constraints the water office faces in terms of financial and material resources and their consequent reliance on other actors (particularly NGOs) to deliver services.
At the same time, I have come to appreciate the dedication and creativity with which extension workers carry out their work and engage with communities. Being a bricoleur is certainly necessary to ‘get the job done’ in rural Balaka.
by Dr Luke Whaley, Professor Frances Cleaver and Felece Katusiime (UPGro Hidden Crisis)
In Uganda, waterpoint committees exist more in name than in reality. Many waterpoints have been ‘personalised’. That is to say, they are under the control of one or a small number of individuals. Moreover, where local management arrangements (of any sort) are effective they tend to rely heavily on the authority of the head of the village council, known as the LC1 Chairperson. Indeed, it is often the LC1 Chairperson and not a waterpoint committee who is instrumental in collecting funds, securing maintenance and resolving disputes. Where an apparently functioning committee is in place, this is usually the result of concerted efforts on the part of particular local NGOs, who cannot guarantee this level of commitment in the longer term.
At least, these are the impressions of Felece Katusiime, a social science field researcher working on the UPGro ‘Hidden Crisis’ project, concerned with the sustainability of rural groundwater supply in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Malawi. They are field insights (preceding full data analysis) from someone who has spent many months in the field undertaking research in roughly 200 rural Ugandan villages. The discussion that follows is intended as a provocation and not a promulgation of project findings. We are interested in the extent to which the points made here accord or contrast with the experiences of you, the readers, and we welcome dialogue on these matters.
So, why might it be that in Uganda waterpoint committees,as envisaged on paper, seldom exist as such on the ground?
The Water & Health Conference at the University of North Carolina is an excellent opportunity to continue this conversation and bring it to an even larger audience. UNC and RWSN will host a one-hour panel discussion and will live stream this as a webcast so that a number of people not attending the conference can take part. Short moderated interventions from panelists will be followed by questions from the audience received both in person and online. The panel discussion will be designed to bring out diverse points of view (for instance, community management has not worked and should be abandoned vs. that it is still a viable model) but also to explore the nuances of the circumstances under which well-supported community management can be successful.
The panel discussion will also be recorded and made available on the RWSN and The Water Institute at UNC websites.
Unfortunately, the webcast will only be available in English, but questions in other languages can be accepted, if submitted beforehand for translation. Be aware that there will be limited time and a lot of interest so it unlikely that everything can be covered.
Harold Lockwood, Director, Aguaconsult UK
Ellie Chowns, Evaluation and Research Specialist, VSO
Eng. Aaron Kabrizi, Director, Ministry of Water and Environment, Uganda
Vida Duti, Country Director, IRC Ghana
Moderator: Clarissa Brocklehurst, Adjunct Professor, Water Institute, UNC
Online host: David Fuente, Assistant Professor, School of Earth, Ocean & Environment, University of South Carolina
Received wisdom still suggests that community management is an important component of sustainable water supply in rural areas and small towns. Despite a shift in emphasis “from system to service”, and the idea of “community management plus”, in reality the basic community management model remains standard practice in many countries. And yet there is plenty of evidence that it is seriously flawed in two key ways. My own research, a mixed methods study covering 338 water points in Malawi (Chowns 2014, Chowns 2015) demonstrates this clearly.
First, community management is inefficient. Preventive maintenance is almost never done, repairs are often slow and sub-standard, and committees are unable to collect and save funds. Average savings are only 2% of the expected level, and only 13% of committees have enough money to buy a single replacement rod.
Equally disappointingly, community management is disempowering. It reinforces existing village power relations, and breeds conflict rather than strengthening social capital. Often, this conflict is around misuse of funds. Many committees are defunct; and when they do exist, as one woman said, ‘the committee is higher than the community’ – meaning downward accountability simply doesn’t happen.
There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between. So we need to take off our rose-tinted spectacles and ask why community management is so enduring, despite its failures.
Why does it remain so popular? Because it’s a fig-leaf for state and donor failure. Community management enables government officials and donors alike to abdicate responsibility for ensuring long-term sustainable water services. Instead, they can blame ‘lazy communities’ for ‘lack of ownership’, and suggest that ‘more training is needed’.
I think we need to question the community management model at a more fundamental level. Slight amendments won’t do the job; a more radical re-thinking is required. Currently, community management transfers responsibility from people with access to finance, skills, and networks (officials & donors) to people with much more limited access to all those things (rural villagers). This isn’t just ineffective – it’s unfair.
So what might work better? Here are three suggestions.
Build better water points. As a social scientist I am happy to acknowledge that engineering really matters! There are still far too many poorly-constructed water points being installed.
It’s superfluous and expensive to train multiple committees of 10-12 people each, when all that is really needed may be one skilled Area Mechanic with a bike, a phone, and (crucially) an effective means of financing his or her work (see next point…)
Pay for results. There’s promising evidence in many sectors that, actually, top-down accountability is part of the solution. Civil society can’t stand in for a dysfunctional state; investment has to help build state capacity. Funding needs to flow through ministries and districts, not bypass them – but they need to be held to account for performance, too.
Currently, community management remains the dominant model because it works better for agencies and governments than for communities themselves. In no other public service sector is so much responsibility placed on users. We don’t expect communities to bear all the recurrent costs of health or education services, so why should we do so for water?
It’s time to acknowledge that community management is both inefficient and disempowering, stop trying to reform it, and look towards replacing it instead.
Dr Ellie Chowns is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield, working with Professor Frances Cleaver on a project with the Geneva Water Hub: “The everyday politics of participatory water governance: cooperation and conflict in community management”.
photo: Broken Afridev in Malawi (Erich Baumann, Skat/RWSN 2008)
(13) Community ownership and responsibilities for modern water resources management
Community ownership of water resources is not envisaged. However, the water resources can be allocated in bulk form according to agreed quantities as per a river basin plan for water resources allocation to community managed piped water supply schemes and Irrigation schemes at secondary and tertiary level.
The Community Based Organizations will be held responsible for managing the water allocated in bulk among individual users by ensuring equitable allocations are distributed among individual users.
They also have a responsibility to maintain good quality water and should participate in consultations for decision making process at village and district / divisional and provincial levels.
They also need to be associated with river basin committees where decisions are made in allocation of water resources for development projects for new water supply schemes and irrigation schemes particularly concerning water diversion schemes that may affect their water allocation rights that have been already granted. They also can play a role in common issues such as maintenance of watershed protection and conservation programmes and environmental flows and sand mining issues and over-extraction of groundwater etc.
Community partnerships will also be required to maintain demand management measures such as reduction of water use when there is shortage in supply levels to enable equitable use of water through awareness creation, application of technology transfer programmes in efficiency improvements, application of associated regulations, imposition of self rule in reduction of water use etc.