Investing in water is just good business sense; the social impact is the bonus

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 Bethlehem Mengistu, based in Ethiopia.

I joined the water sector after working in the broader development space for several years, largely on gender equality, good governance, human rights and civil society strengthening. I chose the water sector because its direct impact on people’s lives was so vivid. On a lighter note, my ‘Aha!’ moment was when I was able to easily explain my work to my 5-year-old niece which reaffirmed its value as well as the relevance of my career choice. I have learned that the most meaningful choices are easily understood as they are closely linked to serving others and positively impacting lives. Having worked in the water sector for over many years, I have had the opportunity to work with and contributed in various roles- from Senior Advisor, Pan African Manager to Country Director in international NGOs, bilateral/donor organisations, and civil society.

The overarching highlight across these roles is the amazing impact access to water has on communities – women, men, girls and boys. The immediate impacts are often obvious – access to water saves lives; it enables the potential for a life of dignity and health. However, the most exciting impacts are the more subtle social and psychological impacts we often gloss over in our reports because they are difficult to quantify.

I fondly recall my proud moments from my visits to project sites where the return on investment from water resulted in better health, quality education and stronger government institutions. Some of the stories of change and impact still resonate with me; they are reminders that while there is still a lot more work to be done to ensure universal access, a lot of good work has already been registered. I remember meeting a man in a maternal and child health centre, which recently gained access to running water, stating that he was able to attend the birth of his child because he didn’t have to spend time fetching clean water to the birthing ward for the delivery.

Another story that stuck with me was my visit to a Rural Water board, a type of community-run utility, in 2017 in Ethiopia. The scheme was constructed in 1996 with 80 public taps and 143 km of pipeline. The scheme has expanded its service over time and at the time of my visit, it was serving 13 villages, with nearly 4000 domestic connections, and accumulated savings of ETB 3.8m (approximately US$160,000). The project was handed over to the utility several decades ago, it was a time when ‘systems oriented’ programming was lesser known but presents evidence that thinking beyond the immediate gains i.e. access rates, and considering elements that keep the service running are key to sustainable results. This model of water supply management challenged the conventional notion that communities are not able to manage large or complex water supply schemes. The model also conveyed that economies of scale are achievable with a skilled team of staff to effectively run the water scheme supported by robust governance and accountability structures.

But what do these results really mean on the broader narrative of how we (implementers), as well as donors, qualify results and success from water projects? It is essentially about the long game, about re-imagining what qualifies as a successful and transformative water program. Thinking beyond boreholes and pumps onto partnerships that enable government and national leadership, institutional building, lifecycle costing, operation and maintenance, inclusion and equity, and various other aspects. A typical response to this thinking might be: People need water today so why complicate things by talking about complex concepts? Well, the normative approach to project-based investment is not resulting in transformative and sustainable water services! If we are looking to make low service levels and failed water points a narrative of the past, a comprehensive and systemic approach to tackling sustainability is the most viable pathway. 

The challenges during my leadership journey in the water sector were largely linked to the fact that I didn’t have a large pool of female peers to learn from and share challenges with. This required me to cultivate my own ‘sister circle’ which is critical for both professional and personal growth. Like most development sectors issues of intersectionality and localisation are visible in the water sector, diversity in representation especially in leadership and decision-making roles can gain from change. In many of the spaces I was part of during my career I was amongst the few women present in the rooms and the more senior the leadership role, i.e.: Director or Senior Advisor, the fewer the number of women present. This was especially vivid when I was attending sector meetings with government ministries, investors and other stakeholders. Across both public and non-government spaces, it is usually the case that most senior roles are occupied by senior men who have been in their roles for an extended period. While this may add value to institutionalising practices, it has adversely impacted innovation, equality, and inclusivity in policy and practice. This requires a course correction because inclusion and localisation are effective pathways to sustainable outcomes that will get us closer to realising universal access to water. It will be difficult to expect a different result if we are applying the same approach to tackling problems.

Given that diversity and inclusion is a recognizable challenge in our sector useful efforts by RWSN to promote mentorship programs for young professionals and women in water have been quite useful. It is evident that other platforms are also taking the learnings and nuggets to shape similar interventions, including Agenda for Change’s upcoming Women in WASH mentorship program. It also points to the immense value RWSN has had over the years in brokering resources, learnings, and practices amongst sector actors. Over the course of several years, the network has been the go-to for knowledge, resources, and contacts for water practice and practitioners.

Looking forward it is clear that delivering universal access where no one is left behind will require a systems-oriented, innovative and dynamic approach. Collaboration and partnership present opportune avenues for water sector actors to punch above their unilateral weight to achieve collective impact in light of increasingly complex operating spaces. The pandemic has highlighted that water is not only a development target in itself but also, more importantly, an enabler of most other SDG targets. It is observed that communities with high levels of access are resilient to health or environmental shocks. Investing in water is just good business sense, the social impact is the bonus. I expect that going forward the interface of the water sectors with other sectors (health, nutrition, food security) will become increasingly prominent as contexts remain unpredictable. Linked to these emerging factors I appreciate my current role as Global Coordinator for Agenda for Change, a global platform that convenes key water sector actors to collectively tackle notable challenges facing the sector to accelerate sustainable universal access. Over the coming years, I hope to continue to contribute to and influence the sector in a senior global role while championing equality and inclusive approaches for lasting impact.

About the author: Bethlehem is a long-time global WASH expert with a passion for building collaboration, partnerships, and systems approaches. She is currently the Global Coordinator of Agenda for Change. She has over 18 years of experience in the development sector and deep knowledge of African policy, spanning the areas of WASH, gender equality, human rights and governance. Throughout her career, she has provided technical advice to governments, development partners, and technical teams and held multiple leadership roles where she advanced programmatic impact and influence in Ethiopia, and more widely in East Africa and parts of the Asia region.

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.

Why getting ‘water affordability’ right matters – and how water diaries can be of help

re-posted from REACH

Dr Sonia Hoque, University of Oxford

Having access to 24/7 potable piped water in the comfort of our dwelling is a luxury that many of us take for granted. In the UK, an annual water and sewerage bill of £400 accounts for about 1% of the annual average household income of £40,000. This ‘safely managed’ water service, defined as having access to an improved source within one’s premises, is well within the widely established global affordability threshold of 3-5% of one’s household income. Estimating payments for water as a percentage of households monthly expenditures may adequately reflect ‘affordability’ in contexts where households have connections to piped water systems or rely on paid sources only.

Continue reading “Why getting ‘water affordability’ right matters – and how water diaries can be of help”

Getting to the heart of climate resilient WASH

by Dr John Butterworth, IRC WASH Ethiopia – re-posted with permission

Climate resilient WASH is about new ways of working across the traditional humanitarian and development sectors. We went to one of the harshest spots in Ethiopia, and surely in the world, to find out more.

Photo: An existing water point in Afdera, Afar

Continue reading “Getting to the heart of climate resilient WASH”

The most important stories in rural water supply // Les histoires d’approvisionnement en eau en milieu rural les plus importants

Making water work for women – inspiring stories from around the world

The reality in much of the world today is that collecting water for the home is a job done by women – so gender issues are central to everything we do in rural water supply – self-supply, pump design, borehole siting, tariff collection, water resource management, business models or using ICT to improve service delivery.

In this week’s webinar we have brought together more inspiring stories from Nicaragua, India and the World Bank.  We are taking ‘gender’ from being a tokenistic tick-box to a living, vibrant, practical core of every rural water service.

Join the us next Tuesday 23 May – it an opportunity to have your practical and policy questions answered from world class experts.

 Did you miss Part 1? Don’t worry. You can watch and listen to the inspiring experiences from Burkina Faso, India, Ethiopia and Bangladesh on the RWSN video channel:

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L’eau au service des femmes – des histoires inspirantes

La réalité dans beaucoup d’endroits dans le monde aujourd’hui est que l’approvisionnement en eau pour les besoins domestiques reste un travail porté par les femmes – donc les questions liées au genre sont au coeur de toutes les activités que nous entreprenons dans le secteur de l’eau rurale: auto-approvisionnement, conception des pompes, emplacement des forages, recouvrement des tariffs, gestion des ressources en eau, ou utiliser les TIC pour améliorer les services.

Le webinaire de la semaine permettra d’entendre des histoires intéressantes du Nicaragua, de l’Inde et de la Banque Mondiale. Nous souhaitons passer d’une compréhension de la notion de genre se bornant à cocher une case, pour mettre en avant les aspects vivants, pratiques et essentiels qui font partie de tous les services d’eau ruraux.

Joignez-vous à nous mardi prochain – ce sera l’occasion de poser vos questions sur la pratique et la politique à des experts du domaine.

Vous n’avez pas pu participer à la première partie de ce wébinaire? Vous pouvez écouter des expériences inspirantes du Burkina Faso, de l’Inde, de l’Ethiopie, et du Bangladesh sur la chaine viméo du RWSN:

 

 

#RWSN @ #WWW : the presentations

RWSN co-convened two sessions at last week’s SIWI World Water Week in Stockholm and presentations are available to download:

WASHoholic Anonymous – Confessions of Failure and how to Reform

All presentations: http://programme.worldwaterweek.org/sites/default/files/panzerbeiter_lt_1400.pdf

Build and Run to Last: Advances in Rural Water Services

Continue reading “#RWSN @ #WWW : the presentations”

Water Crisis – Spotlight on Ethiopia’s Boricha district — WaterSan Perspective

Zelalem Genemo in Hawassa Ethiopia June 13, 2016 In Boricha district of Ethiopia, women and children walk up to five hours to collect water from shallow and unprotected ponds which they share with animals. Sometimes water in these ponds is contaminated as rainwater washes wastes from surrounding areas into the sources. Often, children are left […]

via Water Crisis – Spotlight on Ethiopia’s Boricha district — WaterSan Perspective

What’s happening in RWSN?

So this week, Kerstin Danert , Dotun Adekile and Jose Gesti Canuto are in Zambia running a “Procurement, Contract Management and Costing and Pricing of Borehole Projects” course with 40 water sector professionals as part of the RWSN collaboration between Skat and UNICEF on cost effective boreholes.

In Perú, The World Bank and SDC have been running a RWSN side event on rural water supply at this year’s Latinosan conference. This is first of two preparatory meetings (the second will be in Bangkok in May) for the 7th RWSN Forum, which will be 29th Nov – 2 December 2016

The World Bank, IRC, WaterAid and UNICEF will be actively involved in next week’s SWA High Level Meeting of WASH sector Ministers in Addis Ababa helping to make sure that rural water (and indeed sanitation and hygiene) become a high political priorities on government agendas and budgets.

and finally, World Water Day is on 22nd of March, so you have any rural water stories to share, then get in touch.

Funding opportunity – Water Security

Happy New Year!

Let’s start 2016 with a bang:  a call for expressions of interest (EOIs) for ‘Catalyst Grants’ which are commissioned under the REACH programme.

Dr Katrina Charles explains the REACH Catalyst Grant process
Dr Katrina Charles explains the REACH Catalyst Grant process (click picture to see YouTube video)

These Catalyst Grants of between £10,000 and £50,000 each are designed to explore novel approaches to water security and poverty research and policy that complement the core research conducted by the REACH programme. These grants will promote the co-production of effective tools and technologies relevant for and adopted by policy makers, practitioners, civil society organisations and enterprise.

There are three themes for this call:

  1. Water security for vulnerable people
  2. Water security risk science
  3. Water security partnerships.

Continue reading “Funding opportunity – Water Security”

How to make Self–supply more tangible?

rope pump demo
Rope pump demonstration (A. Olschewski/Skat)

As part of the celebration of the World Water Day 2015 the rural water sector in Ethiopia organized a 3-day event on Self-supply (19th – 21st March) including a trade fair for producers of Self-supply technology and a 2-day seminar with inputs from international and national speakers. The fair hosted more than 20 local suppliers and producers which allowed potential clients to check technologies in detail, to speak to suppliers and compare products for e.g. water lifting, drilling, water treatment.

Suppliers were invited to to market themselves by giving a 3-minutes pitch to the public. A panel of experts gave feedback so that the brave pitchers could improve on their promotion in the future.

In the international seminar on 20th March, experiences from other countries on accelerating Self-supply were shared as well as the information on steps taken so far to roll out Self-supply in Ethiopia including linkages to small scale agriculture and the multiple use concept.

WHO presented results from various studies on water quality analysis of samples from improved and unimproved sources.It became obvious that the concept of improved/unimproved sources is not good for indicator of safe water supply. This perception was so far one of the key challenges addressed to accept Self-supply.

In the future WHO recommends enforcing its concept of Water Safety Plans and clearly promoted household water treatment for any water used for drinking water in rural areas. The Ethiopian water sector will develop ideas on how to establish and follow up water safety plans in Ethiopia which fit to the Self-supply context.

To attract more people similar fairs are planned for other towns in Ethiopia in the near future.

All slides of the international seminar on Self–supply (20th March) and some photos of the fair will be uploaded on the RWSN website.

My Water, My Business

activities as part of World Water Day 2015 events, 19-20 March 2015, Addis Ababa

Sustainable development of water requires fresh thinking and new innovation. Ethiopia is pioneering new approaches in water, sanitation and hygiene (WasH) that draw upon the resources of local people, communities and entrepreneurs to further improve water security, food security and wealth. ‘My Water, My Business’ is a series of linked events organised as part of the 2015 World Water Day celebrations to bring attention to these household-level efforts. The events will connect sector policy-makers, development partners, professionals and engaged local governments and communities. The overall message is that to complement the efforts of utilities, woredas and other traditional service providers, households can do a lot themselves to improve their water and sanitation facilities and related hygiene practices. You can improve your own water supply, sanitation and hygiene.

WaSH product fair starts Thursday 19 March

Continue reading “My Water, My Business”