The critical component to success: community capacity building.
Drilling a well takes a couple of days, but laying the social groundwork necessary to sustain the system takes months.
What happens when households are able to illegally tap into a water system and do not contribute to operation costs?
What happens when politics undermine the water management committee and the powers that be replace elected members with their cronies?
What happens when there is no oversight to ensure that user fees are being properly collected and reported?
What happens when people distrust the water committee members and break the lock on the well house?
What happens when no-one bothers to inspect the water-lines for leaks and cracked pipes are not replaced?
Answer: The water system breaks, and no one gets any water.
You can replace the pipes, repair the pump, and change the lock to the well house, but without a social intervention these problems are destined to be repeated.
Successful HIV programs, for example, include voluntary testing, treatment and prevention. Treatment is only one part of the solution, and prevention is the most cost effective. The same is true of water programs: it is cheaper to prevent a major system breakdown than to replace a system every two years.
In the case of water systems, prevention entails preparing individuals in the community for the responsibility of managing the water system. Maintaining a water system costs money, so the management committee must learn to be financially transparent and accountable. This is most difficult in areas where literacy is low.
Some questions that need to be considered BEFORE construction begins include the following:
How much will it cost to maintain the system? Where will the money to maintain the system come from?
If people will pay to use the water then how much will they pay? How often? Who will collect the money? What measures will be taken to maintain financial transparency before the community?
What if an aggressive well-connected community member refuses to pay? Or, if you are in charge of collecting the money and your sister doesn’t have enough to pay? Will anyone notice if you let her slide?
When it comes to competing for donor funds, the money follows the numbers of people who can gain access – so more wells mean more money.
But let us look at the math. Let’s say a donor has enough money to drill 50 wells, each of which will serve 250 people. If we assume that the wells last at least 2 years without any further intervention, and assume that the aquifer can provide water year round, the project will provide 9,125,000 people water days; (people water days= number of people with access to water X number of days they have access).
Now, instead of drilling 50 wells, what if a donor invested in 10 wells and used the rest of the funds for pre and post construction management training and support? Each of these 10 wells will again serve 250 people. If we assume that these investments would enable communities to sustain wells for 20 years (before a comprehensive replacement), the project would provide a total of 18,250,000 water people days. In this example, despite building only a fifth of the wells as the first project, the second project produces twice the impact.
Strategic entrepreneurs are keen to identify businesses with the potential for long term sustainable growth and are less attracted by those with dubious claims of immediate profits. Donors interested in maximizing their impact on water and sanitation should also think long term, and evaluate projects based on their commitment to community capacity building and post project support.
Laura Ralston, Haiti Program Manager