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Sustaining what?

Sustainability is on top of the list! Of countries, of development partners and of IRC. Now that we know about the high break down rates of pumps and pipes, we are alarmed. And we should! Not only because breakdowns are a waste of investment and a waste of tax payers’ money, but because people have to go back to polluted water sources and patiently have to wait until a generous NGO or politician comes along to give them a new system. So yes indeed, there is reason to be angry and to not accept the infrastructure falling apart. It should work, continuously! And if it does not work, we must know what is going on and do something about it.

But what exactly do we need to know? Whether the thing functions or not? That is problematic because the pump may be broken but the 100 meter deep borehole may be perfectly in order. And the pressure in the piped system may have dropped 50%, but some drops of water are still coming out of the taps. Functionality of infrastructure as an expression of sustainability is a problematic concept. Functionality as an indicator reinforces the infrastructure focus on water supply. That infrastructure focus is in our veins. There is a pump, so there is water. It is at the heart of development funding, it is the visible part of our development efforts, it is on the covers of glossy charity magazines, it is in the election speeches of politicians. It is a gift; it is supplied by the good people to the poor people. It goes with pink ribbons and speeches.

What if we would approach the pump from the receiving side? Say the consumer side. Do we, in this part of the world really care about the type of treatment plant that filters our water, or whether our water comes from rivers or aquifers or what kind of pipes have been used? A consumer wants water, a good water service that provides water of a good and safe quality in sufficient quantities and that flows preferably 24/7 and in our homes. And we are willing to pay for a good and uninterrupted service. A consumer wants a water service whatever the infrastructure to provide it.

Looking at water from a service perspective is a radical change from looking at water as a piece of infrastructure. Delivering services is far more complex than delivering a piece of infrastructure. How to guarantee a service level of a certain quantity, quality, accessibility and reliability? For that you need to monitor the service delivered, check water quality, repair, upgrade, replace – the daily concerns for delivering a water service. Financing, fee setting, planning, regulation and monitoring performance are part of securing the service in the long term. That is a hell of a job; that is about governance, about management, about policy making and enforcement, about capacities and transparency. That is a lot more complex than providing and / or replacing pieces of infrastructure. But it is the only way to go.  Sustainability is about what consumers receive! By accepting that perspective, we have an opportunity to break out of the gift driven way of supplying water. We have a chance to systematically start looking at governance and capacities to plan and manage. We have a chance to really mature towards a service driven sector and towards a service driven nation. That is a radical change and it is desperately needed.

As it seems the new MDGs, the post-2015 development indicators will be based on the human right to WASH as signed off by the UN. That is a good thing, because human rights also approach water from the consumer perspective. So maybe in a few years’ time the international community will use quantity, quality, reliability and accessibility as indicators for a water service instead of access to an improved source or coverage. Actually that would be wonderful and will stimulate countries and development partners to invest in capacities, in governance, in monitoring, in support systems and in asset management. Initiatives of bilateral donors putting sustainability checks in their funding agreements and international NGOs making themselves accountable for number of years of sustainability instead of number of water points are going in the same direction. There is still a lot to do, but the shift from approaching water as a piece of infrastructure to approaching water as a service is taking shape and will radically change water governance in countries and aid relationships.

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One comment on “Sustaining what?

  1. While I agree that we should establish and hold ourselves accountable to standards for quantity, quality, reliability and accessibility in water services, I disagree that this is a radical new idea or that we ‘now’ know about high breakdown rates. We have actually been talking and writing about these very same issues for 30 years, and during that time project failure rates have not changed.

    We keep treating the situation as if it’s the consequence of lack of education and understanding of the principles of sound project implementation. I know that is not the case. The problem is that the predominant motivational factors (read “funding”) have driven organizations to this state and there has been no sufficient counter motivation introduced to get organizations to change their patterns of behavior. I also know a lot of very smart implementers out there with years of experience in what works and what doesn’t. Most of what we talk about and write about with regards to sustainability is not news to them. Unfortunately these field staff, who know what they need to implement a program that is successful over the long-term, are often not the same people who sign the restricted funding agreements with the donor.

    I think what is needed is another not so radical or new idea, because it has already been implemented in other sectors. I believe the time has come for the water and sanitation sector to have a third party rating/certification system to ensure that we are actually delivering on our promises and not continuing to give lip service to the ideas of routine monitoring and consumer satisfaction with water services.

    Would you hire a lawyer who tells you she has the experience to practice law or do you look for someone who has passed the bar exam? Do you consult a physician who tells you he has expertise in oncology or a board certified MD? Do you buy the car that the manufacturer says runs for 100,000 miles or that Consumer Reports says runs for 100,000 miles? Let’s provide funders with reliable data on how successful organizations are at implementing programs that meet the long-term needs of beneficiaries and see how that project failure rate changes over time.

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