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What does it take to sustain sustainability?

As argued several times in this blog, post-construction support is one of the keys to sustainability of rural water supplies. One element of post-construction support is monitoring of aspects such as service levels and the performance of service providers, through which the support providers can better target their assistance. The last few years have seen a boom in efforts to set up information and monitoring systems of rural water supplies in many countries. Some were in first instance a one-off mapping exercise of all water points in a country; others were developed with the aim of regular updating for ongoing monitoring purposes. Particularly, cellphone technology has been instrumental in speeding up this process, as it is used in systems like FLOW (Field Level Operations Watch). A key question that comes back in the discussions on the topic (see for example the excellent discussion on the Rural Water Supply Network’s D-Group) is the sustainability of monitoring efforts. This was also a central point during this week’s work on the monitoring system that I did in El Salvador.

El Salvador is considering joining the SIASAR (Rural Water and Sanitation Information System) initiative, an effort of various countries in Central America to develop a common monitoring system for rural water supply and sanitation. Just like FLOW, it uses smart phones for data collection on basic indicators like service levels and performance of service providers. One of the considerations in this, is the institutional framework for such monitoring. For a first baseline collection, the solution seems relatively straightforward – to hire enumerators for data collection, whereas the national authority, ANDA, would administer the system, process the data and analyse the results. Consultants can also be hired to help municipalities and community-based service providers with the analysis and interpretation of the data. The more difficult question is the institutional structure for the recurrent monitoring. Hiring enumerators every time is probably not feasible and not a sustainable option. An alternative being considered is self-reporting by service providers. As many have access to computers with internet or cellphones, they could relatively easily update any changes in their indicators. The disadvantage of such an arrangement is that it brings little incentives for the service providers. The whole idea of the monitoring is being able to receive and direct support in a better manner; through self-reporting there is no more contact between service provider and the support provider. To overcome this limitation, the idea is to present and discuss the results of the self-reporting annually at the level of each municipality. That is, all service providers in a certain municipality would sit together with municipal staff to validate and analyse the data, so as to identify support actions. Under such an arrangement, initially the municipalities would still require significant support from for example the national authority, local consultants or NGOs, in doing such data analysis and interpretation, as this would be a new area of responsibility for them.

In order to get better insights into what is feasible, we also made first estimates of the costs of these arrangements for monitoring. These indicate that a full national baseline study would be around 0.30 US$/rural inhabitant, including the costs of time of government staff and contracted enumerators. This refers only to the data collection and processing, not to the costs of the development of the system, nor to the costs of providing feed-back on the data to local actors. A few cents need to be added if that were done. Regular monitoring (e.g. annually) according to the arrangements mentioned above (self-reporting with joint analysis at municipal level) would cost an estimated 0.10 US$/rural person. Note that this figure gives a monetary value to the time of community-based service providers and municipal staff, and may not represent a direct expenditure to the government. Over the coming period, discussions need to be held to see whether this is a sustainable level of costs. It seems like a small amount, but for a total rural population of around 3 million people, it means annually 300.000 US$ needs to be spent on monitoring, not an insignificant amount. And probably, this number may change as and when we get better insight into these costs. However, they do give a first idea of the order of magnitude.

The sustainability of rural water monitoring systems also was point of discussion during a meeting of staff of the Inter-American Development Bank I attended this week. Comments made during the discussion also point to an issue of capacity. Many municipalities simply lack capacity and skills for regular updating of monitoring systems, or have no incentives to do so. Examples were mentioned of monitoring systems that managed to get a good one-off mapping but failed to be regularly updated and used.

And sure, there are many problems with the sustainability of monitoring systems, particularly in terms of the institutional arrangements, the capacity that they require and the costs. And we probably all know sector information systems, that have failed or underperformed. But should these problems, stop us from investing in yet another effort towards monitoring? My sense is no. Probably some of the nice examples of monitoring systems we see now, will deliver only a one-off result or may not yield the results that were expected. But, monitoring is too important to just give up upon. Rather, more effort should go into thinking through the risks to sustainability in a more structured way. Getting to grips with costs is one way of identifying risks. The discussions in the D-group also indicate the urgent need to put some of the costs of monitoring together in a manner that is comparable (any takers?). Identifying different options for institutionalizing the monitoring is another way of thinking through the risks of different alternatives. One point that is already becoming clear is that it doesn’t make much sense to develop monitoring systems, if the responsibility for post-construction support is not clearly defined, as then there is little incentive for service providers to provide data and no capacity to use the data.  

This, I hope, will also be one of the key areas of discussion during the upcoming symposium on monitoring WASH in early 2013, as it is a theme that merits much more discussion. Only by thinking through the risks to the sustainability of monitoring, can measures be taken to address them, so that they can support sustainable rural water supplies. 

By: Stef Smits

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5 comments on “What does it take to sustain sustainability?

  1. Hello Stef – thanks for this post – I could not agree with you more about the need for monitoring, but also the need to think about incentives to provide information (which is, lamentably, often forgotten). The risk is either no information or, perhaps worse still, “Rubbish In, Rubbish Out”, something we blogged about in November last year. See http://bit.ly/SYI8EV.

    In Madagascar we’re talking about ways to get the information from service providers but also to test the sorts of incentives (tangible and intangible) that are needed to have it be forthcoming. I think it is important too not to forget the users – it is possible, after all, in this day and age to cross-reference self-reporting from users. So we’re looking at this too.

    Anyway – I hope, as you do, that these discussions continue to pick up momentum – and find their niche too in Addis next year.

    Best for now, David Schaub-Jones
    david (at) greenseesaw (dot) com

  2. […] Read about work IRC is doing on the sustainability of rural water monitoring systems in this blogpost by Stef Smits […]

  3. […] Read about work IRC is doing on the sustainability of rural water monitoring systems in this blogpost by Stef Smits […]

  4. […] the underlying assumptions and acknowledge the evidence on actual demand for water. In another blog, Smits points out that it doesn’t make much sense to develop monitoring systems if the […]

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