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“A bit more for some” may not be a bad idea

Two weeks ago, the “management and support” working group of the RWSN had its first meeting. This meeting focused specifically on management models and support arrangements for piped water supply in small towns. As rural settlements become bigger, a shift is made from point sources – like boreholes with handpumps – to piped systems. This trend has happened in Latin America and parts of Asia, and is now about to start in Africa and South Asia as well, as argued in the background paper by Marieke Adank. And as there is a shift to piped systems, users may actually want to shift towards higher levels of service. The question is whether that is not a bad idea?

Let’s first look at some of the data. Various presentations highlighted the shift in demand, particularly in terms of wanting supplies on their premise (yard- or in-house taps) and larger quantities of water than the typical basic supply of 20-25 lpcd. This was found, amongst others, in the work by Jonathan Annis in Madagascar. One reason for this change in demand is convenience: not having to queue and walk is worth a lot. But also, multiple-use is a possible driver for this. The work of Ralph Hall and colleagues showed how small piped schemes in Kenya and Senegal are being used for all kinds of productive uses, even at low levels of supply. But, people with  private taps were much more likely to engage in productive uses than those without. But, having more water and water closer to the homestead could lead to even more productive uses, a point also expressed in the MUS (multiple-use services) water ladder. Ralph’s work also shows that increasing supplies to, let’s say, 50 lpcd would mostly be cost-effective, as the money earned from increased production is higher than the incremental costs of increasing the system’s capacity. This might be a strong argument for going for higher levels of service.

This is the moment when an equity purist would say: “wait a minute. It is not a good idea to advocate for higher levels of service. We cannot provide more for some, we should provide first some for all”. The argument goes that public money should first be spent on meeting the human right to water for everyone, i.e. extending coverage to each and every person. Only once that goal is met, could public money be spent on increasing levels of service. The equity purist might have a strong point. However, in many cases, it is not a bad idea to provide “a bit more for some” at the expense of “some for all”. There are several reasons for that:

First of all, it may increase the likelihood of sustainability, as users with household connections may be more likely to pay and contribute to sustainability of services, particularly when their livelihoods depend on it. The work by Ralph points to a correlation for example between the extent of multiple-uses and performance of services – though not all relations are clearly understood, as I also discussed in an earlier blog post.

Secondly, more complex systems that provide higher levels of service, may also trigger the need and the possibility to have a more professional service provider, as Jonathan Annis noted in his presentation.  

Thirdly, and obviously, if people demand it, it is difficult to stop it. Worse, when you try to stop it, it may lead to all kinds of problems. Where people want more water or closer to home, and this is not provided for, they often resort to unauthorised connections, with all kinds of other problems resulting from that, such as leakages and conflicts within communities. This lesson has been learnt before and is clearly expressed in much of the literature on multiple-use for example. People who already have some level of access to water cannot wait until the last “house on top of the mountain” is also connected, before they can make the next step on the water ladder.

So from a sustainability perspective it may make sense to provide “more for some” at the expense of “some for all”. And, though nobody has been saying that higher levels of service should be paid for by public money, it is often the case that public money is spent on the “more for some”. Sure, it is common for people with household connections to pay a higher tariff than those with standpipes, and some may also pay a connection fee. Jonathan Annis also showed in his presentation how those with household connections pay a higher tariff per m3. In theory, the funds from those with a higher level of service could often cross-subsidise those accessing public standpipes. In reality, this doesn’t always happen, and often the ones with a higher level of service, actually pay less per m3 than those with a basic level of service. Moreover, such tariffs may not include the capital investment costs. So climbing the water ladder will often be partially funded through public funds; funds, which could have also been spent on covering the uncovered. And even though this is not such a bad idea, when considering the possible sustainability gains it brings, we must recognise the tension with the equity imperative.

The main implication of this all, is that governments, donors, implementers and NGOs should start thinking much more in terms of differentiated service options. Do not make the basic level of service, the default, but give more options for higher levels of service, obviously with all due considerations for tariffs, management requirements, etc. It also calls upon us to develop and promote more differentiated service delivery models. In that sense, the results of a MUS group roundtable earlier this month, was of interest. In this meeting, MUS was further conceputalised as an approach for service delivery, for higher – or differentiated – levels of service. This and other models will be needed to facilitate the transition from the current approach to rural and small town water supply, mainly based on basic services, to more complex and differentiated services, so that in the end “a bit more for some” in fact does become a good idea.

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2 comments on ““A bit more for some” may not be a bad idea

  1. Reblogged this on Rural Water Supply Network – Blog and commented:
    A great report from Stef on the RWSN Management & Support workshop two weeks ago

  2. Hi Stef – thanks for this.
    I think the other thing, implicit in your point, is counting the ’20 year cost’ of providing the service. Sure, providing a better level of service, in small towns, may cost more (and is, by the way, something I am fully behind). But then if it is more sustainable and ‘pays for itself’ (a big IF, to be sure) – then maybe it does not actually cost more than providing a handpump in the same spot every 3-5 years (if the stats we’re getting about functionality are true). OK I have not run the numbers on this, but you see (?) what I am getting at.
    Plus, as you say, it is what people want. And that’s usually not a bad thing to pay attention to!
    Thanks, David Schaub-Jones

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