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.