Apples and oranges: a comparative assessment in WASH

A few weeks ago, an interesting email discussion was held on “water point mapping” D-Group of the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN). Part of the discussion focused on how much it costs to map or monitor all water systems in a country. Various figures were floating around in the discussion. But when looking at these in more detail, it was like comparing apples to oranges. Some of the costs mentioned had included the staff time of (local) government, others hadn’t, as they considered this to be a fixed cost; some referred only to a simple mapping of water points, others had done a more comprehensive collection of all kinds of data of the water points; some of the data were expressed in dollars per water point, others in local currency per person. So, no immediate sense could be made of the numbers. A former colleague once said: “an apple is an orange”. And with that in mind, I started comparing these apples and oranges – after all they are not so different and by comparing them you may find that both are fruits with a diameter of a couple of about 10 centimeters and full of vitamins – so some trend could maybe come out.

The result of this comparison, using data from the e-discussion, as well as from other sources, is presented in the table below. To make the figures more comparable I took the original data from these reference and converted them to 2011 US$, for as far as the information would allow. From the reports it was not clear whether market exchange rates or ppp conversions were applied already. Some data were already expressed as costs per person; others in costs per water point or per district. Where actual average numbers per water point were known, I used these, or otherwise I used the design number of persons per water point.

Costs of water point mapping or monitoring

Country Reported cost Reference Unit costs (2011 US$)
Ghana 0.12 US$/person Dickinson, 2012 0.12 US$/person
Liberia 45-50 US$/water point ~ approximately 0.08 US$/person Water Point Mapping D-Group, 2012 Appr. 0.10 US$/person
Malawi 10 US$/water point ~ approximately0.04 US$/person Welle, 2005 Appr 0.05 US$/person
Mozambique 0.17 US$/person (estimated) Water Point Mapping D-Group, 2012 0.17 US$/person
Swaziland 0.47 US$/person (budget) Water Point Mapping D-Group, 2012 0.47 U$/person
Tanzania 7500 US$/district ~ approximately 0.05 US$/person Welle, 2005 0.06 US$/person
Uganda 294,463 US$ for whole rural area M4W presentation 0.01 US$/person

A main point that becomes clear is the order of magnitude of the costs of mapping or monitoring, which seems to be around some 10 cents of a dollar per person. The exact number doesn’t matter so much – that is the difference between the apple and the orange – it is the order of magnitude that is of most importance. Only the figures from Swaziland and Uganda seem to deviate a lot. Maybe Swaziland is more expensive because it is a small country, where the fixed costs of developing a water point mapping weigh relatively more on the per capita costs. Why Uganda seems so much cheaper is not clear to me, and I’d like to invite readers to share their thoughts on this.

The last weeks, I have been working on the support to the roll out of nation-wide monitoring efforts in El Salvador and Honduras. In both countries, there is an initiative is to map all water systems (not water points as nearly all are piped schemes) and collect information on the status of these systems, the service delivered and the performance of the service provider, and establish a system for ongoing monitoring of these water systems, so as to better direct post-construction support.

The work consisted of facilitating a dialogue to define the institutional arrangements for the monitoring, both in the first “sweep” of all water systems in the country, as well as for the ongoing monitoring. Both countries seem to opt for a set-up where the first sweep is done in a centralised campaign kind of way, with hired technicians collecting data from the water systems. After processing all data, a joint analysis is envisaged between staff from municipalities, water committees and these technicians. For ongoing monitoring, a set-up is envisaged in which water committees collect and update the data from their own systems, and then share these in municipal water committee meetings, where they can be analysed together with municipal staff and other water committees.

In El Salvador, an initial costing, put the cost of this set-up to about 0.30 US$/person for the first sweep and at 0.10 US$ for the ongoing monitoring. In this, the time costs of all involved, including municipal officials and members of the water committees and plumbers was quantified. In Honduras, a first pilot is underway and the first results indicate a cost of about 0.24 US$/person for the first sweep. This pilot is still underway, and particularly the step of the analysis is taking more time than expected. Interestingly, many of the monitoring efforts focus on the logistics and costs of the data collection, and surely that is a massive effort and indeed represents the bulk of the costs. But the data from Honduras suggest that the costs of analysis shouldn’t be underestimated. Many municipalities and water committees need support in the analysis, to make sense of the monitoring data and develop plans for post-construction support; support from technicians is needed in this. For the ongoing monitoring, also a budget was made, and it would come down to about 0.23 US$/person, in which again also the time costs of water committee members has been quantified.

Adding these figures to the table above, would be akin to adding some pears to the apple-orange comparison. Both in Honduras and El Salvador, the effort goes beyond water point mapping and involves a more comprehensive collection of data about water systems, service levels and service providers; it includes an analysis phase in which data are presented back to municipalities and communities and jointly analysed; costs of time of local government staff and communities is quantified. Some of this may have been the case in the countries presented in the table – or not. And in the end, that doesn’t even matter. The comparison of costs of monitoring between countries, is not to check which country is cheaper or provides “more monitoring per dollar”. One should assume that each country has tried to be as cost-effective as possible in their given context. What the comparison should do is showing that, in spite of being apples, oranges or pears, they are all fruit, and they give a reasonable idea of the costs involved in monitoring, which is somewhere between 10 and 30 cents per person. As monitoring seems to get more and more attention on the WASH sector’s agenda, this could be a first reference figure to be used in the discussions about it. But as the work on monitoring evolves, hopefully we can squeeze more comparable data out of the apples and oranges, so as to have more fruitful discussions on the costs and financing of monitoring efforts. I’d like to invite you all to contribute to the growing fruit salad of monitoring costs.


Dickinson, N. 2012 forthcoming. ICT for monitoring rural water services: from smart phones to cloud computing. Triple-S Working Paper. IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre

Water Point Mapping D-Group. 2012. Online Discussion Platform. http://dgroups.org/rwsn/mapping/discussions

Welle, K. 2005. Learning for Advocacy and Good Practice – WaterAid Water Point Mapping. WaterAid and ODI, UK

2 comments on “Apples and oranges: a comparative assessment in WASH

  1. As someone who has been involved in the design and implementation of the M4W system, I would like to highlight the basis for the estimates. Then we can contrast with others
    1) devices – we are using feature phones – the cheapest smart phones on the market that cost about 40-50 USD
    2) coverage – we estimate about 2,800 devices for the country. that could be another factor
    3) Other costs related to training and related travel are excluded as these would be undertaken by the Ministry
    4) for each point that information is collected, we pay estimate 1 USD. Estimated total of points is 144,000
    5) We are basing on an already existing database and updating with current information. This removes the need to more sophisticated mapping capability that others may be undertaking.
    6) Collaboration between government, NGOs and University greatly reduces development costs

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