By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International
I often compare the idea of giving a water system to a poor community to giving a very poor person a car. What’s wrong with a free car? If you were poor and needed a reliable way to get to work, wouldn’t a free car be great? That’s what Oprah thought in 2004, when she gave away 300 new cars. You might remember the episode – “Everyone gets a car!” – lots of excited screaming from the recipients.
But the car wasn’t really free. Each person had to pay about $4000 in Federal and State income taxes. That’s a lot of cash to come up with right away, especially if you don’t have much money to begin with. Here are a few other problems with the free car:
- Gas isn’t free
- Maintenance isn’t free
- Insurance isn’t free
- Ongoing taxes, license fees, and emissions tests aren’t free
Now imagine this free car is given to a poor person in rural area in a developing country. The free car gets even worse. In addition to the problems above:
- This person might not know how to drive, or have awareness of the needs for ongoing maintenance (oil changes, tire pressure, windshield wiping fluid).
- There might not be a gas or service station anywhere nearby
- The roads might be pretty terrible
- Maybe she would rather have something else. She would sell the car immediately to be able to pay the fees for her daughters to go to school, for example.
How is a free car like a free water system? Well, similar challenges apply. The ability of the person or community to take care of the system, skills or money, may be low. The incentive for using or taking care of the water system might not be what the car-giver expected. Individuals might expect the organization who built the system – whether charitable or governmental – to be responsible for maintenance. In many places, people expect water to be free. (But as one of my colleagues asks, “God gave us the water but who will pay for the pumps and pipes?”)
The five-year long WASHCost project found that recurrent costs range from $3 to $6 (US) per person per year for boreholes and handpumps, and from $3 to $15 (US) per person per year for piped water systems. While that might not sound very expensive to Americans, remember that many of the people who are getting these “free water systems” make $1 to $2 per day. The WASHCost researchers also found that very few people or institutions paid for those recurrent costs (Working paper 8: Executive Summary – The recurrent expenditure gap: Failing to meet and sustain basic water services).
Water systems and cars, lacking preventive maintenance, work poorly or stop working altogether (see water system failure rates here).