Changing the way we change the world

Resolution of Problems with Water Systems

By Susan M. Davis, Executive Director

Resolution is the process of addressing problems identified through monitoring and/or evaluation. The term reflects the concept that NGOs have responsibility to respond when finding water systems that are non-functional or need major repair. There is resounding agreement in the sector that rural communities in developing countries need some sort of support beyond installation of water infrastructure. A summary of key points is below. More information regarding typical failures, responsibilities, models, and costs will be presented in the “Resolution Action Report” being prepared by Improve International, as well as the WASH Advocates Monitoring, Evaluation, Resolution & Learning (MERL) portal (under development).

The problem

Average failures calculated from 125+ statistics

Average failures calculated from 125+ statistics

The overall global water point failure rate has hovered around 40% since the 1990s. Furthermore, many systems that are considered “functioning” are not providing safe water around the clock. This represents a vast waste of infrastructure investment. Rural water supply infrastructure is far harder to keep operational than hoped for, and often fails before its planned design lifetime due to poor maintenance. Repeated rehabilitation of failed water points is also a massive waste of investment if the root causes are not addressed (RWSN, 2010).

The case for resolution vs. rehabilitation

If installing infrastructure did not lead to ongoing services, rehabilitating that infrastructure will not lead to ongoing services either. Rehabilitation – major repairs to existing dysfunctional water points – is fairly common in many water supply interventions, because it is less expensive than building new water points. However, rehabilitation programs typically use the same management and maintenance principles and training even when these previously led to long term breakdown, or worse, they only repair infrastructure.2 And the growing trend towards obtaining community capital contributions for water systems means we are making poor people poorer when those systems fail. Rather than just fixing the immediate problem, NGOs should identify and address the root causes of the problem, which are mostly around governance, monitoring, management structures, and a lack of people with the right skills at the right place in the right moment (Luyendijk & Fonseca, 2013)

Guiding Principles for Resolution

  • The sector should change the measurements of success from the number of new beneficiaries to the percentage of people in a district with access to ongoing services.
  • Invest beyond infrastructure.
  • Shift from implementation to facilitation such as capacity building for service providers.
  • Don’t just rehabilitate, cogitate: take time to understand root causes of problems and address those instead of only repairing infrastructure.
  • Use this understanding of root causes to improve future programming.
  • Engage communities and local governments and work within national frameworks: together, define and agree on roles and responsibilities in ensuring ongoing services.
  • NGOs should outline a clear exit strategy and timeline in the planning stage, but also include resolution in operational budgets.
  • Water services are not free: all stakeholders must understand the life cycle costs of the system and who will pay for which parts. If no one else besides the NGO will contribute, do not install the system.
  • Improve and budget for monitoring to rapidly and accurately identify areas for resolution.
  • Strengthen and better utilize platforms for sharing best practices and evidence of what works.

How long should an NGO be responsible?

At a Resolution Workshop in Washington, DC in February 2014, there was no consensus on how long NGOs should monitor after project completion. Several of the discussion groups suggested monitoring water points for at least ten years with various evaluation checkpoints during this time frame. While participants thought ten years was an arbitrary number, they generally agreed that 5 years would be too short to assess sustainability. All attendees agreed that monitoring increments need to be supported from the initial project planning stages and be reflected in the budget. The figures below show a qualitative depiction of NGO and local community/government responsibility levels and a better way forward that involves longer-term support where an NGO transitions responsibilities over time to a third party (local government, community, etc.).

Typical Project-Focused Approach Focus on Sustainability Approach

typical approachFocus on Sustainability Approach

focus on sustainbility approach

Who should pay for the costs of resolution?

While many NGOs initially balk at the idea of having to pay past the initial investment, under the delusion that “building water supply systems is more important than keeping them working”(RWSN, 2010), we must recognize that if our intent is to change people’s lives, the water must flow forever. The sector is already paying beyond the initial investment through the costs of rehabilitation. NGOs should consider cost-sharing with communities or local governments. For example, in improvement agreements with schools where Waterlines had previously installed rainwater harvesting systems, Waterlines offered to share 50% of the costs, up to 200 USD, to make necessary improvements. Not all support costs need to be covered from one source. They can be made up of contributions from users, local government and central government (Smits, Verhoeven, Moriarty, Fonseca, & Lockwood, 2011).

What are the ranges of costs?

Based on studies of several types of post-construction (also called direct) support, average expenditure is 2.70 USD per person per year. IRC has estimated that expenditure above 2 to 3 USD per person per year is probably sufficient to ensure reliable service delivery. Another way to think about it is to dedicate a minimum of 10 percent of capital costs per year per system for preventive maintenance and repairs – independently of who funds it.
What are models for resolution? Successful models for NGOs to adopt and adapt include the following, sometimes in combination:

  • Local post-construction services support like mechanics associations and circuit riders
  • Networks of water user associations
  • Capacity building and systems support for local governments

What do you think?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section.


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