Changing the way we change the world

Why water systems fail part 6: lack of ongoing training

By Susan Davis, Executive Director

What leads to success or failure of water systems?  Everything we read points to a complex mix of factors.  In this series, we share quotes on various topics related to failure of water systems from our literature search and interviews for the resolution action brief as a way to highlight pieces of the puzzle.

Today’s blog focuses on what happens after many projects.  Even programs with robust training of community water management committees (which appears to be rare) often assume that training will be enough to keep water flowing forever. But it’s not, as the quotes below show.

After three years of training and supporting [water user associations (WUAs)], in 2012 [the Global Water Initiative (GWI)] carried out an external review that found that many WUAs continued to be rated as “weak.” This was largely due to high turnover of WUA members, driven in part by laws in many Central American countries that require associations to rotate membership every two years. When all members of the association were replaced at the same time, new members came untrained, with no leadership experience, a situation that leads to poor administration. To circumvent this problem, GWI suggested staggering rotations so that some experienced members would remain. Overall, sustaining strong administrative skills remains an institutional and political challenge that must be resolved. (Davis, Pocosangre, & Hicks, 2014)

Ensuring the maintenance of water points is a challenge. Local pump technicians trained by implementing agencies seek paid jobs while others intentionally overcharge for repair for service considering transportation and in-accessibility of spares. Despite the efforts of numerous partners to train pump mechanics, there are no comprehensive records of people who are trained as pump mechanics and women care takers for future reference in the communities. (Government of the Republic of Liberia, 2014)

For example, [when there is a] fair amount of turnover in the community, it can be difficult to continually train the right people to operate and maintain their systems. If people are leaving in pursuit of other jobs or leaving the communities altogether that can be a challenge. (US-based interviewee, 2013)

Kenya has a policy of moving their headmasters from one school to another. [We] found that in 75% of the schools visited where they had installed a rainwater harvesting tank five to ten years ago, the original headmaster is no longer there. The new man or new woman did not have any memory of what was originally agreed to with [our NGO], or what their hopes and aspirations were. (US-based interviewee, 2013)


This high level of failures can be attributed to many factors, including. . .lack of on-going operations and maintenance training. (WASRAG, 2012)

In certain communities [in Mozambique] they had been unable to repair their water points because, for example, individuals with technical capacity had left the community or they were waiting for technical support from government or partner local NGOs to do more complex repairs. (Jansz, 2011)

What is becoming clearer is that where a committee is established, it usually needs backup support from external agents such as a local authority or local NGO in order to remain motivated and retrain, or train new committee members and caretakers. It is also very important to note that even good community management structures cannot keep infrastructure in working order if they have not been properly trained and are hampered by lack of access to spare parts or skilled technical services. (Rural Water Supply Network Executive Committee, 2010)

Support for the management and maintenance of water supply systems has been a greatly neglected area. This is crucial for sustainable service provision. Permanent investments (of physical, financial and human resources) in this area are needed to provide support to community-managed or entrepreneurial service provision. (Cranfield University, AguaConsult, & IRC, 2006)

[In Kenya] many recent handpump projects using the Afridev handpump promote the use of community voluntary caretakers (commonly six per community) who are responsible for routine maintenance and repair of the pump. In the initial community mobilisation phase of the project, selected community members are trained in basic operation procedures and should be capable of changing seals, valves, bearings and rods etc. Since the Afridev is a [village level operation & maintenance (VLOM)] pump most of the necessary procedures are simple and require a single spanner. However, in many communities the selected caretakers may leave the village, pass away or simply forget what they were taught over a prolonged period of time since they have had no need to repair the pump. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

Even where full community participation or management has been planned from the start, community-level committees and caretakers have lost interest or trained individuals have moved away. This can be a particular risk if community level organization is on a voluntary basis. (Carter, Tyrrel, & Howsam, 1999)

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