Changing the way we change the world

Why water systems fail part 8: community-based management

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 the failure of the popular community-based management model to support sustained, high-quality service delivery. The water sector has and continues to use community management models as its approach to rural water supply projects. This approach, also called Village Level Operation and Maintenance (VLOM), assumes that the user community owns the water supply, helps build the system (with support from an external organization), sets and collects water fees, and manages maintenance and repairs. Although community-based management is widespread, it has not delivered anticipated levels of sustainability.(WELL, 2005)

In Bushenyi District, Uganda, a project with more than 12 tap stands constructed in 2002-2003 and water committees established headed by local councils, is currently not working because of disconnected pipes between storage tank and source. Most of the water committees are not there currently and technicians trained, gave up on the system because the community is not mobilized. (Uganda-based D-group contributor, 2014)

In an effort to boost outcomes, implementing organizations have also sought to buttress [community based management] with a demand-responsive philosophy and greater participation in planning and construction. While these arrangements have in some instances led to improved outcomes, disappointingly low levels of sustainability endure. (Foster, 2013)

In India, the challenge there is making sure that routine maintenance is happening. In some communities it is, in some communities it isn’t; it’s not consistent. (US-based interviewee, 2013)

But it’s not the fact that it was the wrong piece of equipment or it was not installed properly, but if there are problems, it’s because somebody forgot to put the lock on the cover of the well and the bull peed in it. …[or] it’s the community mobilization[;] you can’t just say, “Ok, community it’s your responsibility, go do it.” And it’s not that people are abdicating their responsibilities, I think it’s the fact that it just takes a while to get in the groove. (US-based interviewee, 2013)

In Nepal,…Village Development Committees (VDCs) are responsible for the repair and maintenance of the rural schemes with some mandatory provision of funds. The practices of O&M fund establishment, regular water tariff collection, provision of functional maintenance worker/ pump operator have been happening since long time in Nepal, but still the percentages of functional schemes are not increasing. (Nepal-based D-group contributor, 2013)

More than half of the EU’s drinking water projects in sub-Saharan Africa have failed to deliver. A sample was examined of the WASH projects from 2001 to 2010 costing about 1 billion Euros. Equipment usually was installed properly but local communities not sufficiently prepared to manage the projects long term. (European Court of Auditors, 2012)

Many water user committees do not function as envisaged, or even at all. First, water users refuse to play a key role envisaged for them: contributing user fees to a common kitty dedicated to funding repairs and maintenance. User fees ought to be collected monthly and deposited in bank accounts held by the respective water user committees. However, during the course of the research, no committee was found to have a bank account. In all cases, attempts to collect user fees were made only whenever water sources broke down. Even then, the attempts were far from successful, as many users claimed not to have the required money. (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

[Water] system age was also negatively correlated to activity level, accounting transparency, and financial durability. One possible explanation for the age-related trends is that the motivation of active individuals and organizational capital of the community decrease with time. Anecdotal evidence from sample communities in our research suggests that one reason for the decrease in activity may be that individuals lose interest in providing their services with little or no remuneration. This may be especially true if individuals feel alone in their duties and abandoned by outside organizations, although no statistically significant (p< 0.1) correlation between activity level and outside support visits was observed in the sample communities. (Schweitzer & Mihelcic, 2012)

[S]ome members of user committees were complaining about not being compensated or rewarded for the work they are required to do despite being told prior to being elected that their role was purely voluntary and having agreed to serve on that basis. Furthermore, in some communities, conflicts between members of water user committees and water users had led many committee members to abandon their responsibilities. This was the case where they had attempted to enforce bye-laws that governed the use of water sources by, for example, imposing fines on those who did not participate in cleaning water sources and by confiscating dirty containers from children who they found playing around the water sources. Villagers did not like being compelled to comply with rules and conditions they had helped formulate in the first place. Overstaying on user committees also affected members’ morale and motivation. Chairpersons of committees whose members had absconded usually tried to soldier on but gave up and sought to step down. However, no one wanted to put himself or herself forward for the potentially demanding and not at all rewarding role. Those unable to give up their positions because no one wanted to replace them also stopped performing their functions. This is how user committees had disappeared from communities. (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

[In Uganda], a key factor here is the absence of enforcement mechanisms. Although in theory, local leaders working with user committees are mandated to enforce the payment, the manner in which they acquire their positions, which is through popular elections, rules that out. Where they attempt to enforce payment, they are resisted and threatened with withdrawal of support at the next elections. Throughout the study sites, local leaders have not been able consistently to enforce bye-laws because they fear antagonising potential voters. They fear that enacting and enforcing bye-laws will make them unpopular among local people who may in turn vote them out of office. The emergence of local leaders through elections is therefore inimical to the proper functioning of a system that requires them actively to enforce regulations, a role that is almost certain to make them unpopular. (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

In 18 of 61 communities (30%) in the Dominican Republic, a pivotal moment in system management occurred when an active committee member moved out of the community or was not able to continue in their role, which had significant negative consequences on system performance. Having more ‘active’ people (those who are capable of performing duties and cited in surveys and complying with their responsibilities) should mean that a community is more elastic and thus less susceptible to negative effects associated with the absence of any single ‘charismatic’ individual. (Schweitzer & Mihelcic, 2012)

For community managed rural water supplies, there is much emphasis on the ‘short-arm’ of accountability found in the direct relations between consumers and their respective water committees who act as service providers. There is ample evidence that this link is very vulnerable: there is a high risk of falling into a vicious circle of poor service delivery, non-payment of tariffs by unhappy customers, and further deterioration of services. (Lockwood & Le Gouais, 2011)

The poor management of water systems, constitutes another problem and is closely related to lack of knowledge. Informality in handling bills, deficiencies in accounting, unskilled managers and disregard for the depreciation of assets, among others, are aspects that are left to be in sanitation boards. In many cases, the accounting is done by hand and there are no minimum requirements for computerization. (AVINA, 2011). If the delinquency reaches 40% or more, the Board Sanitation is starting to go down the road of unsustainability. When delinquency is high, the management board is not fulfilling their function. For example, they stop paying electricity bills. The suspension of the service, regardless of patronage, cronyism or political factions, is the best recommendation for delinquent users. (AVINA, 2011).

While the long-term impact of community driven development has yet to be rigorously evaluated, there is a real question regarding how realistic it is to expect that changes in social norms will be stronger years after the project has ended than they are shortly after the period of intense facilitation. Moreover, the project chose two districts balanced along key dimensions—including ethnic composition, region and political affiliation—and we find very similar results in the diverse operational settings. (Casey, Glennerster, & Miguel, 2011)

Rural water committees struggle to collect user fees, maintain operation and maintenance or rehabilitate and repair the breakages and disruptions. Community politics and conflicts provide challenges for water committee members to fulfill their responsibilities and manage the water system. While the Panamanian Ministry of Health and other aid organizations invest time and resources in rehabilitation, general operation and maintenance to keep the potable water flowing, these investments seldom see a return, and community water committees rarely experience a period of consistent service that allows for the development of community capacity to sustain the system. The infrastructure and community committee that manages the system is caught in a dysfunctional feedback loop where the faster the system deteriorates, the more dysfunctional the committee becomes and ultimately, the more houses that are left out of potable water service. (Wellman, Riding the Water Circuit: Third year Peace Corps Volunteers support rural water systems. WorldView. Summer 2011, pp. 20-21)

In [some] committees [in Mozambique], the only member who had been technically trained had left and others had no monthly savings for operation and maintenance. These inconsistencies were further exacerbated by the lack of trust and communication between water committees and communities, especially on the issue of finance. When asked about the existence of savings or how often they contributed, the majority of the communities interviewed entered long agitated debates with their respective water committees. In other cases, communities complained of water committees collecting money to buy spare parts, yet not informing them how much had actually been spent. In addition, several water points had pools of stagnant water in their drainage channels, which indicated that water committees were not carrying out their role of cleaning them. From all of this, it was clear that water committees’ skills and practices to maintain a service over time were inconsistent across the communities visited. (Jansz, 2011)

The sector has subscribed to the concept of community management of a shared water supply. However, depreciation of the equipment is neglected. On paper at least, water users are expected to form water committees to manage the upkeep of their new communal water facilities and collect money to pay for maintenance. However, the experience of many users is that a new water point is built, works for a while, then poorly for another year or two, before it finally breaks down. Even if users manage to undertake minor repairs they struggle with major ones. Thus, the users then have to wait until the facility is replaced through a rehabilitation intervention at some unspecified future date, if at all. (RWSN Executive Committee, 2010)

Despite the blanket application of community management of rural water supplies in sub-Saharan Africa, the sustainability of such interventions remains woefully inadequate. (Harvey & Reed, 2007)

[In VLOM], water committees must be elected by communities and, for example, collect contributions for the creation of a fund for operation, maintenance, repair and replacement, as well as organising its management. This community management model makes the community solely responsible for operation and maintenance. However, it has not achieved the expected rates of sustainability (Harvey, 2004).

[In Kenya], according to the women present, 90% of the households actually paid the amount and that the treasurer and the chairman had kept the money. The two have since passed away and no one knows what happened to the money, thus killing the morale of people from contributing. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

Kenya: The third breakdown happened in April 2002 and up to date it has not been repaired. According to the community the prominent man is now old and sickly and is not able to assist anymore. The community is now waiting for a good Samaritan to come and assist them. They have not even convened a meeting to discuss how the problem can be solved and have now reverted back to the old water source, although they are consciously aware that it is highly contaminated. Members present even reported that there have been cases of cholera and people have lost their lives due to that same contaminated water yet they are not taking any action to repair the handpump, so as to get safe water. It was learnt that the community is not aware what the problem with the pump is and are now asking for advice from [the NGO]. Even if the problem with the pump were diagnosed, the community confessed that they would not know where to get the spare parts except by going to [the NGO]. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

There seems to be no question that relying solely on communities to manage their own systems is flawed. The big question is why do NGOs continue to rely on the community-based management model?

1 Response

  1. Claudia Vargas

    These examples from Africa and from Latin America illustrate mainly the failures of community management models. However in Latin America, there is a trend of association. The community water organisations (named OCSAS) are sharing knowledge and capacity building. The association of small systems and managers are helping to gain more sinergies and sustainability.

    Even if the Municipalities should be responsible of the management of rural water systems too, their resources and capacities are limited. Therefore community based organisations still play an important role in water services provision.

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