Changing the way we change the world

Why water systems fail part 10: lack of funds for maintenance and repairs

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 report on resolution of problems with water systems as a way to highlight pieces of the puzzle.

This blog – on lack of funds to cover maintenance of water systems – is closely related to a previous blog on the lack of cost recovery mechanisms. A minimum of 10 percent of capital costs per year per system need to be available (whether from user fees or another source) for preventive maintenance and repairs (Luyendijk and Fonseca, 2013). All water systems require maintenance and repairs, yet adequate funding for these activities is one of the main challenges to good, sustainable services. The literature almost universally identifies the lack of repairs and maintenance as an issue for water systems in developing countries. Some quotes from the documents we reviewed and interviews follow.

Thankless Jobs: The technician, an employee of the [water user association (WUA)], is often underpaid or unpaid. In some cases he feels pressure to pay for repairs to the system out of his own pocket. In Tijerete, El Salvador, the water system technician only makes $15 per month. The members of the WUA each make $20 per month. (Davis, Pocosangre, & Hicks, 2014)

Several boreholes were drilled in 2000-2003 in Rwanda. Rehabilitation of the same boreholes was done in 2013-2014 and several challenges were marked [including] local communities lack the capacity to raise up funds to carry out major repairs and rehabilitation like de-silting, flashing and reconstruction of platforms. (Uganda-based contributor to RWSN D-group, 2014)

Because maintenance and other “software” are less attractive to donors and implementing organizations than new installations, they continue to be lower priority activities (Morgan, Peter, 2013. “Learning from WASH System Failures – Are We Prepared to Learn? Some personal experiences”).

In Sierra Leone, those communities that collected money from users in advance enjoyed higher levels of handpump functionality than those that did so only after breakdown. (Foster, 2013)

The finding that collection of user fees is a key determinant of handpump functionality accords with numerous assertions that cost recovery is a prerequisite for effective [operations and maintenance] O&M of rural water supplies. (Foster, 2013)

Even communities with a good culture of saving might ask, “Do we really need fifty thousand dollars in our savings account when we have these other needs right now?” (US-based interviewee, 2013)

[There are cases where] communities that are doing a really good job and they’re not only saving for their own costs but they’re saving for long-term repairs. But then the problem is that over time if that reserve builds up there is a tendency for either the competition in the community to change or for pressure to utilize those funds for other community needs. (US-based interviewee, 2013)

Some water committees say they lack financial resources to purchase chlorine [to treat water] (Avina, 2011).

[In Kenya], should major breakdown occur or the need for rehabilitation arise communities would be unable to solve the problem themselves and would turn to District Water Officer (DWO) or NGO staff. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

The WASHCost program has established cost benchmarks and ways to estimate life cycle costs for water services, but more information is needed on costs of operations and minor maintenance and capital maintenance paid by users in particular areas.

1 Response

  1. This is really interesting. Prevention and maintenance is always cheaper and easier than fixing the problem. I didn’t think about this maintenance being a problem in struggling areas. It is understandable to have the water system be put on the back burner when other needs arise. Thanks for the article.

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