Changing the way we change the world

Why water systems fail part 11: lack of protection of water resources

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.

Today’s blog focuses on water resources. No matter how well the water system is maintained, if there’s no water, or the water is contaminated, the services will fail. Below are quotes from interviews and articles related to the lack of protection of water resources used for water systems.

Among the non- or partially-functioning water supplies, Chum Kiri District has 108 tube wells with a mechanical problem and 46 dug wells that were too dry by February (approximately four months into the dry season). (SNV Cambodia, 2014)

In Chum Kiri, we know we have a big problem with the drinkability of the groundwater supplies – especially the deeper supplies accessed by tube wells. (SNV Cambodia, 2014)

Sustainable water services in Central America are threatened by watershed degradation. Up to 60 percent of the water used in Central America is pumped from aquifers, which are threatened by overuse from urbanization and contamination by agriculture and industrial waste. (Catholic Relief Services. 2013)

[I]f you are not careful, if you put [in a shallow well but] do not find a water table that will sustain it, then that well will dry up and then when it dry up the people go back to drink the dirty water and that will be a big issue. (Sudan-based interviewee, 2013)

The final, so-called “external” factor for post-project sustainability is a rather obvious, but one that nonetheless tends to get overlooked: the sustainability of the water source itself. Obviously, deterioration of source water quantity will be of major concern in areas of low rainfall, or poor groundwater re-charge, where there is greater sensitivity to over-extraction. But even in relatively water-abundant regions of the world, the source can fail to satisfy demand, either due to population expansion or abuse of the supply for non-domestic purposes. Water quality may also suffer from contamination from agricultural by-products or chemicals. In either case, care must be taken in the design of projects to determine the likely sustainability of the source over a long period of time. (Lockwood, 2013)

Low levels of access to improved water supply in developing countries have been attributed to causes such as …poor management of water resources… (Marks & Davis, 2012)

[in Uganda] Enforcing hygiene standards is a particularly complicated task, rendered more so by some users’ pursuit of income-generating activities such as farming, brick making, car washing and alcohol distillation around water sources. Although they make the surroundings dirty and unhygienic and raise the risk of contamination, neither user committees nor local authorities are able to evict them for the reasons already mentioned. There are also other sources of poor hygiene and possible contamination. Many sources are surrounded by bush and littered with debris such as crop residue and polythene material. Cattle grazing in surrounding areas are allowed to drink directly from them, with the attendant risk of contamination, including through defecation. Water run-off from rain easily flows into sources, adding to the risk of contamination. When filling their containers, people fetching water from unprotected springs step into them. This possibly explains why in some ponds, ditches and wells, water tends to be brackish. Where the sources have overflow drainage trenches, they are often clogged up with debris, which causes the water to stagnate. Local leaders are not unaware of these situations. That they persist is evidence of their failure to discharge their duties, which in itself is the outcome of the poor design of enforcement mechanisms (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

Some water schemes are known to have suffered from declining yields at the water sources. Detailed investigations are required to determine if the yields can be improved through watershed management activities such as tree planting, or whether it is better to seek alternative water sources. (Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, 2012)

The major difficulty in achieving environmental sustainability lies in the concept that there is a perceived abundance of water and the quality of it. The high rainfall and abundant availability of groundwater and surface water (excluding the Paraguayan Chaco), and abundant use that leads the population in the eastern region care little for how water is used. (AVINA, 2011)

Similarly, promotion of sanitary practices around village wells and boreholes will not address the pollution of groundwater and shallow aquifers cause by the city’s faulty sewage treatment plant. (Ferguson & Mulwafu, 2001)

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