Changing the way we change the world

Why water systems fail part 13: users don’t want to pay

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 focuses on the unwillingness of some water users to pay for services, a major contributor to problems with cost recovery.  The reasons behind this vary, and include users not liking the taste of the water, not trusting the people collecting the fees, or not wanting to pay for something that was free before. Even if life-cycle costs are well defined, it is still important to understand what users are willing to pay for.

In Liberia it rains almost constantly for about six months of the year (see chapter on Water Resources). This has contributed to the lack of willingness to pay for hand pump maintenance in community where people think water is a gift from God not for sale. (Government of the Republic of Liberia, 2014)

Kyamuhunga GFS was constructed in 2004-2005 in Bushenyi district, Uganda funded by government. In 2010, a leading committee sat and decided to install water meters to charge the water users according usage. Today, 70% of the community does not use the water because the water users are charged high rates per litre of water. A section of this community has petitioned and termed this water supply meant for rich guys and basically there to enrich the water boards put in place. (Uganda-based RWSN D-groups contributor, 2014)

In Uganda, lack of trust in the committee members; refusal by water users to contribute towards [operations & maintenance (O & M)] and ignorance regarding contributions were found to contribute to poor functionality. (Ministry of Water & Environment, 2013)

[In Haiti,] the distribution of certain water treatment products at no cost (as opposed to low cost) following the earthquake and cholera outbreak conflicted with earlier efforts to create a functioning private market for household water treatment products, sending consumers mixed messages about the value of the products. Some observers report that Haitians now appear less receptive to the idea of having to pay for water treatment commodities or to pay user fees to use public water utilities. (Bliss & Fisher, 2013)

A long experience with poor functionality of improved water sources was compounded by low or intermittent water yields of the few water sources that were functional especially in dry seasons, affecting people’s willingness to make contributions towards repair of such water facilities. Similarly, community perceptions about the quality of the water from some of the functional improved water sources, mainly in terms of its colour (turbidity) or taste (alkalinity) were also important issues mentioned in qualitative interviews as critical issues affecting willingness to contribute towards O&M or repair of improved water sources.(Mugumya, 2013)

[H]ouseholds were likely to be less motivated to contribute towards O&M of water sources they perceived to be far away from their households. Hence, the results suggest that any efforts to enhance household willingness to contribute to service delivery need to be preceded by those aimed at instilling a positive change in water user perception of the quality of safe water service delivery in the community. (Mugumya, 2013)

[Results of analyses] emphasize the fact that poor safe water service delivery affects community willingness to contribute towards operation and maintenance of improved point-water facilities in Makondo Parish. (Mugumya, 2013)

“WaterAid and its partners in theory align themselves with the national policy that users are responsible for the recurrent costs of operating and minor maintenance expenditure and capital maintenance expenditure. However, in practice they acknowledge the challenge that the majority of communities are either not able or not willing to pay the necessary contributions required to cover all repairs. WaterAid and its partners therefore acknowledge that they are trying to support a level of service which is above the effective demand level of the users.” (Jones, 2013)

It is difficult to charge a fee when people always had free access before. (Sudan-based interviewee, 2013)

[S]ometimes you give them clean water, and I’ve seen them pour it out and go back to the standing water that goats are walking in, and there’s feces floating in it, and taking out water just because that’s what they’re used to, that’s all they know. (US-based interviewee, 2013)

One of the major factors…in abandonment of drinking water systems is the presence of (unprotected) springs in walking distance from water points. People generally preferred the taste of spring water above that of well water. Moreover, spring water was free, quantity unlimited and required usually less waiting time than the constructed water point. (Beyene, 2012)

In many areas, people have or can create alternative sources, which may or may not be improved. [In Rwanda & Uganda] there are also instances when communities make their own wells. It happens when sources such as shallow wells and boreholes break down and alternatives have to be found quickly, and also when people in water-stressed areas dig ponds or ditches to harvest rainwater during the rainy season. (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

In addition to people claiming not to have money, other factors influenced some of them to refuse to pay. For example, when campaigning for elections, candidates for local and national elections usually insist that repairing water sources is the responsibility of the government, not members of the public. Also, access to alternative sources of water influences individuals not to pay fees. Another hindrance is the general lack of trust in members of user committees. People doubt they will look after and use the money properly. In a way, this is a reflection of the low levels of mutual trust within local communities. (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

Without real expression of demand, sustainability of services may be compromised (Carter, 2011 in Jansz, 2011). According to Parry-Jones et al (2001), if a community is satisfied with its current source of water then it may not understand the need for another water point and, as a result, not contribute sufficiently to maintaining the service. Users will not prioritise and value a service that does not meet their needs. (Jansz, 2011)

While sanitation boards have the potential to become sustainable institutions, procrastination in collections has generated a culture of no payment for water throughout [Paraguay]. (AVINA, 2011)

In Paraguay, excessive government subsidy at the beginning of an operation generates and reinforces the public perception of free water and favors the development of the “culture of non-payment of water.” (AVINA, 2011)

The culture of non-payment of water is due in part to the boards, users who do not quite get used to, or assume, that the production of drinking water has a cost and the price they pay barely covers the cost of production. (AVINA, 2011)

Sites were observed where boreholes had been drilled right next to taps, boreholes were placed next to each other, or a rural piped and urban piped water supply criss-crossed (e.g. Matsimbe village, Ntcheu). Justification given for this included “the population is large”; ”if the tap breaks at least the community has an alternative water supply”. However, this raises the question: “why should users pay regularly for one service (tap) if there is an alternative?” (Baumann & Danert, 2008)

The idea that communities will collect funds or store spares is proving to be incorrect. Communities do not like communal funds. This largely stems from a lack of trust among households, and will not be resolved by telling people that they need to collect funds. Furthermore, it must be recognised that Niassa is very poor, and that some families simply cannot afford to pay for spares. (WaterAid Mozambique, 2004, Revisiting Broken Projects Programme, Niassa Province 2000 – 2004)

Community contributions are rarely made by the “community.” Instead, a handful of members of a community contribute a great deal to a “community water point”, while others simply benefit from their work. This leads to anger, resentment and frustration at local level, and can undermine project sustainability. (WaterAid Mozambique, 2004, Revisiting Broken Projects Programme, Niassa Province 2000 – 2004)

Several researchers point to motivation as one of the keys to sustained project benefits. It is only common sense that motivation or willingness to contribute to the maintenance of a system is based on a perceived benefit. In the case of a communal water supply system, motivation and willingness must be generated on both an individual and collective basis, amongst both individual household users who pay a tariff and community members who volunteer time and are involved in system management. (Lockwood, Bakalian, & Wakeman, 2003)

In a village in Kenya, those who have not paid for the improved water system have to use the nearby unprotected water sources. According to the women, only one member, a widow is allowed to get water from the handpump free of charge because they know she cannot afford to pay for water. All other members are expected to pay KSh15 per month per household in addition to the membership fee to guarantee full access to the water point during the month. This money is used for the maintenance of the handpump whenever there is a break down. Both men and women noted that everybody in the community is able to pay for water. The community noted that some of the members had not paid, not because they are unable but because they are unwilling to pay. There is a feeling from men that the monthly contribution should be made by women, as water issue is their main preoccupation. Women however think the contribution should be from households. Through further probing of men and women it was clear that the money comes from the households but it is women who actually pay the treasurer. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

A village in Kenya with a broken handpump: From discussions it was noted that women and youths were not involved in the whole project cycle and thus saw no need to contribute or pay for water. As a result there is a strong feeling that the water point belongs either to the government or RWD. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

Since community role was very limited they did not see the project as theirs. The fact that they were not involved in the installation and had not paid for the handpump strengthened their feeling that they have been offered the water and all responsibility therefore lies with the provider. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

Though there could be very poor people amongst the group as a result of limited economic activities, the issue of paying or not paying for water and handpump maintenance is more of attitude than actual inability to pay. This view was confirmed by a headmaster of a primary school in the community who said, “This community has been used to so many free things. The free mobile clinic by the Catholic diocese, free handpump and many other things…this has made us with time, believe that we are so poor and everything for us is, and should be, free.” (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

Demand for a good or service is an economic function. It is influenced by an individual’s budget, the price of the good, the price of other goods, and individual preferences. In [rural water supply (RWS)], demand is defined as the quantity and quality of water community members will choose to consume at a given price. Price, as used here, signifies all valued resources including an individual’s time or labor given in exchange for service. (Sara & Katz, 1997)

A study of ten World Bank-funded rural water system programs found that sustainability is higher in communities when projects followed a demand-responsive approach. [H]owever, most projects do not apply their rules consistently in all communities. Regardless of their rules, most projects fail to apply a consistent approach in the communities where they work. The study found that several projects were supply-driven at times, not offering communities options or informing them of expected costs or responsibilities, and other times demand responsive, organizing communities and involving them in much of the decision-making process. (Sara & Katz, 1997)

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