Changing the way we change the world

Why water systems fail part 14: lack of spare parts

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 a factor that contributes to the inability to repair rural water systems: the lack of supply chains for spare parts, tools and water treatment products. [Update 3-4-16: You can find resources on spare part supply chains here.]

Another point that we also see is the issue [with sustainability], is spare parts availability. Even though the ownership is there and people want to do something but they … have to travel a long distance to find the spare parts. They would already spend a huge amount of money just to travel there and buy the spare parts. Or they are simply not available in the country. (Swiss-based interviewee, 2013)

54% of [162] respondents have received complaints about the quality or availability of handpump spare parts. Quality and availability were the top two problems identified with spare parts, by a substantial margin [as shown in the Figure below] (Furey, 2013)

Problems with spare parts (Furey, 2013)

Problems with spare parts (Furey, 2013)

The evidence that … spare parts proximity are significant predictors of handpump functionality in …Sierra Leone, respectively, concur with verdicts from earlier quantitative assessments which incorporated a mix of water supply technologies and geographical regions. (Foster, 2013)

The lack of a spare parts supply network for MALDA handpumps could be a contributing factor to lower rates of functionality than evident for AFRIDEVs. (Shaw & Manda, 2013)

This study established that the existing spare-parts distribution chain that remains informally established by an ad-hoc relationship between [hand pump mechanics], [spare parts dealers] and the community poses a lot of challenges for the effectiveness of [community based management] especially because of the difficulties in regulating such a highly informal relationship:

  • No deliberate effort by the government to supply spare parts for hand pumps.
  • Duplication and other forms of fraud were common in the point-water source spare parts business in Uganda.
  • ‘Genuine’ spare parts dealers are afraid to seek government protection from the ‘dubious’ dealers
  • Very few shops occasionally stock spare parts for water systems.
  • Although limited capital was pointed out as the major cause for the limited availability of well stocked shops in the country-side, very limited demand for the spare parts in the country-side even presented a bigger problem. (Mugumya, 2013)

The rope pump appears to perform well. As long as spare-parts are available, communities can manage repairs. However, without a reliable long-term option for spare parts provision, the sustainability of the pump is open to question. Spare parts for Afridevs are not always accessible and as a result repairs are not always carried out. (Cotton, 2011)

In Paraguay, management of the electrical system and particularly maintaining pumps is an ongoing problem. There is a lack of planning to have spare pump parts for when pumps burn out or break. This causes many community problems, such as water stress and higher costs of maintenance,  which lead to loss of confidence in the community water board and a breakdown in its relationship with users. (AVINA, 2011)

Accompanying this hardware support must be a well functioning spare parts chain, so that communities can carry out repairs (RWSN, 2009). The issue of spare parts availability and their respective supply chains is known too well across sustainability literature and is one of the main challenges faced (Harvey and Reed, 2004 in Jansz, 2011)

In several cases this challenge [of making repairs] was aggravated by the lack of spare parts to carry out repairs. One community very close to the district headquarters had successfully obtained spares from the SDPI. Others had used spare parts from the initial kit received following construction of a water point. Although the majority of communities knew where to purchase them, eg in major towns in Niassa province such as Lichinga and Cuamba, they were not readily available at each district level. Even those that had successfully obtained spare parts highlighted the challenge of the huge distances in Niassa affecting spare parts procurement. For example, it is 548 kilometres from Nipepe district to Lichinga, the capital of Niassa and the nearest place to get spare parts (Breslin, 2003). Due to these distances they would require additional money for food and lodging for one night. Only one community knew the cost of spare parts, because they had a list of prices. (Jansz, 2011)

In the nine visited Kebeles, it was observed that [water & sanitation committees (WATSANCos)] have very limited, if any, maintenance equipment (pipe wrenches, spanners, screws and hammers). Only Ankober Kebele has reasonable maintenance tools.The poor maintenance capacity of WATSANCos might result from the fact that, in many scheme development projects, the provision of maintenance toolkits was not included as an overall component of capacity building. (Deneke & Abebe, 2008)

There is no consistent approach as to whether spares are sold or given away. Some NGOs provide free spares as they consider people too poor. Free spares undermine the involvement of the private sector in the supply chain (Baumann & Danert, 2008)

Generally there are no specialised spare part suppliers in the Woreda. That is why, most of the time, the [district office] is engaged in the provision of free spare parts in case of scheme failure. This office is also dependent on spare parts provision from the regional BoWR. The main reason for this is that, in the majority of cases, hand pump spare parts are not found as single units but rather as part of a set, hence they are very expensive. Spare parts for motorised pumps are very expensive and mostly they are to be found in Addis Ababa….Most of the WATSANCos indicated that spare parts available in the market are expensive, except those that are found in ordinary building material shops in Arbaminch and Wolayita Sodo towns. (Deneke & Abebe, 2008)

Area Mechanics rely on the community to buy the spares. Afridev spares are available in most Districts, but no Malda spare parts….The NGOs, which buy these pumps, never bothered setting up a supply chain. Large, expensive components are not kept in the local stores. It might take several weeks before such a component can be located in the country. In addition, communities first have to raise the funds before the part can be ordered. Spares dealers…perceive the stocking of spares as a social rather than a commercial activity. Stockists claim that it is not worth their while as the parts move so slowly…Spare part prices vary considerably….There is no consistent approach as to whether spares are sold or given away. Some NGOs provide free spares as they consider people too poor. Free spares undermine the involvement of the private sector in the supply chain. (Baumann & Danert, 2008)

A major challenge for sustainable rural water services is the provision of equipment and components for O&M. Attempts to encourage sustainable private sector supply chains have had limited success due to low commercial viability. Commercial viability In Kalomo, Zambia, the district water and sanitation committee established a private spare parts supplier by providing spares to a local hardware store to act as a seed fund. This failed as the owner did not use money from sales to replenish stock, due to low turnover and profitability. The district committee itself now supplies spares to communities. The density of water systems in rural areas is low, so private sector supply chains will be unsustainable unless at least one of the following criteria is met:

  • spares supply is linked to the supply of pumps and related services;
  • community managed maintenance is replaced with centralized public–private systems; or
  • technologies use available ‘standard’ spares.

If none of these are fulfilled, alternative strategies for spares supply must be adopted. (Fisher, 2005)

Simply in terms of keeping the physical infrastructure working, an adequate supply of spare parts and maintenance tools is obviously of primary importance to long-term sustainability. Supply chains are now recognised as one of the “key determinants of sustainability” (Davis and Iyer 2002), especially where the technology provided is imported, which has often been the case with large-scale hand pump programmes in Africa for example. (Lockwood, Bakalian, & Wakeman, 2003)

[S]pare parts availability is a major problem. In particular, there is no local dealer and one has to go…over a hundred kilometres to get them. It is believed that the spare parts are not available in any hardware shop and can only be obtained from RWD offices. It was noted that the cost of transport to where the spare parts may be found is two to three times the cost of the spare part (U-seal) making it highly uneconomical. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

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