Rural water supply: The end of the community approach?


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Many people in the world live without access to safe water. To provide them with water, substantial investments are required to construct water schemes. But it is just as important to ensure that these facilities also provide the desired services. This story by SNV expert Rinus van Klinken from the Tanzanian practice about a small village, Nyamuswa , makes that clear.

Nyamuswa is located in north-western Tanzania, near Lake Victoria. When entering the village on the dirt road, you will see a typical rural scene. Some mud-walled houses with thatched roofs, also a row of houses with brick walls and corrugated iron roofs and a real ‘villa’ from someone who lives in Dar es Salaam. In the centre are the shops, a mix of kiosks build with corrugated iron sheets and verandas full of colourful clothes and household goods. Together with the red dust, the bright sun and the scent it creates a timeless picture. However, if you look a bit further you can see the signs of the 21st century. A group of young people playing billiards; a few tables with colourful umbrellas, where credit for mobile phones is sold and where you can get money sent by young people from the city to their parents. And then there are the motorbikes, in recent years grown into the most important means of public transport in this part of Africa, driven by the youth left behind in the village.

The motorbikes are strategically placed, because they wait in the middle of the village where the passing buses and vans drop their passengers. And there, behind the motorcycles, is the water tap where this story is about. The tap helps to explain why the MDG water target will not be met. Not in Tanzania, and also not in other parts of the world. And this, despite the fact that large investments have been made to construct piped water systems and to dig wells. These investments are not totally wasted money, but they do not deliver the results that were hoped for and expected.

Shallow wells

The residents traditionally get their water from shallow wells in the valleys, where water collects. In the dry season these will dry up, and they have to walk. The water is not very clean, because it is shared with the cows and goats and it also demands a lot of time. The village got the first water system in 1972. A borehole was drilled and equipped with a diesel pump, to pump the water to a tank on a hill behind the village. That was in the first years after the independence of Tanzania. President Nyerere was ruling and in his policy he emphasized the construction of social infrastructure, such as water, schools and health facilities. So in Nyamuswaits people could reap the benefits of the social policy of the new government. In the beginning, the local government appointed a trustee and paid for diesel. But after a few years that became too expensive. The government could not pay for all those social services and the IMF urged the government to reduce its expenditure. More and more often there was no diesel and the pumps fell silent. The people started looking for their old wells again.

Following the international trend, the national policy changed in the meantime. For the water sector, the slogan became: the government constructs the facilities and the community provides the operational costs and carries out the maintenance. As part of the implementation of this new policy, the village of Nyamuswa was visited in 1989 by the staff of the Danish development project HESAWA. The village should establish a water committee to manage the scheme, they were told.

After several meetings the committee was put in place and could begin its work. Fees were collected, sufficient to pay the caretaker and the diesel. The village had access to water again. But unfortunately it did not last long. After three years of operations, the treasurer had a problem. His wife was taken to hospital and was in urgent need of surgery. By coincidence he had just collected the water fees for that month, so he thought he could borrow some of this to pay the hospital. The re-payment never materialized and the pump came to a standstill.

The accusations about what had happened to the money went back and forth, but no solution could be found. For ten years the village was without water, until HESAWA came back in 2002. They could replace the diesel pump with an electric pump, which would reduce operational costs, if a new committee would be elected. Since that time there is water again in the village. When I first arrived in the village one and a half years ago and met with the water committee, everything seemed to be going fine. Money was being collected, the pump was working and the taps delivered water. Sure, the water was not sufficient, but this was not surprising. After all, the population had significantly increased in the past 40 years, I was told.

Not so simple

Yet it was not that simple. And that has everything to do with the tap in the middle of the village, near the motorbikes. The tap is managed by John. He uses the water from the tap to wash cars and motorcycles, which gives him a good income. His business is booming, also aided by the fact that the water is so cheap for him. But elsewhere in the village it is a different story. There women complain about lack of water, having to queue for hours to get a jerry can of water from the public tap and about the unreliability of the water supply. This inequality is one of the uncomfortable truths of poverty, as Marc Broere called it earlier in Vice Versa. However, this is not to say that the poverty story can be reduced to the exploitation by a tiny elite of the poor majority. Nyamuswa illustrates that it is more complicated.

Indeed John enriches himself at the expense of the poor women, who face many more difficulties in getting their water and to make matters worse even pay a higher unit price. But it is not a deliberate exploitation by John and his peers on the equally needy women, but he exploits the loopholes in the rules offered by the system. And eventually everyone loses out. Because John and his colleagues pay insufficiently for their water, the committee does not get enough funds to keep the pump running and for maintaining the system, therefore providing poor services which affect the whole village.

Broader discussion

The situation in Nyamuswa illustrates a broader discussion in the water sector. For years, the credo that the community needs to organise its own services could not be challenged. For neo-liberals, it provides the best opportunity to shift responsibilities (and costs) away from government and for NGOs it is an ideal for building community resilience and empowerment. For development experts it is attractive because it gives ownership to the community.

And that means more involvement, responsibility and hopefully more relevance.

Nyamuswa makes clear that the mantra that communities themselves can manage their own facilities is due for revision. Community management has led to large gaps in provision (the network didn’t function for 10 years, from 1992 to 2002), it confirms and reinforces inequalities within the community (the poor women’s life is made even more difficult), and delivers way below capacity. That is not to say that the water committee deserves all the blame. In a recent short film about the water system in Nyamuswa, many of the problems that the committee faces can easily be recognised. Take the water fee collections. Can you really blame the treasurer that he has difficulties to manage income of up to two thousand euro per month? In his daily life as farmer he can count himself lucky if he can sell cotton that will earn even half that amount in a whole year. And can you really blame the female member of the committee if she has difficulties in making a distribution plan for the system, if in daily life she has more than enough trouble managing her own extended family?

Reversal in the discussion

There seems to be a reversal in the international debate. While until recently any expression of doubt about whether local communities are really most appropriate for managing sustainable water services was regarded as naive and rebellious, now suddenly it seems respectable. Thecalls to look for alternatives are increasing. The Dutch think tank, IRC, challenges the model, while the network of water professionals, RWSN, also calls for a discussion. It is clear now that local water committees on their own cannot be given the sole responsibility and require targeted support. The turnaround in the discussion can of course be regarded as a tactical move by the neo-liberal kongsi to create space for the private sector. Taking responsibilities back to the government is obviously not possible, and if the communities themselves cannot manage, perhaps it is better to get business involved.

It is doubtful whether really the baby needs to be thrown out with the bath water. Indeed, to think that communities can be empowered to manage fairly complex water systems no longer seems realistic. Just as it is utopian to think that the government can manage and maintain all the rural systems. But in those areas where I work, the private sector offers no real alternative. Commercially it is not really attractive to manage a few relatively small water systems; the scale is too small for that. But instead of thinking in antagonistic categories, as if these each on their own can offer hope, it is possibly better to figure out how the various components could complement each other and can work together.

A new model

That is what we are starting to work on in Nyamuswa, and elsewhere. Together with the Dutch water provider, DUNEA, and the BoP Innovation Centre in Utrecht, SNV will assist local companies to establish a social enterprise for managing rural water systems, starting with Nyamuswa. Together with the Tanzanian government, which is struggling with the question of how the management and operations of rural water facilities can be improved without using scarce manpower or funding, a new model is being designed.

In this model, a social enterprise will manage the water system, the government plays a supporting and regulatory role and the committee serves as the voice of consumers. Whether this will succeed is an open question. It may be clear that the situation does not respond to easy solutions with simplistic results. Of course, when filling in our project forms we will describe our results in simple numbers. That is now a standard in project practice. But this story will have made clear that it's not really about numbers and figures.

Nyamuswa has repeatedly featured in the last 40 years in sector statistics. First during construction. Then when HESAWA came to establish the committee. And again under HESAWA, when the system and the committee were rehabilitated. And now again, when introducing our new model. So if you look at the numbers, Nyamuswa has already at least four times been provided with access to water. And yet people in the village are still faced with huge problems. The numbers do not help them. Maybe a different approach can. We're going to try it. It will be crucial for that to succeed, that John needs to be convinced to pay for the real costs of the water he is using from the tap in the middle of the village. That way he can provide a more reliable service while everybody in the village benefits.

This article and photo appeared in the online edition of Vice Versa, the Dutch professional magazine for Development Cooperation.