Sustainable services for whom? Ensuring rural water service delivery supports equality


A blog by Dr Jeremy Kohlitz, researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney (a knowledge partner of SNV in WASH).


High rates of hardware failure and sub-standard water service levels have driven the WASH sector to create new models of service delivery in rural areas across the world. These have shown promise in improving functionality, but not everyone is benefitting equally. In this blog, Dr Kohlitz offers snippets of intra-community inequalities that continue to persist amid improvements in water service delivery and management. And, drawing from a joint publication by ISF-UTS and SNV,[1] provides five generic steps to consider when designing functionality innovations.

In rural Nepal, caste-based discrimination creates difficulties for users to access water. Describing her experience in collecting water from a community-managed tap stand, a woman from a lower caste in Dailekh said: ‘Even though we reach there earlier than others, those people [from other caste or the same caste] arriving later used to say leave the tap… “Dumbadi [2] go go”, after we fetch water. Other castes will clean the tap to purify [it].’

Such community attitudes create feelings of embarrassment or shame that affect equal access to an otherwise functioning water point.[3]  Greater effort is needed to make sure that progress in rural water service delivery contributes to the reduction of inequalities in service levels and is embedded in inclusive approaches and decision-making. To date, much of the discussion, practice, and policy on service delivery innovation in rural water supply have neglected considerations for equality and inclusiveness in favour of operational sustainability. For example, there are substantial datasets for rates of water point functionality across many countries,[4] but disaggregated data on water access across social groups is weakly documented.

Collecting water in West Timor Indonesia (ISF-UTS, Juliet Willetts)

There is reason to believe that operationally sustainable water schemes can fail to reach people who are most in need and can miss opportunities to promote inclusive decision-making. In rural Vietnam for example, an NGO that used a results-based financing approach to support private service providers to operate piped schemes in underserviced areas provided fewer benefits to poorer households because they were less likely to be connected compared to relatively wealthier households in the same commune.[5] Elsewhere, in rural Vietnam, community elites ensured that local political leaders overseeing a state-implemented piped water scheme installed communal tap stands near the homes of elites to improve their own access, to the neglect of less powerful community groups.[6]

As the examples support, all service delivery models – community based, private, government or self-supply – have potential to reproduce inequalities. Implementers must therefore give explicit attention to how service delivery innovation can ensure equitable benefits and promote inclusion. Incorporating mechanisms for incentives and accountability, for example, must become commonplace if equity targets relating to SDG 6 are to be met.

BCC session on water supply with mothers group in Dailekh Nepal (SNV in Nepal)

Private piped water services scheme map in Mekong, Vietnam (ISF-UTS/J. Willetts)

While the actions that are needed to support equality, and who is responsible for implementing them, depends on the form of service delivery and local context, there are generic steps that can almost always be taken in any setting – community-based, private, government or self-supply service delivery models.

  1. Monitor equality of water services on an ongoing basis: Monitoring data can reveal the extent to which intra-community inequalities exist and create an evidence base for local government to make informed decision.
  2. Commit financing to ensure that services are affordable for all: The poorest households in a community may require financing mechanisms to connect them to a service or support their access to water points.
  3. Proactively meet the needs of people with different physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities: Inclusive decision-making is critical for designing water supplies that enable people to safely and comfortably access water.
  4. Put in place contractual and regulatory safeguards, and support social accountability: Methods for formalising incentives and accountability of the delivery of equitable water services require more attention.
  5. More effectively address inclusion of women as rural water managers: Gender equality in water decision-making is about more than just a more functional service – it’s also an entry point to strengthening the equality of gendered relationships in general.



About the Author: Dr Jeremy Kohlitz is a Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. His research focuses on the equitable delivery of rural water, rural sanitation, and urban sanitation services in the Asia-Pacific region, and impacts of climate change on WASH.

Banner photo: A community water committee and users convene in Nepal (ISF-UTS/Jeremy Kohlitz)

[1] Titled, Sustainable services for whom? Ensuring rural water service delivery supports equality, this joint publication is available in the form of a summary (8-page brief) and a (learning) paper. The learning paper offers a more comprehensive documentation of lessons and insights from recent learning and research activities in rural water and supply services, conducted jointly by SNV and ISF-UTS, and supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Water for Women Fund. It was published as part of Nepal’s BFL - Inclusive and Sustainable Rural Water Supply Services project.
[2] Term used by higher castes towards people from lower castes, intended to be condescending.
[3] SNV Nepal and CBM Australia, WASH experiences of people with disabilities: Beyond the Finish Line formative research. Kathmandu, SNV Nepal and CBM Australia, 2019.
[4] B. Banks and S. Furey, ‘What’s working, where, and for how long: A 2016 water point update’, 7th RWSN Forum. Abidjan, Rural Water Supply Network (accessed 17 August 2020). | T. Foster, S. Furey, B. Banks and J. Willetts, ‘Functionality of handpump water supplies: a review of data from sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region’, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 2019, pp.1–15.
[5] N. Carrard, B. Madden, J. Chong, M. Grant, T.P. Nghiêm, L.H. Bùi, H.T.T. Hà and J. Willetts, 'Are piped water services reaching poor households? Empirical evidence from rural Viet Nam', Water Research, vol. 153, 2019, pp.239-250.
[6] B. van Koppen, V.C. Rojas and T. Skielboe, ‘Project politics, priorities and participation in rural water schemes’ Water Alternatives, vol. 5, no. 1, 2012, p.37.