Published on: 30/11/2023
We catch up with Fabien in the small village of Bembi, about 30 kilometres from Bouar in western Central African Republic (CAR). He’s at the start of the 20-day ‘circuit ride’ that will see him visit some 100 manual village pumps to carry out routine maintenance.
When we meet him, he’s busy stripping down a Vergnet pump whose pedal has become stuck and soon finds the cause – a simple plastic collar, worth a few cents, that needs to be replaced.
Fabien (right) getting to grips with the Vergnet pump. Credit: Patrick Moriarty/IRC
Only, Fabien doesn’t have the spare part – due to an administrative hiccup somewhere in the supply chain, the bag of these parts has gone astray and, hence, he’s missing this cheap but vital piece from the back of his otherwise, impressively equipped truck.
Not to worry, with the help of a lot of know-how and a little plumber’s tape an emergency repair is quickly done – one that Fabien is confident will hold up until the missing spare arrives, which with the help of Water for Good’s impressive logistics will be soon. As we, leave the village the pump is back in action.
Fabien is one of US NGO Water for Good's teams of 'circuit riders' who, between them, ensure that some two thousand manually operated village pumps in the Central African Republic are kept running. He, and teams like him, go out on 20-day circuits, covering hundreds of kilometres on rough roads and visiting some five pumps every day in small, remote villages. At the end of each circuit, they return to their bases to rest and replenish their supplies. The result? Pumps that are visited for routine maintenance every six months and that, as a result, keep working.
Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm not a fan of manually operated pumps. I believe that in 2023 they should be being replaced as quickly as possible with better quality services – of the sort that Water for Good supplies through the solar systems that they're installing wherever the economies of scale make sense. That said, for those who do rely on them, often the poorest and most remote villages, a manual pump that works is a lot better than no pump – or one that is broken. The reality is that for many communities these less-than-perfect solutions will remain a lifeline for years to come. Truth be told, while having to pump and then carry water to your house is something that no child should have to do, having that pump reasonably close to your home, and not having to walk kilometres to carry polluted water from a pond is still a real improvement.
In a world of 'build, transfer and forget', what's impressive to me about WFG's work is not only their enthusiastic and professional teams and great logistics but that an INGO is building and committing to a model for long-term service delivery. And, doing so while being transparent and honest about what it costs, including the subsidy that is required to keep it going. While WFG's circuit riders do collect what they can from communities, they don't pretend (as some do) that maintaining remote rural handpumps can be done at cost. Decades of failure have shown, comprehensively, that it can’t. Accepting this, Water for Good is committed to raising the necessary money to do so – indefinitely – from their faith-based funding community in the US. The result – around a million people (almost one in five) in one of the poorest countries in the world are served with reliable basic water at a per-capita subsidy cost of about US$1 per person every year.
This is important, because, even in a country as poor as the CAR (with a per capita GDP of under US$1,000), US$1 per person per year should be affordable and so, if you can do this in the CAR you can do it anywhere. The work that Water for Good is doing in CAR, and that other pioneers of similar models of rural service delivery are doing elsewhere, proves beyond doubt that with the right business models and regulation and – yes – subsidy, there is no reason that everyone everywhere cannot access at least this most basic level of service – reliably.
But isn’t this exactly what NGOs shouldn’t be doing? What about working yourself out of a job? And not creating parallel structures? What about systems strengthening?
Water for Good is thinking hard about those questions, and the current reality is that the CAR simply doesn’t yet have the resources (human or other), to provide these services. However, by building up (and paying for) the creation of an at-scale service delivery company while also working with government to develop a model under which such a company can be contracted and regulated, Water for Good are preparing for a different, more sustainable future.
As they build out this model service provider, WFG is questioning itself about next steps. Does it spin out a for profit (or social enterprise) company to do the circuit riding? Should it seek to expand to cover the whole country – or encourage other companies to learn from its example and – eventually – compete with it?
Only time will tell, and in the meantime, Fabien and his colleagues will continue to ride their circuits and keep the water flowing.
IRC is a partner with Water for Good in the One For All alliance, along with Water For People. We share a common strategy – Destination 2030 to which Water for Good’s work in the CAR contributes. Whilst IRC covered the costs of my visit to the CAR, all local expenses were met by Water For Good. Water for Good is a key partner, a fellow traveller on the road to WASH systems strengthening, and this is not an unbiased blog!
This blog was reviewed by Jon Allen, CEO Water For Good and copy-edited by Laura Bosma, IRC.
At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.