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Everyone? Yes, everyone!

Published on: 27/02/2013

Anyone who works in the water sector cannot have missed the consultations and debates on the post-2015 goals for water and sanitation.

The consensus in both the technical proposals and the discussions around them is the vision of universal coverage. The difference lies in the timeframe: can it be achieved in our life time? Or is that just wishful thinking? Over the past year, this blog has paid lots of attention to the “Forever” side of “Everyone, Forever”, as Water For People have so compellingly called it. For the coming period expect more posts here on the “Everyone” side of the equation - and you are invited to contribute to the debate as well. To kick it off, herewith a reflection on possibilities to reach Everyone in Honduras.

Two years ago, a new WASH policy was formulated in Honduras. This set the date for achieving universal coverage by the year 2038, in line with the overall development policy framework of the Government of Honduras. At the time, that looked ridiculously far away for me, particularly realising that the coverage in water supply already stood at 87%, according to JMP figures (79% in rural areas and 95% in urban areas) (coincidentally these are almost the same as the averages of the world as a whole, making Honduras a kind of bellwether country for the world's trends in access to WASH). Taking these figures at face value, and assuming that results from the past are at least indicative for the future, a linear extrapolation of past coverage growth rates of three percentage point per five years would yield achieving universal coverage in about 2030, so a bit ahead of 2038.

Table 1: Water supply coverage in Honduras according to the Joint Monitoring Programme

YearAccess to improved supplies (%)

However, there may be various reasons for why the trajectory is not linear:

  • As coverage goes up, a bigger part of public investments into water needs to go into maintaining existing assets, leaving less funds available for increasing access to the one uncovered. Or failure to do so, leads to more and more existing service breaking down more rapidly than new ones are being built
  • The per capita costs of infrastructure development of the ones still to cover is likely to be higher for the ones unserved as they typically live in more remote and difficult to access areas, where conventional technology options are not possible
  • The ones who already have access may have legitimate demands for higher levels of service, e.g. more water or of better quality. Public investments are likely to respond to these demands, possibly at the expense of the extending coverage to the unserved
  • The combination of these factors may lead to what has been called the danger zone, where growth in coverage gradually reduces or stagnates and reaches universal coverage asymptotically.

Luckily, the danger zone does not necessarily have to be so dangerous. Other factors may actually lead to a faster growth in access. For example, better support to self-supply initiatives by individuals may actually increase the effectiveness of household investments, and thereby actually increase total funds that go into the sector. Whether indeed one gets stuck into the danger zone; or, whether these can be overcome at a meaningful scale depends a lot on which approaches are followed when making investments in rural water.

Water For People works in three municipalities in Honduras. What about the other 296? Can government – or other NGOs – adopt a similar approach in these other ones?

 One of the approaches that has excited me over the past years, is the Everyone, Forever approach by Water For People. They concentrate their efforts in a limited number of municipalities and continue working until everyone is covered. Everyone? Yes, everyone. Until the proverbial last house on top of the mountain has improved access. As WFP's CEO Ned Breslin says, even if the financial mathematics do not look good, this can be achieved, as so nicely illustrated by examples in Bolivia. And in Honduras, the mathematics didn’t even look bad: universal coverage in the municipality of Chinda was reached at unit costs that are well in line with the ones used by the government.

The question of course, is whether reaching everyone one municipality after the another goes fast enough to speed up the achievement of universal coverage and helps avoiding the danger zone. Water For People works in three municipalities in Honduras. What about the other 296? Can government - or other NGOs - adopt a similar approach in these other ones? A part of our Life-Cycle Cost Analysis in Honduras, we reviewed 106 of the about 200 rural water supply systems developed over the last team years by FHIS, the main government agency investing in rural water. And the results cast some doubt on the potential to follow a similar approach. These 200 water systems are not the only ones in which the government has invested but represent a major part, and this would thus be equivalent to less than 1 system per municipality. The 106 systems in our sample were spread out over 69 municipalities. This large spread is explained by the fact that government has the social responsibility to invest throughout the national territory, often responding to demands from local authorities. It cannot just prioritize one municipality,  cover that fully and move to the next one. Also some of the danger zone factors were found. Of the 106 systems in our sample, only about half were completely new systems or extensions, so effectively investments in extension of coverage. The other half were in fact rehabilitations of existing systems, taking about one third of the total investments made in the period under review. Another danger zone factor refers to the relation between population size and unit costs.

The table below shows average per capita costs of different types of interventions for different types of settlements. As can be seen the per capita costs in the smallest type of settlements are by far highest for all types of settlements. This doesn’t bode well for the settlements still to be covered, many of which are likely to fall into the “dispersed rural” category.

Table 2: Average per capita costs of rural water investments made by FHIS

 Dispersed rural settlements (0-200 inhabitants)Nuclear rural settlements (200-2000 inhabitants)Small towns (2000-10000 inhabitants)Urban (Over 10000 inhabitants)
New systems31821496 
Extensions 7330 
Combinations of rehabilitation and extension31113616 

Although these first findings may look discouraging, they have already sparked useful reflections. For example, some of the recent work by FHIS has tried to focus more on a smaller number of municipalities, so as to reduce overhead costs. Discussions are going on alternative approaches to cover people in dispersed rural settlements, thereby getting out of the unfavourable maths, as in the case of WFP’s work in Bolivia. Finally, these kinds of unit costs figures will be able to inform financial planning frameworks. With that we can assess whether by 2030 there will be improved access for everyone. And hopefully it can be answered with a wholehearted "yes, everyone!"


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.