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How to solve the tension between providing universal access to water and demands for higher levels of service?

Published on: 02/10/2014

During the last WEDC conference in Hanoi, IRC and Aguaconsult organised a side event to discuss how different service delivery models are combined to provide universal and better access to rural water.

Whilst the official coverage rates for rural water supply fluctuate between 60-70% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 70-80% in Asia, the proposed post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have raised the bar: we seek universal access to improved drinking water by 2030. This means every community and every person - including those living in scarcely populated areas, arid regions and remote parts of the world that are difficult and costly to reach - should have access to improved drinking water by 2030.

In parallel, demand for higher levels of services is growing. There is evidence that users are willing to pay for good services (e.g. well-run piped schemes). They are also under-utilising systems providing an often below-basic level of service (hand pump) when there is an alternative. This results in low levels of financial contribution, poor operation and maintenance, high levels of breakdowns and people often reverting back to unprotected sources. The newly proposed target for WASH post-2015 recognises this trend and includes halving the proportion of the population without access at home to safely managed drinking water.

Given the current sector trends and limitations of existing management models, combined with low levels of services and lack of appropriate public funding, the solution seems to lie in finding the right combination between piped schemes/ professionalised community management and Self-supply. Everywhere we look patterns are emerging in how these service delivery models fit together and how the mix is evolving.

Beyond community management and the role of Self-supply

Although community management remains the predominant model for providing water in rural areas, its limitations have long been recognised. A recent study from Cranfield University (Cranfield University; Searching for success in community management for rural water supplies over 30 years) looking at almost 200 cases confirmed that community management was only viable for small schemes and working well when "professionalised" (recognized as a legal entity, receiving regular support from permanent institutions and sufficient financial resources).

In parallel, other options such as public-private partnerships or self-supply are increasingly being recognised as alternative models for providing sustainable services and reaching the last 20-30%. In the USA, 14 million people rely on Self-supply and that's common in high-income countries; now in Ethiopia, Government is talking about reaching up to 30% additional people through Self-supply and in Mali, Zimbabwe, and Thailand, it is a genuine alternative in policy. However, it is also acknowledged that Self-supply can only contribute to delivering higher levels of service when effectively supported by Government through household sensitisation, water quality treatment, regulation and monitoring. In low-income countries this package of activities has been estimated as costing around $ 8/person (Butterworth, 2014 based upon estimates by Sally Sutton).

Mr Son, Director of the National Center for Rural Water Supply and Environmental Sanitation (NCERWASS), in Vietnam, provided an overview of how Vietnam reached 85% coverage through a combination of factors:

  • Self-supply: High reliance on household investments, especially in the early stages of development;
  • Evolution in technologies: with growing urbanisation and demand for higher levels of services, promotion of piped schemes has become the norm;
  • Management models: although various models co-exist (private sector 7%; cooperative 8%, NCERWASS 15%), community management remains the predominant management model 55%;
  • Challenges remain:
    • Although the coverage rate is high, only 38% population has access to clean water;

    • Support from Government on Self-supply is unclear;

    • Worrying levels of non-functionality have been recorded;

    • Scarce long-term funding sources to maintain/rehabilitate existing systems and invest in first-time access.

Historical overview of water supply in Vietnam

PeriodTechnologyLevel of provisionManagement model

Before 1982
Rain-water tanks
1982-1990Hand-pump tube wells
Hand-pump dug wells
Community levelCommunity management
1990-1998Hand-electric pumps tube wells
Gravity flow schemes (GFS) and small scale piped schemes
Community level + household connectionsCommunity management + self-supply + alternative models
Since 1998Medium to large scale pipe schemesCommunity level + household connectionsCommunity management + self-supply+ alternative models

In other countries like Ghana and Uganda, strategic reflection on achieving universal access and providing higher levels of service is emerging and suggests similar trends:

Management modelsImproved community management model (with long term financial and technical support)alternative models such as the Sub-County Water Supply and Sanitation Boards, Self-supply
Technology"Appropriate technology" with a combination of hand-pumps and piped schemesStrategic focus on piped schemes

Discussions did not lead to a definite answer on how to best combine Self-supply, piped schemes and community management to achieve universal access and maintain existing services at their agreed levels. However, we are hoping to continue that discussion through other platforms such as the Management and Support thematic group of the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) and others.


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