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As Ethiopia manages to develop more and more new rural water schemes – springs, wells or boreholes with hand-pumps or engines, piped water – keeping the existing infrastructure running well and safely is a challenge that gets bigger every day. And, despite some encouraging efforts, it's a challenge that the sector has not yet started to address at scale.

[This article was prepared by John Butterworth, IRC WASH lead for the USAID SWS Learning Partnership, and Scott Short, Chief of Party, AECOM/USAID Lowland WASH Activity]

Ethiopia and Uganda, among other African countries, share a common paradox in sustaining rural water supplies. Government policy, seeking to minimize costs to the public purse, puts the responsibility for operation and maintenance (O&M) with the voluntary structures that run most schemes (Water and Sanitation Committees in Ethiopia, Water Sources Committees or WSCs in Uganda). In practice, governments will and do step in when the repair needed goes beyond the capacity of the community (in Uganda this happens when repair costs exceed thresholds such as 60 to 110 USD depending on district). The effect is to encourage communities to ignore minor repairs, and to keep operating their schemes and pumps until there is a really big breakdown. Then someone will come and help. There is almost no incentive for communities to practice preventative maintenance, to undertake servicing to repair seals or change the oil at a motorized scheme, and to keep the kit all running nicely to avoid a big failure.

Last week, to see what might be done differently, we - as leaders of the USAID Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership and USAID Lowland WASH Activity in Ethiopia - took a team from Ethiopia to Uganda to look at local innovation in maintenance. Uganda's government has recognised its own challenges in rural water supply sustainability and has taken steps to change the situation. This has included setting up a new division in the Ministry of Water and Environment focused on Infrastructure, Operations and Maintenance, and encouraging the piloting of a range of maintenance models with its development partners.

The visit involved eight government staff from woreda, zone, regional and national levels in Ethiopia covering areas where our two USAID funded activities are collaborating. The USAID Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership and the USAID Lowlands WASH Activity are working together on improved monitoring, asset management and better financing, all with sustainability in mind. This includes seeking to trigger experimentation on ways to do maintenance better, with pilots initially starting in two woredas. Those are Mile in Afar where there are many deep wells and motorised schemes serving pastoralist communities in an arid area, and South Ari (in South Omo, SNNPR) where shallow groundwater is more widespread but there are many handpumps and spring protections that don't work properly or at all. But in these different contexts, what are the possible solutions to experiment with?

We went to Uganda as we had heard about some exciting locally-driven innovations there in rural water supply maintenance, and we were not disappointed. What we saw can fit into three categories: 1) Setting up and supporting local service businesses, 2) Savings-led approaches and 3) Insurance-style mechanisms.

In Ethiopia, there is experience with setting up micro and small enterprises to collect solid waste, do manual drilling, run public toilets and make concrete latrine slabs. More recently, the Ministry of Water Irrigation and Electricity has started to pilot establishment of new businesses, usually prioritising the unemployed and women, to sell spare parts for rural water schemes and provide repair services for water facilities. In Uganda, we saw how Hand Pump Mechanics are maintaining rural water schemes, and how they are supported through the Hand Pump Mechanics Associations (HPMAs) that have been set up in many districts. One insight was that Uganda is investing in a lot of support at different levels to these small businesses. The approach is much more than a set of tools and a one-off training. In Kabarole, the HPMA has slowly gained strength over the years and is now considered one of the best, but currently it still receives substantial support from NGOs to build its capacity. At the same time, it is most effective in supporting the government with the rehabilitation of water points, and is not yet really engaging with the challenge of preventative maintenance. Another insight was that the HPMAs are trying to branch out into a range of WASH business areas to become viable.

Another approach is pay-as-you-fetch, which involves households paying 50-100 Ugandan Shillings (about 1.4 to 2.8 USD cents) for a 20 litre jerry can of water at the time of collection. This was started by Water for People in nearby districts, and is now also being piloted in Kabarole. The initial results seem promising with communities and sub-county governments enthused about the model. The approach works to generate more income for the WSC. The idea is that this savings model (substantial sums are collected quite quickly) could also provide incentives for the WSCs to invest in repairs, including preventative maintenance and to reduce water wastage and excess wear on hand pumps. With a money-spinning scheme on the doorstep, and high levels of ownership, they have more incentives to keep it running and keep the money flowing. Meters are fitted on the handpumps so that water consumption and payment can be managed and controlled.

A more radical overhaul is involved in the full preventive maintenance services provided on an insurance basis by the service utility, Whave Solutions. The team visited Kamuli in central Uganda to see how Whave are working with local stakeholders to test and grow this approach. The strategy is to transform the system by turning around the incentives. Whave provide participating communities with a preventive maintenance service, involving at least 3 routine servicing visits and one major overhaul each year, in return for an annual service fee. As we learned the servicing includes replacement of major components to address the counter-incentive that currently exists which discourages minor servicing repairs (government offices pay for expensive tasks). This approach extends pump life indefinitely and does away with rehabilitation. This potentially saves government the substantial amounts currently paid for frequent rehabilitation of schemes, while providing assurance of water every day for families.

Over the next few years we will work with stakeholders in Mile and South Ari to test business strengthening, savings or insurance-style approaches, or perhaps other solutions that emerge from analysis of the existing systems and the ideas of local stakeholders. What we learned from Uganda is that this is a not a simple undertaking: many factors in the system that lead to the current neglect of maintenance need to be changed to make progress. Improvements need to involve financing, new technology, monitoring, partnership building, government leadership and extensive community work as well as other activities.

We hope that some of the inspiring Ugandan rural water maintenance pioneers that we met might one day visit Ethiopia and see some changes in how maintenance gets done.

The learning visit involved participants from the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Afar and SNNP regions, UNICEF, the USAID Lowland WASH Activity/ AECOM, and the SWS Learning Partnership/IRC WASH, and was hosted by Whave and IRC Uganda on behalf of the Government of Uganda, with further inputs by Fundi-Fix, Oxford University and the University of Colorado at Boulder. The funding from USAID to make this visit possible is gratefully acknowledged.

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