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Published on: 15/09/2014

In recent years, use of the terms services and services delivery has proliferated throughout the water and water-using sectors (e.g. WASH services, irrigation services, forest services, ecosystem services, agricultural services, watershed services, local government services and so on). Just about everyone is now using "services" terminology, albeit not always with the same meaning. Rather stating the obvious, the title of this blog highlights the fact there are often more services being delivered to a typical household or community than can easily be counted, worth trying to count or even shaking a stick at! [1] 

Is the increased emphasis on services a good thing? Our view is that more focus on water services delivery has contributed to a welcome shift in focus from the allocation of water resources for the demands of different water users towards delivering the water services that users need and/or want [2]. Less commendable is the fact that the planning of water services delivery tends to be fragmented and there are inconsistencies in the definitions and terminology used. It is also a concern that monitoring levels of service, particularly of poor households, is proving to be time consuming and challenging. As a result, some governments are using supply-side information (e.g. asset registers) to calculate
 service levels e.g. (water service level in litres per capita per day) = (nominal volume of water supplied) ÷ (estimated number of users). A perverse result sometimes being that users are shown to have acceptable levels of service even when water supply systems are defunct or wells fail.

Definitions of services in regular use vary enormously within and across water and water using sectors. Some definitions are reasonably consistent with the economic definition of goods and services that divides economic output into physical goods and intangible services [3]. For example, irrigation and agricultural services often refer to delivery of intangible services such as extension advice. However, irrigation services can also refer to the delivery of goods (e.g. volumes of good quality water) to achieve a certain level of service (see Figure 1; [4]). WASH services [5] refer to the delivery of a mix of both tangible goods (e.g. a certain volume per capita per day of water of an acceptable quality) and less tangible services (e.g. institutional support mechanisms). Similarly ecosystem services (see Box 1; [6]) refer to the delivery of a mix of goods (e.g. water) and services (e.g. recreational experiences). From a water resources management (WRM) perspective, it is notable that the definition of ecosystem services doesn't recognise that ecosystems are both consumptive users of water (usually in the form of evaporation) and providers of water. It is also striking that a number of myths persist in relation to the ecosystem services provided, in particular by forests [7]. A deep-seated belief is that planting trees in a catchment area will increase rainfall and/or runoff and thereby water available for support water services. The overwhelming global evidence from more than 50 years of detailed hydrological research is that this belief is incorrect [8].

 Figure 1. Irrigation service-orientated approach

Box 1. Ecosystem services

Ecosystem services are the products of:

  • Provisioning services: the products that are obtained from ecosystems such as water, food, timber and so on
  • Regulating services: processes such climate regulation by increasing the proportion of solar energy dissipated as latent heat rather than increase in air temperature
  • Cultural services: non-material benefits such as recreational opportunities or spiritual enrichment
  • Supporting services: Ecosystem functions that support or benefit the other ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling in soils

An additional problem with services terminology is that, in some cases, water service can also refer to or define the company (or delivery agency) that delivers water to users or uses [9]. To confuse things further, self-supply of water for domestic, irrigation and other uses is also referred to as a service even though the deliverer of, investor in and user of the service is one and the same person. In some contexts, it may also be significant that self-supply systems can and often do benefit from financial services that provide loans and other support and promotional services.

Another overlay of complexity is the fact that a typical household or community need and use water for different purposes even if, as is often the case, a water delivery system is designed and managed with the aim of providing a service that meets the demand for a single water use. For example, irrigation schemes are usually designed and managed with the aim of irrigating agricultural crops but, in reality, they are often used as a source of domestic supply, for watering cattle, fisheries and backyard gardening or even to fulfill broader environmental functions such as flood protection and drought mitigation. Over the last 20-30 years there has been increased recognition of the role played by these de facto Multiple Use Services (MUS) [10]. MUS is an integrated approach to water services provision that is driven by the varied needs of users of water services. Crucially MUS is demand-driven. This contrasts with approaches to water resource management particularly in water scarce areas that tend to be supply driven i.e. they use the availability of water resources as a starting point for making decisions related to the allocation and management of water resources.

From a WRM perspective, integrated approaches to planning and managing water services delivery provide a good starting point for considering whether or not the existing or future demand for water services (in time and space) are: 1) Sustainable in terms of not depleting available water resources; 2) Likely to result in negative externalities (e.g. reduced water available downstream, increased pollution risks); and 3) Feasible given the capacity and condition of existing water supply, storage and treatment infrastructure. Water accounting and auditing [11] can play a central role is this type of analysis by: 1) Mapping trends in water supply, demand and access along with, for example, patterns of water rights, entitlements or permits and the benefits derived by different water users and uses and 2) Assessing whether or water resources are being or are likely to be captured by elites at the expense of poor and margin social groups or environmental flows.

An important aspect of the water accounting is also, for a specified domain, to differentiate between consumptive and non-consumptive water uses, flows or processes [12,13]. This fractional analysis is a crucial part of assessing the cumulative impact that water services can have on water resources at different scales (in time and space) and, for example, during periods of high, average or low rainfall. Fractional analysis also provides a starting point for identifying opportunities for treating and recycling wastewaters or return flows for reuse or alternative uses [14]. When fractional analysis is used at the meso-scale it often becomes clear that, for example: 1) A significant fraction of urban water use is non-consumptive and recoverable unless the urban area is on or near to the coast; 2) Water "losses" from piped water supply systems are not losses from a WRM perspective if and when this water is recoverable and reusable; 3) Water saving technologies (e.g. drip irrigation) can improve water productivity when well-managed but they do not necessarily free up water for alternative uses ; and, 4) Sectors often considered as being big consumers of water (e.g. the power sector) have a relatively low levels of consumptive use when compared with, for example, with forestry or rainfed and irrigated agriculture.

Box 2. Typical fraction-wise water uses, flows or processes for a small to medium irrigation scheme
ConsumptiveEvaporation of water transpired by a crop canopyEvaporation from bare soil inter-rows, roads and canals
Non-consumptive (recoverable)Irrigation return flow that has an environmental function/valueIrrigation return flow that has not environmental value/function
Non-consumptive (non-recoverable)Leaching of salts to a highly polluted aquiferPercolation to a highly polluted aquifer

A generalised approach, namely MASSMUS, has been developed for holistic assessment of multiple-use services at different scales in relation to large irrigation schemes [15]. This approach takes explicit account of water resources availability in relation to the aggregate water use of all water users and use in a specified domain. However when it comes to assessment and monitoring of water services, MASSMUS is the exception. In general, the focus of government line departments or NGO's is only on the water services that are part of their remit. For example, IRCs current approach to monitoring WASH services levels does not use an indicator related to water security (and by association the status of water resources), nor does it systematically assess all water uses in a specified domain. This, of course, makes good sense in areas that are well endowed with water resources (e.g. large parts of Equatorial Africa). However even in these areas, as well as in areas poorly endowed with water resources, the trend globally is intensifying water scarcity (i.e. an increasing imbalance between water supply and demand [16]).

Given the increasing investment in irrigation schemes, improved rainfed farming systems and water development in Africa and elsewhere, the strong likelihood is that consumptive water use by agriculture, in particular, will continue to escalate. The net result being that the potential for water scarcity to impact negatively on water services (of all kinds) will also increase rapidly. Hence the need for water services monitoring systems that: 1) Track and map the aggregate consumptive water use of all water services (in space and time); 2) Include service level indicators that give an early warning of issues of water security and/or flag up hot spots or vulnerable social groups that are experiencing some level of water scarcity; 3) Are the responsibility of institutions with the necessary capacity and skills particularly in modern approaches to information management; and, 4) Take a holistic view of water resources available (in space and time) including: unconventional water resources (e.g. return flows, treated wastewaters, inter-basin transfers etc); water quality issues; water fluxes, flow paths and storages; and, the frequency and severity of extreme events (e.g. floods, droughts etc).


Figure 2. Domestic water services ladder (Op. cit. [2])

In summary, we recommend that there is greater recognition by water and water using sectors and other sectors of the following:

  • Differences in the services and services delivery terminology that is in regular use and, more specifically, differences in the definitions that are being used;
  • Linkages and inter-dependencies of different water services e.g. WASH services depend on access to ecosystem services and/or watershed services;
  • Aggregate consumptive water use of all water services (in space and time) and the potential for negative trade-offs or externalities in total consumptive use exceeds sustainable supply (e.g. less water available to downstream water users and uses; falling groundwater levels);
  • Increasing levels of service whilst desirable (see Figure 2) can increase the risk of negative trade-offs or externalities if this contributes to a net increase in consumptive water use (in space and time);
  • The fundamental need for integrated approaches to planning and managing water services that consider that aggregate demands of all water services in time and space;
  • Service-level indicators and monitoring systems that take explicit account of levels of water scarcity (in space and time) and provide early warnings of when and where water scarcity is starting to impact on the levels of different water services.


  1. See e.g. 
  2. See e.g.
  3. See e.g.
  4. This figure is taken from:
  5. See e.g.
  6. See the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment
  7. See e.g. Calder, I.R. 2005. The Blue Revolution. Earthscan, London
  8. See Calder,I.R. et al. 2007. Towards a new understanding of forests and water. Unasylva 229, Vol. 58.
  9. See
  10. For more information see e.g.
  11. As recommended by the FAO see see
  12. See e.g. Perry, C. 2007, 'Efficient irrigation; inefficient communication; flawed recommendations' Irrigation and Drainage 56: 367–78.
  13. See e.g. Pereira,L.S., Cordery,I. and Iacovides, I. 2012. Improved indicators of water use performance and productivity for sustainable water conservation and saving. Agricultural Water Management 108, 39– 51
  14. This is a result of the Jevons paradox which notes that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource see e.g.
  15. See e.g.
  16. See the FAO definition of water scarcity:




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