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We cannot do it alone. Reflections from the 7th Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) Forum.

Exactly thirty years ago the All-African Seminar on Low-Cost Rural and Urban-Fringe Water Supply resulted in the Abidjan Statement. From 9 Nov-2 Dec 2016, the 7th Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) Forum was held, again in Abidjan. This blog is a reworked version of the synthesis speech of the Forum, showing that much progress has been made in rural water supply the thirty years between the two Abidjans.

From Abidjan to Abidjan

The Abidjan Statement from 1986 contains 5 recommendations: governments should support community management and put support in place, communities will want to take on the management, an integrated approach to the health benefits, the importance of technology choice and appropriate technology and maintenance through community management.

Figure 1: the 1986 Abidjan Statement

The RWSN Forum that was held this week addressed some of the same issues as the ones mentioned thirty years ago - such as community management and local government - as seen in the word cloud of the keywords of the presentations and papers held at the Forum.

But if you dig deeper, much has changed, for the good. We see many more management models: PPP's (Public-Private Partnerships), self-supply; there is a big dot around monitoring and ICT (Information and Communication Technology), there is climate change and human rights which was not even mentioned 30 years ago. And the sheer fact that so many issues are mentioned also shows that addressing rural water supply requires action on many fronts.

Figure 2: keywords of the papers presented at the 2016 Abidjan Rural Water Supply Network Forum. By: Sean Furey (SKAT)

The discussions on these topics did not result in a new Statement, as the Kampala Commitments that guide the Rural Water Supply Network still remain. But we did prepare a synthesis presentation, reworked into this blog. It contains professional and personal reflections on the main issues discussed in the 33 sessions of the Forum, and compiled by a synthesis group, which I had the privilege to be part of, and which included Louisa Gosling (WaterAid), Cecilia Scharp (UNICEF), Léo Giordano and Sean Furey (SKAT) and Jochen Rudolph (AfDB).

Reaching everyone

A clear area of progress is in reaching everyone. In 1986 70% of the rural population in Africa did not have access to improved water supply. Now 54% of the rural population in Africa does have access, and globally it is even 84% of the rural population. Also progress has been made in ensuring the marginalised are included and have a voice. But the work is clearly not done yet, as we need to ensure that nobody is left behind. Inclusiveness is critical. So reaching the last percentages of unreached, even if there are trade-offs between serving everyone and improving service levels for others. But it also means that those who are often excluded must have a meaningful voice and influence design, implementation, monitoring – as pointed out by Yédê Adama Sanogo, Director of Society Without Borders (Ivory Coast), the chairperson of the session. Still, marginalised groups remain. Even within this forum marginalisation remained a bit of a marginalised topic. The good news is that we saw many opportunities to address this challenge. Use of low-cost technology and other innovations to reach the hard to reach, self-supply, and ICT that helps collecting data on the hard to reach. 

Water quality and other service levels

Next to reaching everyone, there is need to improve service levels, driven both by what the SDGs require us to provide, by the human rights criteria (human acceptability, accessibility, affordability, availability, safety) and by what people demand and aspire to. This means: amongst others:

  • Bringing water closer to the house or on premise. The State Minister on Water Resources from Ethiopia mentioned this in his speech at the opening of the Forum. He talked about the effort of his Government to stop the use use of jerrycans to carry water to the home - by providing water closer to the home. Having water at the homestead is often the biggest motivation for people to get improved water supplies in the first place. 
  • Better water quality – including acceptability and good taste of water
  • Water for productive uses as was seen in various presentations that showed the multiple use of water (MUS).

So we need to understand demand better, whilst at the same time create demand especially for safe water. But, improved water supplies are not necessarily safe - more focus on water safety is needed, both at community and household level – including through water safety planning and household water treatment systems – often in combination with other technologies - changes in behaviour, but also the ICT for drinking water quality. 


We often beat ourselves up for it, but we have also made huge progress in sustainability. In the 1986 Abidjan statement, that was relegated to 'community maintenance'. 15 years ago our late chair, Ton Schouten, produced a video, called the seventh video. It tells the stories of communities managing their water supplies, showing what they can do, but also shows their struggles. It ends by making a call for the need to support community management. And now in 2016 we have a much more comprehensive understanding of what is needed to address sustainability. 

This Forum showed that sustainability starts by good planning and implementation:

  • following the right – and rights-based – approaches that recognise communities, needs, capacities and rights. Build on what people want and have a right to.
  • using the right – tested, standardised and new – technologies. Tools like the Technology Applicability Framework can help in that
  • with procedures that lead to good quality of implementation processes

There is now also a much wider range of service delivery models: self-supply, community management – with its various variants -, private sector doing part of the maintenance works or as fully private operator and PPPs. All of these models have their applicability in different segments of rural areas and co-exist next to each other. But all have risks that need to be managed: e.g. quality in self-supply, affordability in privately operated systems and sustainability in community management. Moreover, in all these models, government ultimately remains responsible for ensuring adequate services, and needs to provide significant support, whether in the form of smart subsidies for self-supply, post-construction support to community management, or investing public funds to set up contracts for PPPs and regulation.

Money remains important. But there has been a big shift: from 'full cost recovery', which was implied to mean that all costs would come from tariffs' to 'recovering the different life-cycle costs through a combination of tariffs and taxes'. Several presentations at the Forum made the point that tariffs can often not cover more than operation and minor maintenance and some part of replacement or support costs. Hence the rest needs to come from taxes. Subsidy is no longer a dirty word. But this also implies that more complex financial arrangements are needed to define very clearly who pays for what, through contracts, regulation and so on. Unfortunately, the sector remains rather financially illiterate. At the closing session I asked how many people know the annual water supply budget in their countries. Only few put up their hands, whereas half of the participants raised their hands when asked whether more money should into rural water supply. We are thus asking for more money, without knowing what we spend now. We need to get better in getting to grips with all the costs, and who pays what part through what mechanism

The water resources that are the basis for rural water supplies are under increasing pressure – from pollution, over-use and climate change. And we don't always know don't really know the details on groundwater resource availability and more effort needs to go into that and we need to analyse the impacts of climate change on water services. Adequate water resource management – the 'other part' of SDG6 – is therefore key to reach 'our' targe 6.1t, and includes recharge, increased storage, diversifying water supplies and put barriers against risks from floods, droughts and pollution.

Strengthening the rural water supply sector

All the previous requires additional data: on access, on reaching marginalised groups, on disabilities on informal, small and remote settlements, on water quality, on service levels, on drillers, on sustainability, on service providers, on financial flows. But we need to be clear on which data exactly at which level, otherwise we confuse the sector. But can we really standardize and come to coordination of what we need? At the Forum there was an ICT market place, showing great advances in the ICTs that can provide us with those data. But, what above all we need are the processes and the culture to use the quality-ensured data for decision-making, national monitoring systems that go from data collection, to processing, to analysis and use.

Figure 3: woreda officer in Ethiopia. By: Ton Schouten

The picture above is the one that Ton Schouten took of a WASH officer in a woreda in Ethiopia, responsible for providing water to many people. But his budget was barely enough to cover his salary. Whenever we would get very excited about monitoring, Ton would show this picture to bring us back to reality. Can this officer do all that monitoring work, what data does he need? Can he act upon that?

And that brings us to a key point discussed at the Forum that monitoring only makes sense if we have the capacity to act upon it, if the institutions are there to respond and provide post-construction support. Luckily we have seen much progress in sector capacity, through separation and complementarity of roles and responsibilities, more awareness of those – both among government as duty bearers and users as right holders – and we saw many models for providing post-construction support.

Sure, there are still gaps. For example, regulation is still incipient – both of implementers, like drillers and service providers. You need the right people with the right skills at the right places. Continuous programmes of capacity building of different stakeholders are needed: local governments, communities, private sector, drillers and we saw a range of mechanisms to do so, from civil society putting pressure on local government to SMART centres. But challenges remain to institutionalise such capacity building programmes in the sector, beyond the duration of donor funded programmes. 

We cannot do it alone

We as rural water professionals cannot do it alone. We need the highest levels of political support to prioritise rural water, both at national and local government level. The fact that the Prime Minister of Ivory Coast came to open this event wasa very encouraging and supporting sign. As was said, countries, districts, municipalities, that show high political commitment perform better and more easily get access to finance. But getting that political commitment is not easy. We need to get rural water to come higher up on the political agenda, even within the broader water sector. So, we need to continue advocacy for the rural water sector, and avoid an urban bias but also show that we can achieve sustainable results. And donors, who have a responsibility to advice governments, should help in prioritising investment in rural water to bridge the coverage gap between urban rural areas in the long term, and contribute to human development of the rural populations.

We as rural water professionals cannot do it alone. People have needs and aspiration that are more than water supply and don't' think in sector. They want dignity and health through rural water supplies. If we want to maximize impacts of WASH, we should also think of rural water supply impacting on nutrition, so link with that sector. We need to link, with local government and governance strengthening sector to maximize on capacity building programmes. We can contribute to achieving other SDGs, such as the SDG 5 on gender.

We as rural water professionals cannot do it alone. From a rights agenda, people are expecting more accountability from their governments, and this includes better basic services like water. Demand from people to government is more effective and sustained. So, we as professionals work with civil society to claim rights to water and hold government to account. Work with organisations experienced in empowering ways of working and mediate between communities and governments.

Towards the next Abidjan?

RWSN - not only at this Forum, but also at its other activities - shows the power of peer-to-peer learning and can support further thinking on hot topics that emerged during these days: decentralisation, professionalisation and technical support, tariff setting, monitoring systems, PPPs, adaptation to climate change, MUS, Nexus, ICT for WASH. RWSN can move the agenda forward on these issues. In this, it should encourage and enforce linkages across themes, so that for example equality, non-discrimination and inclusiveness is a recognised principle that runs across all themes.

In the end, it is all about people, professionals with the skills to play their part in the big Word Cloud that is the rural water sector. If RWSN continues to strengthen those skills, we collectively can say at the 2030 Abidjan Forum on Rural Water Supply: 'no more statements are needed'.  


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