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We can no more expect unmaintained pumps to provide services than we can a car with no fuel to take us on our journey

Published on: 25/04/2012

What does it cost to provide water services that last? What do we mean by a water service?

 How can we measure whether water is being provided effectively, and at the desired level? These were among the questions tackled during a panel discussion held in WASH Advocate’s 301 session for World Water Day. 

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Catarina Fonseca and Patrick Moriarty of IRC were joined by panelists and some 120 participants to discuss the implications for rural WASH services of the most recent findings from IRC’s WASHCost project. After introducing and explaining the main building blocks of WASHCost’s life-cycle costs approach, Catarina Fonseca, WASHCost project director, presented a summary of WASHCost’s recent findings, including:

  • Up to 40% of investments in the rural WASH sector end up in the garbage bin due to poor maintenance and upkeep; resulting in ‘slippage’ where previously served communities or individuals regress to a lower level of service—or to none at all.
  • Providing effective post-construction support for rural water services – one critical element in fighting slippage - costs at least US$ 2-3 per person served every year. Yet WASHCost findings suggest that many countries, especially in Africa, typically spend less than US$ 1 per person.

According to one audience member, ‘investments in WASH services that only address the need for new infrastructure are like giving someone a car to solve their transport problems, but then never spending any money on fuel or servicing. We can no more expect unmaintained pumps to provide services than we can a car with no fuel to take us on our journey.’

Panellist Christophe Prevost of the World Bank suggested that ‘while getting much right in our efforts in rural WASH over the last two decades, we need to accept that our failure to grapple with the challenge of sustainability is a major failing . However some countries are doing much better than others and there are solutions to improve sustainability in particular when sector allocation for post construction is properly considered”’.

"Investments in WASH services that only address the need for new infrastructure are like giving someone a car to solve their transport problems, but then never spending any money on fuel or servicing."

Catarina Fonseca proposed that best practice for all projects in the sector should include providing a percentage of investment to upgrade or rehabilitate existing systems before creating new ones.

Patrick Moriarty added that one possible solution to the problem of poor and unsustainable services would be to shift aid to the WASH sector towards outcome based payment for actual service delivered. In response to Moriarty’s suggestion and the challenge of engaging local political support, panelist Louis Boorstin of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation suggested that a combination of outcome-based payment, amplifying consumer voice, and defining the problem correctly using WASHCost’s focus on sustainable service delivery might just yield breakthroughs in the future.

Third panelist, Tanvi Nagpal of Johns Hopkins University said that one of many real challenges is providing sufficient incentives, along with WASHCost information, for decision makers at the district level so that they use WASHCost data when making investment choices. She also shared her experiences of teaching the different aspects of life-cycle costs to her class. Nagpal indicated that for many of her students from the MA International relations programme, it was the first time that they had given thought to more than basic capital, and small operation and maintenance costs.

The panel discussion was part of WASH Advocate’s 301 session for World Water Day—hosted by the World Bank on 21th March 2012 in Washington, D.C.

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