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Published on: 24/01/2012

Unexpected breakdowns of machines and systems are unavoidable. If you have a car, it will break down at some point. You don't know when it will happen, but in your bones you know that the day will eventually come. What is certain is that repairing the unexpected breakdown will cost you.What is true of cars is also true of water systems. It is the inevitable and unexpected costs that you do not budget for that make the difference between being able to plan for the future and hoping for a miracle. 

Yaase Village in Bosomtwe District of Ghana is a case in point. This is a cheerful, well run village with good leadership and a functioning water supply. It is progressive and appears to be developing well. Isaac Mensah, Secretary to the WATSAN committee keeps the books neatly. The costs of water income from sales are available for all to see. The WATSAN committee meets on the last Sunday of every month and they invite the village chairman (of the unit committee) to discuss any problems. The committee submits accounts to the District every quarter and invites them to send someone to audit their books. Every year they present their figures to a village meeting and answer questions.

Generally, things function well. There are four boreholes in the village—three in good working order. The cylinder of the fourth borehole broke four or five years ago and has never been repaired. Area mechanic, Kune Banahene, hasn’t looked beneath the surface yet, but when the cylinder breaks, it usually means other parts also need replacing. Banahene routinely expects that it will probably cost  Gh¢ 260 to fix.

Of the three working pumps two are handpumps where the villagers pay 5 pesewa (about US$ 0.03) for three 18 litre buckets of water. The other pump is mechanised. Water is electrically pumped to a 5,000 litre overhead Polytank which feeds the tap by gravity. One customer is Georgia Osei. She arrives with a large container on her head and stands upright and proud while the container fills. Her 5 pesewas buy only 40 litres of water here, but she would rather pay the extra cost than do the pumping herself. The pump is also conveniently near her home. 

Pump attendant Naomi Manu works the taps, takes the money, and oversees fair play. For these duties, she is paid Gh¢ 40 per month. Naomi keeps a written record of every litre she sells, and tracks daily and monthly accounts as well as unannounced inspections. She is proud of her record keeping. “The WATSAN committee says I do a good job,” Naomi says shyly. This is the most productive pump in the village. In the dry season, when demand is at its peak, Naomi often fills the tank twice a day and sells 10,000 litres of water. On a good day, water sales earn the village Gh¢ 12.50. These modest costs are as much as villagers can afford. In the wet season, people are more likely to use others sources—almost every house has large drums that catch rainwater. During this season, handpumps are also easier to operate because the water table is higher. When it is very wet, one tankful at the pump can last four days. Naomi may take less than Gh¢ 1 per day which does not even cover her salary. These figures vary at times, but Isaac reports that in the dry months they acquire Gh¢ 150 to 200; while during a wet or wettish month, they acquire Gh¢ 40 to 70. It is rare to take more than Gh¢ 200 from this pump. If there are five dry months and seven months of varying degrees of wetness, we can estimate that the annual income from this pump can be approximately  a total of Gh¢ 1,490 (=(5 x 200) + (7x 70)).

The annual income must in turn cover the costs of:

  • The fee for the pump attendant, Naomi Manu (Gh¢ 12x40) = Gh¢ 480 
  • Disinfecting the Polytank (four times per year at Gh¢ 30 each time) = Gh¢ 120 
  • Replacement taps (one or two per year at approximately Gh¢ 35 a tap) = Gh¢ 35/70 
  • Electricity for a pump = dry season: Gh¢ 100 per month; wet season: Gh¢ 40 to 70 
  • Approximate total for electricity: Gh¢ 500 + 385 = Gh¢ 885

With income being approximately Gh¢ 1,490 while expenditure being approximately Gh¢ 1,500, there is a small nominal loss. The Committee seems to do a little better than producing a nominal loss. In a good year, they make a modest surplus. The WATSAN committee has Gh¢ 500 in the bank. However, it is no surprise that there is no spare money to mend the fourth pump. Isaac says that once they pay the attendant in some months to come, they have to “look for money” in order to pay the electricity bill.

Now the Committee faces a dilemma. When the mechanised pump was installed in 2007, there was  an accident with the Polytank which caused a small hole. The hole was repaired but it has since started to leak.

The WATSAN committee wants to replace the tank and the platform on which the tank sits. However, the tank alone will cost about Gh¢ 1,500, almost exactly a year’s income. This is CapManEx—the unexpected sum you have t pay to keep the service at the current level. 

The Committee would also like to mechanise a second pump on the other side of the road. Financing this endeavour costs approximately Gh¢ 5,000, which is more than three years' worth of income. Since mechanising the second hand pump extends and improves services, we count it as new capital expenditure (CapEx).

So what can be done? Going back to our analogy of owning a car—with the vehicle broken down at this point, we now have to park it by the roadside and reach our destination by bus or on foot. The CapManEx is the knockout blow to our car. However, in the case of village water supply, we cannot abandon the proverbial vehicle, or in this case the pump systems.There is one other source of money. Every year, Yaase Village holds a harvest celebration with an initiative for collecting donations in cash or in kind. The event raises approximately Gh¢ 7,000. The WATSAN committee can potentially seek help from this fund. However, the reality of the matter is that water competes with other urgent needs of the community. Last year the harvest money paid for an information centre and electricity poles. This year, priority lies in building a community centre. 

Yaasee is a progressive village, with a well-run WATSAN committee and dedicated team. The village chief himself is interested in water issues and promotes rainwater harvesting. But the economics here do not add up to sustainability. There is only enough money to keep the water system ticking but not enough to deal with unexpected breakdowns. Options in dealing with CapManEx costs are not very palatable, which include the following: 

  • They could increase water fees at the risk of having some community members stop using the system. 
  • They could patch up the tank and hope the platform does not fall down in a storm, not taking into account sensible planning. 
  • They could indefinitely postpone plans to improve the system—but that is not progress. 
  • They could appeal for a donor to fund the replacement and extension work—but that is not sustainability. 
  • They could ask the community to raise some extra money—but that may be a hard sell.

What will Yaase Village decide to do?

When they decide on a course of action, the  WASHCost Ghana team will let you know.

Peter McIntyre and Bernice Donkor-Badu
11 January 2012.



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