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Reflecting on the 'Future perspectives for rural water supply' debate

Published on: 26/03/2014

What will rural water supply look like in the future? And will it include the handpump or are there viable, and preferable, options?

On 14 February 2014, IRC held a debate on future perspectives for rural water supply, reflecting on the large data sets collected through Triple-S and WASHCost. Presentations focused particularly on evidence from Burkina Faso and Mozambique. The life-cycle costs and service levels of the handpump suggest it is less suitable than piped water services for the provision of equitable and sustainable services. Yet, handpumps are commonly viewed as the most appropriate technology for water provision in rural areas.

A detailed account of the debate was written by Paul Hutchings.

Welcome – Patrick Moriarty (IRC)

Patrick opened the discussion by setting out his "provocative" views on handpumps. When it comes to handpumps the rural water sector operates on a 19th-century model, much like a telecommunications industry that still works with a cup and a piece of string rather than the mobile phone! Why are we still trying to improve the piece of string? At the moment, a borehole costs around US $10,000 in parts of Africa and has a huge potential yield, yet we focus on the $500 handpump that actually constrains the borehole. That's despite the fact that rural people often want more water, for varied uses, then what handpumps can provide. It's time to move on.

Macro & micro demand – Richard Franceys (Cranfield University)

Introducing the wider context to the debate, Richard Franceys encouraged the group to think about how shifts in macro and micro demand are changing the rules of the game for the rural water sector.

Drawing on the statistics of Hans Rosling, Richard explained that today a billion people live on US$1 a day or less, with 4 billion on US$10 or less a day, and the rest on US $100 or more a day. However, the distribution across these groups has dramatically shifted in recent decades, with the number of people living on US$ 1 or less shrinking rapidly, especially in Asia. This trend is set to continue with the whole world likely to move above the US$ 1 a day threshold in the near future. This increase in prosperity – helped in rural areas by the global spike in food prices putting more money in farmers' pockets – means that governments and populations will have increasing wealth to spend on water supply services.

In India, for example, rising wealth is driving a period of "leapfrogging", with the latest policy guidelines aiming for 80% coverage of piped water supply in rural areas by 2022. This is to be realised through projects such as the latest government of India and World Bank US$ 1 billion scheme for lagging states. Generally speaking, US$ 1,000 GDP per capita appears to be the point at which this type of leapfrogging becomes possible, though this also depends on the tax to GDP ratio. For perspective, Richard showed that generally speaking a consumer society develops at US$ 5,000 GDP per capita, whilst in England per capita GDP was at US$ 10,000 before rural communities received water services – and it was at US$ 15,000 before sewerage.

While macro growth is important, the sector also needs to be better at understanding and responding to the reality of micro-level demand in rural areas.

Whilst macro growth is important, the sector also needs to be better at understanding and responding to the reality of micro-level demand in rural areas. Richard described the story of Andrea and Olivia and their eight children, who consider water supply as just one of their many concerns. The family must walk two hours a day for water, yet when they receive additional income, the first thing that Andrea wants to invest in is a tin roof for his home. When more money comes, it is decided that a "home is not a home without a bicycle" and after purchasing one Andrea puts it to use transporting water and taking produce to market. Soon his desire moves to a motorbike yet still investment in the family's water supply is not considered. This is just one typical story of how water supply is not necessarily the top priority for families like Andrea and Olivia's, who have limited resources but many possible investments.

Shifting from assistance to development – Christelle Pezon (IRC)

Christelle explained that in Burkina Faso there is a traditional model and 'another' model for rural water supply. The traditional model is centred on an aid funded, handpump paradigm that is supported by community management with some degree of institutional support. The other model consists of small piped networks with standpipes at a household level, with minimal institutional support.

Whilst the common assumption is that handpumps are a more appropriate technology for rural Burkina, this has been proved wrong by recent research looking at 900 handpumps and 7 piped water networks in the Sahel region. This study shows that piped water supply attracts stronger user demand, leads to high service levels and can be cheaper. This is the case in the increasingly large villages of between 2,000 and 10,000 people that now account for 50% of the total Burkina population.

The life-cycle costs are initially higher for piped water, but as total volume increases, they become more competitive than handpumps – this occurs at about 10,000 m3/year. The piped water supply also performs better on all government approved indicators: quality, distance, crowding and quantity. User demand is surprisingly strong with users paying rates 10 times higher for 15l/per day. This indicates that rural people are prepared to pay more for a better all-round service.

The household perspective – Catarina Fonseca (IRC)

Presenting new evidence from Ghana and Mozambique, Catarina introduced her research on the 'household perspective'. Initially offering a historical literature-based angle, she questioned the 'standard model' of appropriate technology – usually handpumps – that are provided as communal resources to communities. In the 1960s people had already started to talk about breakdowns yet between 1970 and 1990 there was a massive expansion of infrastructure that used this model. During the period between 1990 to 2010 the sector better understood the nature of this failure, but it was not until 2010 that the discourse changed to emphasise post-construction and capital maintenance – yet still nothing fundamental in the "standard model" has changed.

Catarina questioned the 'standard model' of appropriate technology – usually handpumps – that are provided as communal resources to communities.

Drawing on data from the WASHCost project, in particular two datasets of household surveys – 1,339 responses in Ghana and 1,710 responses in Mozambique – Catarina sought to challenge the standard model. Even the very poorest, those living well below the US$ 1.25 a day poverty line, were willing to invest in better service levels. In particular, the data shows that people want a household connection or a yard tap and are willing to pay for it. They are not willing to invest as much in communal resources, such as the handpump. Even a very small increase in wealth from US$ 0.5 to US$ 0.8 per person per day leads to a shift in the type of sources used: from communal sources to nearby individual ones.

Those at US$ 0.8 per person/day are more likely to draw water from less sources, travel less distance to collect water, enjoy a higher quantity and contribute more money towards Capital Expenditure and Operation and Maintenance. Proximity and perceived quality are the most important factors for those surveyed in the choice of their sources.

This house can see the coming death of the handpump – the debate

Opening the debate in favour of the motion, it was suggested that by 2025 no government would have handpumps as part of their official policy. In rural areas, there is a need to move beyond drinking water to 'multiple-use water services'. Handpumps constrain boreholes that can be more effectively exploited through other types of technology. However, even more fundamentally, the death of the handpump is actually the death of the Village Level Operation and Maintenance (VLOM) model that has often accompanied the provision of communal handpumps and proven itself fatally flawed over the last decades.

Riposting, the evidence on the benefits of the alternatives to handpumps was questioned. In the study in Burkina, the piped systems performed well, but wider experience from the sector suggests this is a relatively unique case. This is an especially important point when considering rural societies with smaller and more scattered settlements, where piped water supply would prove extremely expensive per capita served. Furthermore, it was questioned if the presented WASHCost data is consistent with the wider project findings that suggest piped water is more expensive and leads to poorer service levels. Therefore, this proposed death of the handpump is premature because the alternatives are not yet good enough in rural areas.

The proposed death of the handpump is premature because the alternatives are not yet good enough in rural areas.

It was proposed we needed to change the mind-set. It may be perceived poverty that leads people to think they do not have the right to demand anything more than communal handpumps – and this is also in the heads of policy makers and sector professionals. The initial WASHCost evidence on piped water was limited yet with more detailed analysis it shows that even those much below the poverty line are prepared to pay for better service levels when they have the opportunity. The most appealing factor is proximity – something that can be better offered through piped supply.

The other big change that the presented evidence demonstrates concerns the affordability of piped water in rural areas. There was a general consensus that the high costs of capital expenditure made piped water unviable, yet the evidence on this was actually tiny. Now we have new evidence from larger datasets, we should respond to it. These show that piped water supply – at sufficient volume – is more cost-effective compared to handpumps as users are willing to contribute higher tariffs. This should change our minds on the affordability issue.

It was accepted that the current model for water supply needed to be changed, but the focus should be on improving governance, management and professionalisation. The handpump remains an interesting option for individuals as a back-up source and, at times, as the primary household source – especially in South Asia. As a sector we need to consider how different circumstances determine the appropriateness of technology and models, with population size, distribution and capability – as well as environmental conditions – all affecting this consideration. We seem to be mixing questions about the type of technology and the service delivery model.

Responding to the issue of population characteristics, it was suggested that there is a growing trend towards larger rural settlements – with 'villages' of between 1,000 and 10,000 people becoming increasingly common across Africa and Asia. The sector needs to adapt to this.

Next the room was asked to consider whether the jump from handpumps to piped supply is really the only option. For example, limited reticulation schemes with motorised pumps are an interesting option, especially for providing enough water for a wide variety of livelihood needs. Rope-pumps have also proven themselves attractive to users in certain contexts, whilst one practitioners' experience in Burkina suggests that some villages still desire the simplest of water supply, an open well. Clearly, there is a need for different solutions to different problems.

Finally, the importance of 'politics' was discussed. In presenting the evidence discussed today to wider audiences, the potential to scare off policy makers with 'radical' views should be reflected upon. We need to communicate with appropriate messages that make people reconsider practice rather than become defensive about it. Considering the example of the highly successful WASMO programme in Gujarat, the policy trigger was a state government that readily acknowledged its failure in terms of serving rural populations. Governments around the world already spend considerable amounts on failing handpump schemes – redirecting more of these funds to rural piped water would appear to be a sensible investment – but anyone supporting this transition need to think carefully about their advocacy efforts.

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