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IRC Symposium challenges WASH sector to cost and finance sustainable services

Published on: 17/03/2011

The IRC 2010 international symposium posed a series of challenges to the water and sanitation sector to improve its ability to cost and finance sustainable services – and to understand the price that communities pay when those services fail.

The IRC 2010 international symposium posed a series of challenges to the water and sanitation sector to improve its ability to cost and finance sustainable services – and to understand the price that communities pay when those services fail.

The symposium, Pumps, Pipes and Promises held in the Hague from 16-18 November brought together 120 researchers, practitioners, economists, engineers and governance specialists from 27 countries to draw together issues around costs, financing and accountability.

It was strongly supported, with 40 papers presented from UNICEF, WaterAid, Plan, Water and Sanitation Program, Transparency International and many other key sector organisations. The first preliminary results from the WASHCost project to identify costs in four countries were released in a series of papers.

Sustainable services that last is the aim

The overall focus was the need to switch from infrastructure to sustainable services in water, sanitation and hygiene that last. It reflected a shift in the WASH sector towards greater clarity in planning and financing services that reach people with the regularity and quality they demand.

The Symposium called for data that can be understood by those who make funding decisions and greater accountability and transparency on costs and services.

More openness of data will empower decision makers and the people who hold the decision makers to account. However, donors and governmental decision makers were under-represented at the Symposium. There is a communication challenge to reach them with these arguments and this information.  There was a call for the methodologies for collecting costs and key messages from the research to be documented and communicated effectively, with training to spread these skills.

Accountability gives citizens the right to challenge abuses

There was a consensus that corruption needs to be tackled wherever it occurs. This means having effective regulatory bodies, and providing citizens with clear information so that they can challenge misuse of funds and resources. Without transparency, accountability, and improved access to information, cost data is unlikely to improve outcomes.

The background paper for the Symposium, (Pezon, Fonseca & Butterworth, 2010) points out that decentralisation has the potential to build a stronger link between citizens and their services. “However, administrative capacities and checks and balances are also generally less developed at this level, and the dangers of corruption taking root within newly decentralised service delivery arrangements have been highlighted.”

Crisis at community level

The high level of support needed to keep community services running in rural areas was underlined by detailed figures from two municipalities in South Africa where technical support costs represented between a half and two thirds of the total operational costs for water services and repairs to pumps were often beyond the capacity of village based CBOs.

One area in the spotlight was the failure of community management to provide a mechanism to deal with substantial maintenance, in a context where a US$ 50,000 borehole often fails because the US$ 500 handpump cannot be replaced. Patrick Moriarty of IRC pointed out that it is unreasonable to expect communities to keep large enough reserves for larger scale repairs and capital maintenance.  Alternative mechanisms, such as some form of mutualisation, are needed to spread the risks.

Households carry the burden

There is much less understanding of the costs of sanitation and hygiene than of water – but it is clear from the preliminary findings from WASHCost that many households bear the majority of these costs themselves.

Symposium organiser and facilitator, Alana Potter from IRC, said: “Findings coming out of WASHCost with respect to the kinds of investments households are making in water and sanitation improvement but also in hygiene, show that many people in poor countries across the world are investing huge amounts of money, effort and time in improving their lives.”

The high cost of failure

Catarina Fonseca, Director of the WASHCost Project, pointed out how expensive it is to provide low quality water and sanitation services. WASHCost research suggests that switching from boreholes with handpumps to small piped services can triple the costs of service delivery, but often leaves people with service levels somewhere between sub-standard and basic. “The cost ranges are huge for providing the same low levels of service – for water between sub-standard and basic. What we are finding is if you want to go from basic to the next stage higher up, you need a much higher investment effort, not in the capital expenditure component – but in all the other components.”

WASHCost has proposed service ladders for water and sanitation with five levels: no service, sub-standard, basic, intermediate and high. It is no longer enough to count the number of water points or toilets – providing safe, reliable services is all-important.

Who pays for what?

Keynote speaker, David Hall, Director of the Public Services International Research Unit, argued that the main provider of finance is and will continue to be the Governments of developing countries themselves. He called for aid to be redirected to support countries that have low tax revenues, and said that the private sector has little role to play in financing water and sanitation services in low income countries. 

Symposium combined research and practical experience

The symposium was hailed as a success by organisers and participants. Alana Potter said: “What‘s exciting is that we are starting to see the synthesis of three critical ideas in terms of costs, accountability and financing, which are often seen as particular disciplines in themselves.  We are starting to see more interdisciplinary sharing and the synergies starting to emerge between those three content areas. “

Peter McIntyre