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Published on: 07/02/2013

Water systems for rural and peri-urban areas across four WASHCost research countries fail to provide a basic acceptable level of service to even half their populations. Piped systems generally provide higher service level than boreholes with handpumps, but they cost a lot more and still do not deliver an acceptable service for the majority.

These findings are revealed in Working Paper 8: Applying a life-cycle costs approach to water services (download below), published this month (Feb 2013). The document says that current practice in the WASH sector is expensive and provides very low value for money. It calls for more resources to be allocated to annual recurrent costs – in particular systems and finances to monitor post-construction services and funds for asset maintenance.

WASHCost country teams collected and analysed data on costs and service levels in India (Andhra Pradesh), Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mozambique in partnership with local and national level governments, statistic institutes, NGOs and research institutions. Geo-referenced information about service levels was collected from more than 10,000 household surveys, and from technical surveys and key informant interviews.

The most striking finding is that none of the schemes provide a basic service to even half their populations, primarily due to the unreliability of services. Most piped systems are non-functional for an average of more than ten days per year, while boreholes with handpumps are on average, non-functional for 12-14 days a year. This gives strong support to the hypothesis that current levels of expenditure on minor maintenance and appropriate capital maintenance are insufficient.

Boreholes with handpumps

Even when piped schemes are available, boreholes fitted with handpumps play an important role in communities: both as a main source and as an alternative when the piped scheme suffers source failure, poor (perceived) water quality, or prolonged mechanical breakdown.

The average cost of constructing a borehole with handpump was highest in Burkina Faso at US$ 12,507 which is only slightly less than the cost of providing seven boreholes with handpumps in Andhra Pradesh.  Despite these wide variations in capital costs, costs per user are not substantially different in Andhra Pradesh, Mozambique and Ghana, reflecting differences in the number of users per borehole. 

Recurrent expenditure ranged from US$ 0.2 (PPP US$ 0.5) per user per year in Burkina Faso to US$ 1.1 (PPP US$ 1.4) in Ghana. Many systems have no record of any capital maintenance being spent and where it was found annual values were very low - US$ 0.1 per user in Burkina Faso and $ 0.03 per user in Mozambique. The fact that that one in three boreholes in Africa is out of action at any one time suggests that reported capital maintenance expenditure is significantly below the expenditure necessary to ensure sustainable services.  

In Ghana, expenditure on direct support to communities and service providers averages US$ 0.47 per person per year. In Mozambique the average direct support cost per person for water was about US$ 0.55 in districts included in a support scheme but was almost zero everywhere else. Estimates in India gave an average figure of US$ 0.30 per person per year.

WASHCost found no clear relationship between levels of expenditure and service levels delivered. It is likely that a minimum threshold of recurrent expenditure is needed before the majority of the population receives a basic level of service.

Piped systems

Piped schemes tend to provide better services than boreholes with handpumps but at higher cost and the majority still fail to deliver a basic service to half of users. More complex schemes, with higher minor and major maintenance, do not necessarily provide better levels of service.

WASHCost findings suggest that for Ghana to change from a borehole delivery model to a piped supply, a five-fold increase in initial capital expenditure is required (from a mean of US$ 19 to US$ 97 per user). This would double the number of users receiving a basic service, but they would still make up less than half of the population in the area.

These low levels of service are very costly. Across the four countries, the mean recurrent operational and minor maintenance expenditure on piped systems was between US$ 1.4 and US$ 5.8 per person per year, roughly 5-8 times higher than for boreholes with handpumps, and constituting 4% of the initial capital expenditure for all piped approaches.

Overall conclusions and recommendations

Recurrent costs for rural water services are chronically underfunded, and this is associated with high observed levels of breakdown and low service delivery.  By spending a relatively small amount of additional money in absolute per person terms, sustainability could be achieved.

However, this relatively small amount represents 8-10 times current spending: rising for rural handpump based services from the current per capita expenditure of about US$ 0.50 per person per year to US$ 3-6 per person per year. For piped systems, ongoing finance requirements are greater at roughly US $ 3-15 per person per year.

While in absolute terms these amounts do not seem much for a year-round supply of good quality and reliable drinking water, for many countries the suggested amount is still above available resources.  The paper says that without a long-term commitment from governments and donors to subsidise part of the recurrent costs, sustainable water services for the rural poor in developing countries will remain unachievable.

Peter McIntyre

7 February 2013



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