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Published on: 11/03/2014

A critical concept when discussing rural water services is the service level. A benchmark for a basic service levels would be some 25 litres per capita per day (lpcd) of a quality that meets national standards, within a round trip of 30 minutes, to higher of lower levels of service. But a user may actually receive a higher or lower service level, e.g. an unlimited supply at the homestead, or only 10 lpcd of quality that doesn't meet standards.

Taking a user perspective

Traditionally, the rural water-supply sector only differentiates between having an improved or an unimproved water source. This dichotomy is not very meaningful because, from the perspective of a user, there is a difference between walking 500 metres to a borehole with a handpump and having access to a continuous flow of water from a household tap. A water service perspective demands differentiation of what users receive beyond the simple distinction between access to an improved or unimproved source. That differentiation is expressed through service levels: the service that users receive in terms of water quality, quantity, reliability and accessibility. National norms and standards determine the minimum service level people should receive.

The intended level of service needs to be commensurate with the demand of users... and the ability and willingness to pay for it.

Proper planning of services

Different service levels come at different costs and require different activities and capacities of a service provider, different systems for operation and maintenance and different rules for users. These need to be taken into account when developing water services and deciding on service levels. High service levels may go beyond the ability of users to pay, the capacity of the provider to operate the system or the capacity of the service authority to regulate or support. On the other hand, sometimes users want a high level of service to be able to use their water for productive activities alongside domestic uses. To increase the chances of sustainability, the intended level of service needs to be commensurate with the demand of users for that level of service and the ability and willingness to pay for it, and the management capacity of service providers and support agents. Using a service level perspective is a useful way to structure a discussion on the implications of a choosing a specific level of service.

Monitoring the actual service people receive

A final use of service levels is in monitoring. Sustainability problems with a water service are often reflected in a reduction of the service level. With the exception of handpumps or submersible pumps, water supply systems usually do not break down completely. Rather, there may be a gradual reduction in the level of service provided. Measuring service levels over time may be used as a way to assess the sustainability of services.

Indicators for service levels

A service level is made up of several components. The most common ones are:

  • Water quantity. Many countries define an amount of water as a minimum norm to be complied with, typically in the order of magnitude of 20-25 lpcd for rural consumers. This is a normative benchmark. In countries where average amounts supplied tend to be much higher, such minimum norms are less relevant. There, design norms can be used to establish a benchmark.
  • Water quality. Most countries have water quality norms that need to be met, often derived from WHO (World Health Organisation) guidelines for water quality. In some cases, these norms are differentiated between urban and rural areas where, in the latter, only few basic parameters, such as e-coli, need to be met.

Reliability is often expressed as the percentage of time that a water point is functioning.

  • Accessibility. This is often expressed in terms of the average distance between the homestead and the water point, the time for collecting water or the crowding (the number of people sharing a water point). There may be national norms for this. For example, in Ghana a water point needs to be less than 500 metres away from the homestead and not be shared by more than 150 persons (for wells) or 300 persons (for boreholes and other point sources).
  • Reliability is often expressed as the percentage of time that a water point is functioning, or the time it takes to repair it when a breakdown occurs. It is less common to have national norms for this.
  • Some would argue that the costs or the affordability of the supply should be considered as part of the service level as well. While undoubtedly important, this is fundamentally different, as it is a reflection of the financial (or management) costs to get to a certain service level and not what the user receives. In Triple-S and WASHCost this is therefore not included as part of the service level.

From 'no service' to 'high service': a service ladder

Various authors have tried to group some of these service characteristics together in the form of a service ladder. The table below depicts the ladder developed by the WASHCost project. It shows a continuum running from 'no service' (which is effectively an insecure or unimproved source) to 'high service', where access is on demand at, or very close to, the household. The basic level of service reflects the national norm. The sub-standard level refers to cases where people do have some service, but which doesn't meet the national norms and standards. For each country this ladder would look different as norms and standards differ across countries and as indicators are defined and measured in various ways.

What IRC is doing about it?

For IRC, any effor to work on changing the whole system of service delivery, starts by understanding what current service levels are being provided. In countries like Burkina Faso, Ghana and Uganda, we have doen extensive studies to assess the current service levels, and find out how they relate to the normative service levels. Unfortunately, most of these findings point to the fact that services in all these countries are generally sub-standard, i.e. they do not meet basic norms. We have also found that in many instances, service levels are not well-defined in national norms and standards or are incomplete. For example, typically water quality standards may exist, but ones for parameters like continuity or reliability may be lacking. We then enter into a dialogue with the government and other stakeholders to further define or refine those standards. Finally, we promote, where relevant, that users go towards higher levels of service, particularly so that they can meet their productive water needs alongside the domestic ones, under the multiple-use services (MUS) approach.

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