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Published on: 26/03/2014

There are numerous interpretations of the concept of sustainability of rural water supplies and sanitation. Many organisations define sustainability as the maintenance of the perceived benefit of investment projects (including convenience, time savings, livelihoods or health improvements) after the end of the active period of implementation.In other words, it could be defined as whether water continues to flow over time with certain characteristics (like its quality, its quantity or reliability). Similarly, sanitation is sustainable, if the benefits, such as having access to a convenient toilet, effective separation of faecal matter from human contact and minimal environmental impact are maintained over time.

Frameworks for assessing sustainability and performance in service delivery

Whereas that is a simple definition, it is one that can only be assessed with the benefit of hindsight. Different frameworks have emerged to assess whether water indeed has kept on flowing and to predict whether water is likely to keep on flowing in the future as well.

A first set of frameworks looks at a series of factors that would affect the sustainability of water and sanitation services, typically  categorising these dimensions into social, health, technical, economic, financial, institutional and environmental groups. These factors are then used in different types of frameworks:

- As a way to plan for sustainability, i.e. ensuring that these factors are addressed in the project cycle, so as to improve the likelihood of sustainability in the future

- As a monitoring or assessment tool, i.e. an assessment is made of the extent to which these factors are met in a certain situation, and based on that, a likelihood of service sustainability is made

One of the critiques on these frameworks is that the extrapolation of the snapshot on these factors towards a likelihood of sustainability is tenuous. Good rural services depends on so many inter-related factors and even though the frameworks cover many of these, it is more appropriate to talk about performance in service delivery at a given moment than the likelhood of sustainability

A second group of frameworks indeed doesn't claim to assess sustainability, but more correctly make a snapshot of actual service delivery. Typically, these frameworks assess how service delivery is performing against explicit sector norms or implicit best practices in the sector. They do so, by looking at three groups of factors:

- the actual level that users receive. This is thus a direct assessment of whether water flows, or whether sanitation facilities are adequate

- the performance of service providers against their official functions in administration, operation and maintenance

- the performance of service authorities against their official functions of coordination, planning, support, monitoring and oversight

Whereas these frameworks give a good snapshot of how services are provided currently, they cannot be taken as a predictor for future sustainability.

What IRC is doing about this?

Sustainability of services lies at the heart of IRC's vision and mission and transpires in much of our work, and is elaborated under the different topics on these pages. In addition, we do work also on some of the frameworks around sustainable services, including the following:

- Mapping and development of sustainability tools. As part of our Triple-S project, we have carried out mapping of different sustainability tools and frameworks, assessing their respective strengths and weaknesses. We also work with clients such as the Dutch WASH Alliance, to tailor-make sustainability assessment tools for their needs and contexts.

- Service delivery indicators. In several countries, including Ghana and Uganda, we have worked with government on sets of indicators to monitor the actual service delivery, i.e. the levels of service, the service providers and service authorities.

- Sustainability clauses and compacts. Donors like DGIS and USAID are establishing clauses and compacts with some of their partner organisations to help ensurance of the sustainable delivery of services. IRC has been providing advice on how such clauses may be worded and applied

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