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This paper takes a hard look at the limited achievements of the rural water sector, points to areas where approaches need to be radically improved and sets some challenges.

TitleMyths of the rural water supply sector
Publication TypeBriefing Note
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsRWSN Executive Steering Committee
Secondary TitleRWSN perspectives
Pagination7 p.; 3 fig.; 6 refs.
Date Published05/2010
PublisherRural Water Supply Network (RWSN) Secretariat, Skat Foundation
Place PublishedSt. Gallen, Switzerland
Publication LanguageEnglish
Keywordsaccess to water, drinking water, rural areas, rural communities, rural supply systems, safe water supply, WASHCost, water supply, water supply services

Ensuring that rural dwellers around the world do not have to walk for hours to collect sufficient and safe drinking water is a huge challenge. This short article raises issues for those of us who are involved in trying to improve rural water supplies, whether as donor, Government or NGO; program manager or practitioner. It takes a hard look at our limited achievements, points to areas where our approaches need to be radically improved and sets some challenges. Considerable investments have been made in rural water supplies. For example, between 1978 and 2003 the World Bank alone lent approximately US$ 1.5 billion to the sector. Springs have been protected; wells have been dug or drilled, and fitted with handpumps; piped water schemes have been constructed.  However, the sobering fact is that progress is still much too slow, and rural water supply coverage significantly lags behind that of urban water supply. However, not only has progress been slow, but, more shamefully, many of the constructed services have not continued to work over time. It has been estimated that only two out of three installed handpumps are working at any given time. Thousands of people, who once benefited from a safe drinking water supply, now walk past broken handpumps or taps and on to their traditional, dirty water point.  Despite the best intentions, the fact is that we, sector professionals and practitioners, have contributed towards the problem in numerous ways. Over the years, some principles have been established as to what underpins the success and sustainability of rural water supply.  Expressions such as ‘demand responsive approach’, ‘appropriate technology’, ‘village level operation and maintenance’, ‘community management’ and ‘private sector participation’ have become well entrenched in policy and strategy. However, subscription to these and other principles has not yielded the results expected.  Sometimes they are very poorly implemented; in other cases they are simply inadequate.  It is thus time for us to reflect on some of the paradoxes and major myths of rural water supply service delivery. This paper sets out the myths of the rural water supplies sector. As you read it, you may decide that some of these are not myths at all, but are glaringly obvious.  Take the example of the myth that “building water supply systems is more important than keeping them working”. Your reaction may be that this is not a myth, and that you are well aware of the importance of operation and maintenance. But then ask yourself what you are actually doing in your programmes to address this major problem.  Many of us are well aware that the issues set out in this paper are myths.  Nevertheless, most of us carry on as before. A rehabilitation programme tends to use the same management and maintenance principles and training (if any) even where these previously led to long term breakdown. [authors abstract]

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