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Published on: 01/01/2008

Understanding the cost of water and sanitation services Life-cycle costing tools

The WASHCost project (2008-2013) set out to fill a glaring gap in information about the costs of water, sanitation and hygiene services in rural and peri-urban areas not served by utilities and about the spending needed to ensure that they survive in the long term. It was born in reaction to the poverty of data that threatened the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals for water and sanitation.

Many people in low- and middle-income countries experience poor and unreliable water and sanitation services, although they are considered to be 'covered' by an improved supply. WASHCost research suggests that a failure to fully fund services and especially to finance recurrent expenditure is a significant factor in frequent breakdowns and service weaknesses.

WASHCost teams in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mozambique and Andhra Pradesh (India) collected and analysed cost and service level information for water, sanitation and hygiene in rural and peri-urban areas, applying the life-cycle costs approach. The life-cycle costs approach examines the complex relationships between expenditure, service delivery, poverty, effectiveness and sustainability. 

Read further to learn about the main outcomes of WASHCost. For a quick overview, check the animation below.

In the Useful Links section, a curated list of outputs at global and country levels are also presented: WASHCost Burkina Faso, WASHCost Ghana, WASHCost Mozambique and WASHCost Andhra Pradesh (India).  

Life-cycle costs approach and service levels

WASHCost's overall purpose was to improve planning methods and improve the provision of water and sanitation services. Towards the realisation of its goals, WASHCost action research sought to introduce a simple approach to costing for a basic level of service per person, per year. In order to provide a sustainable service, WASHCost put forward the need to account for the full life-cycle costs of services: from construction to operation, ongoing support and management, rehabilitation and eventual replacement. The components of a life-cycle costs approach are expressed in the WASHCost pie, and the full methodology and approach are described in the WASHCost global briefing note, Life-cycle costs approach: costing sustainable services.

In order to make costs comparable across different contexts — as costs vary from country to country (and within country) — WASHCost worked with service levels to help arrive at realistic calculations and benchmarks.

Cost benchmarks for basic water and sanitation services

Based on the financial data available at the time of WASHCost research, minimum cost benchmarks to achieve sustainable and basic water and sanitation services were developed, and are summarised in the WASHCost global infosheet, Providing a basic level of water and sanitation services that last: cost benchmarks.

Main finding and recommendations for water supply are elaborated in the WASHCost global briefing note, Applying a life-cycle costs approach to water: costs and service levels in rural and small town areas in Andhra Pradesh (India), Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mozambique. The paper revealed that rural water services are chronically underfunded and there is an inability to meet the costs required to provide and sustain a basic level of service, based on national norms and standards. A synthesised version is available as WASHCost global infosheet: Funding recurrent costs for improved rural water services.

For sanitation, the most confronting findings uncovered by WASHCost research is best articulated in the WASHCost global infosheet title: The cost of sustaining sanitation services for 20 years can be 5-20 times the cost of building a latrine. A detailed presentation of the main sanitation-related findings are contained in WASHCost global working paper, Applying a life-cycle costs approach to sanitation: costs and service levels in Andhra Pradesh (India), Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mozambique.

Water service indicators

In the WASHCost global working paper, Ladders for assessing and costing water service delivery, IRC described the significance of service ladders and compared its own version with earlier ladders and indicators developed by colleagues in the sector. The indicators used for WASHCost water service delivery include: quantity, quality, accessibility and reliability. An academic review of the indicators and monitoring frameworks: Domestic water service delivery indicators and frameworks for monitoring, evaluation, policy and planning: a review, is available through the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health website.

Sanitation service indicators

Similar to water supply, earlier indicators for the assessment of improvements in sanitation services were limited to technological options. Such analysis often lacked a deeper comprehension of major maintenance requirements, direct support to supply chains and behaviour change programmes, which were found to have an impact on actual service level received. For example, the delivery or existence of a latrine does not always guarantee access to an improved service. In the WASHCost global working paper, Assessing sanitation service levels, IRC introduced a common framework and indicators to analyse and compare sanitation cost data, which cement the linkage between technology of choice and service provision.

Hygiene indicators and costs

The WASHCost hygiene ladder was the last to be developed, and was driven by the need to compare the cost of hygiene interventions for behaviour change — costs that the sanitation ladder could not capture adequately. A WASHCost global infosheet is dedicated to this topic, Hygiene promotion: how effective is it? How much does it cost?

Development of the WASHCost hygiene ladder started with the publication of a conceptual approach for testing in WASHCost's four research countries: WASHCost global working paper, Assessing hygiene cost-effectiveness. This paper was immediately followed by a methodological global working paper, Assessing hygiene cost-effectiveness: a methodology. Both the approach and methodology were piloted in some areas in Burkina Faso; its findings published in the WASHCost global working paper, Assessment of hygiene interventions: cost-effectiveness study applied to Burkina Faso.

IRC concluded that "hygiene promotion is the missing link in WASH — that benefits of clean water and safe sanitation are reduced if good hygiene is not practised." As the missing link, WASHCost — while successful in generating a ladder on hygiene — was unable to offer cost benchmarks for a basic hygiene service because hygiene promotion activities were designed as one-off interventions. Whilst no benchmarks could be derived, WASHCost research found that a couple of years after the conclusion of a hygiene intervention, expenditure on hygiene programmes delivered little improvements. How much is 'enough' in terms of cost and improvements, remain unknown.

WASHCost's journey

Managing IRC's first-ever multi-country and multi-million dollar action research initiative was not an easy task. The IRC book, Priceless! Uncovering the real costs of water and sanitation, narrates the fascinating story of WASHCost – the resilience, commitment and passion of IRC and its partners in government, international and local NGOs, academic circles, funding agencies and philanthropists in maximising existing opportunities and overcoming the hurdles encountered in the search for costs data.

WASHCost's legacy

Post 2013, the legacy of WASHCost continues to thrive in IRC's WASHCost family of tools. Visit regularly the WASHCost project webpage to keep abreast with developments on how other organisations are using the approach and methodology.

For more information or enquiries on the application of a life-cycle costs approach and its interaction with service levels, contact IRC at:



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