Challenges to Sustainability in Water Projects and a Demonstration of Success in Bolivia
December 16, 2009
By Kate Fogelberg
I spend a lot of time thinking about sustainability. I write this from Lima, a city drier than Baghdad or Sudan, but with water consumption patterns that would make you think we have more water than we know what to do with (not true….). You could say I obsess over it at times, but to me, there’s really no point in investing time and money in technical and management systems that aren’t going to last.
The average community member in rural Bolivia spends around 60 days digging trenches, gluing pipes together, and participating in a variety of trainings during the implementation phase of a water project. Most of them are very busy people—and this takes time away from other important activities. Many of the communities who are unserved around the world are the “hard to reach” and not “cost-effective.” Local governments are understaffed and underpaid and are responsible for contributing financially to every Water For People investment. They’re also responsible for supervising these works, contributing their own time and money to make sure things go as planned.
Thus, there are lots of people around the world—from the local committee member in Washington raising funds and awareness, to the Water For People accountant tracking all these funds, to the Honduran woman who could be harvesting coffee—all contributing money and time to inch the inequality gap a bit closer together. We all want things to last!
Economists started murmuring about sustainability in the 1970s, as the growing environmental movement began to take shape and people started thinking about the general relationship between growth and environment. The concept of sustainability first emerged in the international development discourse with fervor in a 1987 UN document. Its initial definition, which many still use, is the following:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”
In the water sector, sustainability tends to include environmental, social, technical, and financial components of sustainability. A spring that dries up won’t be providing water in the future; a committee that spends more time managing conflicts than its water system won’t last, poor quality construction—forget about it!— or a fancy handpump from South Africa imported to Malawi with no spares for miles—no way; an expensive electric-based pump system in a non-cash economy…….You get the picture—it gets complicated pretty fast!
Being involved in the development of Water For People’s World Water Corps ® monitoring program, I got a first hand crash course into the challenges that start when a project stops. While the data from three years of monitoring—eleven trips in five different countries—is impressive: out of 484 water systems visited from the highlands of Bolivia to the floodplains of West Bengal, 20 were no longer producing water, but 464 were. That’s a 96% sustainability rate: defined simply by water coming out of the taps and pumps. Several authors have argued for precisely this: an easily measured, pragmatic definition of sustainability for the water and sanitation sector. I agree with this in that it is a useful way to monitor the life of a water or sanitation infrastructure project. The rationale for such a simple definition is that in order for water to be coming out of the tap, repairs must have been made, some finance must be collected to keep it running, and somebody must be managing it.
The high success rate (albeit defined simply!) masks a lot of the dynamics that influence sustainability of water and sanitation interventions—nearly all of which are outside of the purview of the design team. Plumbers migrate to Argentina, leaving no human capacity in the ‘trained’ committee; toilets that are water-based were built in communities without water systems, public taps are turned off indefinitely because of political (mis)management. The sector is finally starting to acknowledge the scale of failed projects around the world—the International Institute for Environment and Development recently estimated that nearly $500 million in failed pumps litters the African continent. The first step to solving a problem is recognizing that we have one, right? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a step in the right direction. But even more difficult to get our heads around—but more important!—is the sustainability of partners to keep pace with growing demand and thus, keep building toilets long after external finance has left. To me, this is the true sign of sustainability.
Monitoring at Water For People to date has been extremely useful to measure this first level of sustainability: are systems functional and are people using them? But what it hasn’t showed us yet is if our programming is sustainable, which will have much wider impact than a single project. So much of what Water For People does goes beyond the pipes and the pans. I hear time and time again from staff, volunteers, and donors that once they go in the field, they “get it.” They get the complicated work of supporting the “functional environment” that Water For People does around the world. It’s kind of a fuzzy concept, especially in such a traditionally technical sector as water, but what it means, in a nutshell is that every group that has a stake in a water or sanitation project—a community, the local government, a local NGO, or the local private sector—has the skills, resources, and capabilities to fulfill their contribution to sustaining water and sanitation services.
Sustainability Success Story in Bolivia
Recently, as our heads bumped against the roof in the dusty pick-up (on a road that was supposed to be paved three years ago), Armida Nunez, one of our partners in Bolivia, by chance started telling me about something that happened in Saavedra last year. Saavedra is a municipality outside of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where Water For People, INCADE, the local government and communities partnered for several years, achieving nearly 70% ecological sanitation coverage. The last Water For People-supported toilets went in several years ago. There is a monitoring team headed to this region next week, so we’ll see if people are still using them. But….what has happened since happens all over the world. New neighborhoods spring up on what was once agricultural land; families—some young and some old—gradually move in to these new plots. In Saavedra, last year, a very exciting thing happened:
- A couple of neighborhoods used their community organizing skills gained thru participation in the program several years ago to include toilets in their local government budget
- Local government approved the toilets and directed finance towards the toilets (the Law of Popular Participation in Bolivia allows for a percentage of taxes to be directed to public programs defined by citizens)
- Hardware stores still carried the components needed for the toilets—go local private sector—and masons were hired who had experience from the program in years past
- Between community contributions and local government finance—NO EXTERNAL FINANCE—a new neighborhood now has ecological toilets
This example is precisely what Water For People keeps in mind as we support programs all over the world; of course we aim to have clean water flow from pumps for years and toilets than aren’t abandoned once full, but thinking even further down the line, some day we won’t be there but we want all of the new neighbors to have the organizational capacity, financial options, government back-up, and toilet seats on the shelves to create toilets out of this functional environment!
What do you think?