Last week, Ban Ki-moon announced that the UN millennium development goal to ‘halve the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water’ by 2015 had been met – five years early.
But it has quickly become clear that, while this is good news, it’s not all good news. The actual goal is to ‘halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation‘. The sanitation part of the goal has been nowhere near been met. As it turns out, even the bit about safe drinking water is to be taken with a pinch of salt. As IIED’s Jamie Skinner points out, the focus has been on installing new infrastructure – pipes, boreholes and wells – while so little attention has been paid to maintenance that between 30% and upwards of 40% of hand pumps in Africa are broken. The safe drinking water goal has been met as a result of a rise in the number of people in India and China with access to drinking water – however in parts of Africa, not only have there not been improvements, the situation has got worse.
Looking at rural communities, to put a water pump into a village alone gives the community no guarantee of a future with safe drinking water. After a surveyor has found a water source, a borehole has been sunk and a pump has been commissioned, the difficult bit starts: making sure that it keeps working.
Water pumps like the one in the image at the top look tough, but they’re often quite fragile, some parts being made of plastic – they may reach over a hundred feet into the ground, and any one of a number of components can break. A borehole repair I attented at Bosomkyekye took around two hours – it was one of three boreholes we repaired that day with a professional engineer. Most villages I went to had borehole pumps – and maybe half of them were either completely inoperable or had broken components. Mechanical faults are only part of the problem. Drinking water supplies are susceptible to contamination, and need to be tested regularly for quality.
These problems, if they affect enough of a community’s sources of clean water, leave people with no choice but to resume using alternative water sources like rivers, putting them at risk of disease.
The communities I met in Ashanti region that had water supply issues had several things in common:
- they weren’t sure who’d installed their water pumps or who to contact with problems
- they didn’t know who was responsible for fixing or maintaining equipment, or disagreed on who was responsible
- they didn’t know what repairs would cost or couldn’t afford repairs
- they had issues with sanitation (shared pit latrines, open defecation)
At the other end of the scale were communities with reliable water supplies. They also had some things in common:
- they had an active water and sanitation committee with responsibility for, among other things, pump maintenance
- they often used a mix of safe water sources including rainwater harvesting
- they had strong community leaders (chief, elders, queen mother) who mediated in disputes or laid down the law
- they took either regular ongoing water payments from households or had a pump attendant who unlocked the pump at set times of the day and took payments on the spot (such as 5 pesewas or about 2 pence for 2 jerry cans)
The differences for these more successful communities are the investment of time in consulting, involving and educating the community, a focus on the needs of the community that extends to sanitation and environmental management, and crucially the community’s ownership of their water and sanitation facilities, including their own contribution of labour, materials and capital to construction work. This isn’t necessarily compatible with the numbers game of installing as many shiny new pumps as possible.
For a community without a reliable drinking water supply, the health risks associated with using water from alternative sources are made considerably worse by poor sanitation. Even a community with access to safe water is compromised by poor sanitation – the health benefits of drinking clean water are cancelled out when your home and environment are polluted. Likewise, perfect sanitation facilities may be very pleasant, but polluted water still kills.
As important as the need for maintenance and ownership of water supplies by the local community is the need for the community to take responsibility for its own sanitation needs. This is why the goal is to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to both safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Both are needed for the health of communities, and both depend on people more than pipes.
Below: images from a textbook providing training resources for community water and sanitation management – they reinforce the importance of clean water sources, hygiene, sanitation and environmental management: