Why water projects fail (so often)

It takes Daniel Mbongo one and a half hour to get clean water. This he does thrice daily.  In front of his house is a dry stand tap. A few years earlier an NGO constructed a water system for the village with a number of stand taps that delivered water. After completing the construction the NGO handed the system to the community with a few persons given basic training on operating the system.

Sadly, the system broke down after barely 11 months of functioning.

Huge investments

In the 90s construction companies with the Cameroonian government built 250 technically advanced water systems. A large Danish grant funded deep boreholes, high metal tanks and state of the art electric pumps. What is left after just a few years of operation is just one system in Bachuo Akagbe. Even here too the system is only partially functional.

While visiting communities in the Southwest Region of Cameroon we find remnants of water systems spread throughout the landscape. Let’s say about 7 out of 10 communities have a water system more often a hand water pump. However, 90% of these systems have failed. You try to find out when these systems were constructed and how long they operated before ceasing. The answers you get are very similar; the system was constructed many years ago and functioned from a few weeks, few months to just one or two years on average.

Ownership as panacea

A technical solution does not necessarily bring the desired change. Aid workers concluded this back in the 80s, while facing so many failed projects. Local communities were not able or did not feel responsible for the structures constructed with western aid money. In response to this, the international aid community invented “community ownership”. The assumption is that communities as perceived owners of a system will maintain their system better. Using simple technology, in addition, enables communities to succeed in their task of keeping the water flowing. Ownership was thus a panacea to failing aid projects.

From theory to the field (practical)

Back to Daniel; is he, or any of his neighbors, responsible for their system failure? Adding up all the failing projects, shouldn’t we better stop funding projects in Africa to prevent our money from going down the drain?

According to us, the answer is no. Communities are very keen to manage their own resources, but they lack money, capacities or competences. 99% of them have great knowledge on farming. But they are not educated to manage a public service, like a water system. In our situation many professionals and organizations are involved to make sure water flows in our showers.

In most projects though, just a handful of community members are responsible for water system management. If these devoted individuals get sick, die or leave, their knowledge gets lost too. Continuity is threatened. Moreover, most often, big projects and development in a community are exposed to economic interests, political conflicts and power struggles. These are hardly noticeable to outsiders, but have a considerable impact on project outcome and sustainability. For example, we have experienced vandalism of water systems by parts of communities or neighboring communities, because of latent conflicts.

What about your water?

Imagine your own neighborhood for a minute. One day, your water is shut off. But lucky you, an NGO placed a couple of water pumps on strategic locations not too far from your home. You walk to the central square nearby and there you hear that you and your neighbors are expected to maintain these pumps well to secure your access to water. The initiators are looking for people who would want to join a water committee voluntarily. They also want to setup a group of caretakers that will be taught some technical skills.

What will happen? Will your neighbors organize themselves? Will people pay other people in order to maintain the system? Does this sound surreal to you? It sure does to me. Well, this is a common experience in rural communities in Africa.

Ownership and business is just one bit of the solution

It is impossible to build up sufficient local knowledge and experience to manage public services in the short time of a development project. It requires much more than training. It requires long term collaboration and building up of proper institutions; year after year, as long as necessary.

Both ownership and financial revenues are necessary to sustain water provision in rural communities. But they are just a small part of the solution. (In a subsequent blog we will explain more about the reasons why business solutions to public services do not work in rural economies).

We believe that in order to successfully implement public service projects in rural African communities it requires much more than investing in the service, system or building. It requires a long term commitment to establish strong institutions within the communities.

Meanwhile many African communities still lack clean water. And water systems stop operating more often than necessary. We work with Daniel to develop and secure clean drinking water in his village.