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By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

The 2012 Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS report) indicates that official development assistance for water, sanitation and hygiene interventions was $7.8 billion in 2011. However, only 7% of the overall investment was allocated to maintaining and sustaining existing infrastructure. This lack of foresight plagues the sector, with persistently high water system failure rates often attributed to a lack of skills and finances for infrastructure management.

The household water meter: an underground phenomenon

The household water meter: an underground phenomenon

Many water managers and global research projects like WASHCost are recognizing that the common method of charging each household a flat fee for water is not putting enough money in water committee accounts to pay for ongoing maintenance and repair. Plus, populations are growing and water scarcity is a concern in many areas.

There’s a simple tool that is helping to improve management for many systems: the water meter. Just like here in the US, household meters measure how much water is being used, and these readings can be used to determine the monthly bill.

While universal metering (a meter at each household or business) has been promoted for urban water system management, it has been largely ignored for rural water management in developing countries. For example, many sustainability frameworks specify that users should pay water fees, but none that I’ve seen identify household water meters as a tool to help set and enforce collection of those fees.  This may be due to the common (yet misguided) focus on keeping the price per person low. Many organizations say it costs $25 to provide safe water for one person, making the cost of installing meters seem way too high (around $70 per house).

There are many reasons that meters should be mainstreamed.

Better management

I got excited about the power of meters on a trip to El Salvador with Paul Hicks of the development organization Catholic Relief Services (CRS).  As the Director of the Global Water Initiative in Central America, Paul required that all water projects include the installation of household meters.

After five years, the Global Water Initiative has found that water metering at the household level is a key to the sustainable management of water infrastructure. Where urban and rural communities installed and use water meters, water services are functioning better and water committees are collecting funds to manage their system.

Communities supported by the Global Water Initiative have all increased their monthly fees to cover operating costs, and metering has been a key factor for motivating people to pay for the water they use.

I found a few other examples of how meters are being used for management.

In a USAID-funded project in Afghanistan, hiring a female meter reader resulted in a 75% increase in collected revenue in the first month. In the local cultural context, only a woman can access household meters during times when only other women are at home.

The organization WELL found in Kenya that meters supported a successful community-managed water supply project.

Beyond cost recovery

But meters have other benefits, like helping water managers to promote efficient use and conservation of the water resource.  Meters can also help bring attention to leaks that are common in aging systems.

Paul and I visited the Mayor of Perquin, one of the areas where the Global Water Initiative partners had helped to build water systems.  She told us about Tejera, where due to leaks and water wastage in a gravity-flow water system, people who lived in higher elevations were not getting water in the quantity and frequency as their neighbors in lower areas.  They called the Mayor to complain.  System managers rationed the water, but that only ensured water would get to houses in the higher elevations 3 or 4 times a week. This means they were paying more for less water and worse service than their neighbors. They thought they needed to add a water source, which would be expensive.

The development organization CARE suggested that the community install meters instead, to identify leaks and encourage conservation.  After meters were installed, and leaks were fixed, the pressure in the system was high enough to burst pipes! Now, households receive 3 cubic meters more water per month, 24 hours a day, for the same cost as before.  They didn’t need to install a new water system, and their current source is likely to be more sustainable.

Lidia Ventura, one of the users we met in Tejera, said that people didn’t know how much water they were using before the meters.  They didn’t think about wasting it.

After that trip, I was raving about the power of meters to Kate Fogelberg of Water for People.  She told me that in Bolivia, Water For People found many communities opting to invest in water meters to improve water availability and equity.  This happened independent of Water For People in several communities, but by understanding how and why this was happening, Water For People helped many local government partners to mandate the inclusion of water meters in rural systems.

Worth it in the long run

The World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program mentioned meters as part of its key elements for a financial policy in rural Latin America. It’s good to see a bank recognizing the value of meters. Meters pay for themselves in the long-term by helping to identify and fix leaks and by encouraging the conservation of water. Just like everything about water services, we need to think about the long-term.

Community managers or water utilities can use meters to precisely measure water use and plan for the future by growing and reinvesting in the system when it needs to be expanded to meet the needs of growing populations.

Household water meters can contribute to conservation, reliable and sustainable services, equity, cost recovery, and transparency.  So what will it take for installation of meters for piped water systems to be considered a best practice?

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