Why water systems fail part 4: poor implementation

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By Susan Davis, Executive Director

What leads to success or failure of water systems?  Everything we read points to a complex mix of factors.  In this series, we will share compiled quotes on various topics related to failure of water systems from our literature search and interviews for the resolution action brief as a way to highlight pieces of the puzzle.

collapsed well Ethiopia

Oops, they did it again

Today’s blog looks at how poor implementation (not surprisingly) leads to failed water points. This is something mentioned strikingly often in our research (and in conferences, and conversations). Many of these challenges are related in part to the lack of accountability.

One of the factors contributing to nonfunctionality of water supply schemes is not properly implementing the program according to plan. (Nepal WASH professional, 2014)

While on-going management [of handpumps] is a challenge, it is made much harder by poor installation and poor manufacturing quality, which were highlighted as common faults (Furey, 2013).

Water points fail in Nigeria because…poor infrastructure design; poor construction by “quack drillers” who do not adhere to standards; inadequate and poor supervision during construction… (Nigeria WASH professional, 2013)

In Bangladesh…the hard thing there is trying to make sure that we have really consistently good construction. [The local NGO partners] always work through local contractors, people take out loans for those systems so there’s pressure to make them as cheap as possible. So we’re looking for the right balance there of materials and costs.(US-based donor, 2013)

In the Sindh province of Pakistan the reasons for water project failure include poor data collection, flawed design of the project; poor workmanship and insufficient funds for operation and maintenance of the water project. (Pakistan WASH professional, 2013)

In a survey, one of the top reasons for low service level and functionality of water systems in Nepal was poor design or construction quality (FCG International, 2013).

Reasons for failures based on many years of assessments, design, construction and rehabilitation of water supply projects in Africa, especially Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, Mozambique, Burundi DR Congo and other neighboring areas:

  • Poor data collection mostly during hydrological surveys especially for rural water supply/gravity flow schemes. Flow measurements are not done throughout the year to check the minimum yield of the source so the scheme cannot sustain the communities for which the project has been designed. Even during the baseline surveys, the number of beneficiaries is poorly estimated and the population growth is therefore poorly forecasted.
  • Some projects fail immediately after design, due to poor hydraulic designs, low project estimates
  • Some of the water supply projects fail because the sources were poorly constructed. And this starts with clients hiring poor contractors who focus on finishing the project and getting paid, resulting in low yielding or dry sources. (Uganda WASH Professional, 2013)

Another source of poor quality delivery is the awarding of tenders by local contract committees to firms that are non-specialist, unqualified or that lack experience in the water sector. To make matters worse, these same firms sub-contract other contractors who work under the instructions and supervision of unqualified personnel (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012).

Local authorities have not taken the full responsibility to regulate and manage WASH projects. Some partners are implementing in isolation. The MoPW is concerned about enforcement of Guidelines at county level to levy penalty for sub-standard construction works. (Government of the Republic of Liberia, 2014)

One advantage with private contractors is that they deliver water projects within a shorter period and on a wider scale than was previously the case with understaffed and overstretched district water offices. However, where they have worked without close supervision, the quality of water facilities they delivered is poor. Many of the sources they built break down quickly, whereas others yield very little water. In some cases, they cheat on parts and carry out incomplete installations, whereas in other cases, they use second-hand rather than the expected new parts. In the end, the water sources serve communities for short periods and break down. Here, part of the problem is the profit orientation of the contractors, and part the failure of local authorities and users through their user committees, to supervise and monitor projects under implementation.(Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

[T]he biggest problem facing the sector is the lack of project M&E and project quality control/supervision. [The Provincial Department of Water and Sanitation] needs to be financed to be able to monitor work on the ground. Without this, construction contracts with a clause where the construction company has to guarantee their work are irrelevant without on-going M&E. (WaterAid Mozambique, 2004, Revisiting Broken Projects Programme, Niassa Province 2000 – 2004, 2004)

[Sometimes NGOs install a water filter or a tank but] often times the tank has been too small or the water filter has been a system for a first world country that needs the filter changed every week and they don’t have the means to do that. (US-based interviewee, 2013)

In rural Kenya, gutters for rooftop rainwater harvesting were not a natural concept. ”So that meant that the gutters, initially, were formed by local artisans taking flat metal and bending it, not in the professional way you’d see in the United States with big equipment and all that. . . .I think one of my most discouraging days is when we were there two years ago, and we went to a school that had a very nice tank. . . .But the gutter system, it was very clear that both the person that installed it and the committee had no clue what they were trying to do. …We’re going back to look at projects that are five to ten years old, and almost, without exception, the major improvements that are needed are better gutters. … Even a good gutter system with nobody doing anything with it may have leaks or problems in a year or two. (US-based interviewee, 2013)

Canada’s Engineers Without Borders have produce “Failure Reports” (2011; 2010); about half of the problems relate to internal planning and communication processes, organizational decision-making and personal leadership.

There is a lack of hydrogeologists; drilling supervision is undertaken by communities after a day or two [of community based management] training. Construction quality of boreholes is often questionable (lack of water, dry after a few months, no sanitary seal). It is not clear how many of the dysfunctional boreholes are not working because of poor drilling, siting and construction workmanship. Widespread borehole drilling has taken place without a groundwater resource assessment. (Baumann & Danert, 2008)

The atrocious availability and performance are due to poor borehole development, inadequate pump design, poor pump selection, completely inadequate monitoring and maintenance. (Hazelton, 2000)

[Assessment of World Bank-funded projects found that] projects commonly conducted training in some villages and not in others. These findings illustrate that the official project rules do not always lead to consistent operations in the field, especially when a wide range of intermediaries are involved. Projects vary significantly in implementation strategies. In some cases, project staff directly implement the project, while in others, projects are implemented indirectly by independent contractors or NGOs. However, the measured inconsistency of approach was common to all projects, suggesting a need for better implementation procedures across projects.(Sara & Katz, 1997)

A large gap exists in most projects between the approach the project is designed to employ and that which its staff or intermediaries actually employ in the field. To improve sustainability, project staff must ensure that their rules are well communicated and understood by those who are expected to implement them, especially to undertake social mobilization activities. In addition, staff need to be adequately trained and have adequate resources available to them. Finally, supervision mechanisms should be established to ensure that project rules are implemented correctly. (Sara & Katz, 1997)

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