Why water systems fail part 9: lack of government support


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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 share 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.

Today’s blog focuses on the lack of government support. Lack of government involvement and support was one of the most common causes of failed projects mentioned by WASH experts. (Barnes, Ashbolt, Roser, & Brown, 2014)

Local authorities have not taken the full responsibility to regulate and manage WASH projects. Some partners are implementing in isolation. The [Ministry of Public Works] 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)

[A main] factor in sustainability, particularly for rural interventions, is the capacity and willingness for local and national institutions to provide long-term follow-up support. This is expressed positively, mainly in cases where national programs for hygiene promotion or relatively strong decentralized units of a ministry of health can step in after initial collaboration activities have begun (in Ghana and the Dominican Republic, respectively). Conversely, the lack of such support is a high risk to interventions in rural areas, where decentralized capacity is weak (as for rural water-supply systems in the Dominican Republic and Ghana) or where there is a lack of political will (as was found to be the case for community managed systems in the rural Philippines). Such lack of direct support (often referred to as post construction support) is a well-recognized problem in the water sector, particularly for rural communities, and it reflects a general — though in some cases extremely pronounced — capacity gap at the decentralized or district level. This challenge is not unique to the WASH sector, but rather it reflects broader weaknesses in public administration reform and the slow and often patchy decentralization found in many countries (Lockwood, 2013)

The role of government in direct service delivery remains crucial for communities in developing contexts such as Uganda. But this role is being undermined by limited government effort to consciously build such trust. Recent experiences especially in Africa have also shown that citizen perception of an unresponsive government in terms of service delivery not only lead to limited ownership and sustainability of community based programmes, but also radical declines in trust and the consequent wide spread civil uprisings. The civil uprisings in North Africa provide the most recent example. (Mugumya, 2013)

Because we’re working with municipal schools often times, there’s no funding. [I]f the toilet stops working they just lock the door and no one does anything. If that faucet breaks, if it stays broken, if water doesn’t get to the school, it doesn’t get to the school and they’ll haul it up in buckets. …So basically [things fail because of] lack of municipal support. (US-based NGO interviewee, 2013)

In all three countries [analyzed: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda], failure rates were greater the further that water points were located from a district or county capital. (Foster, 2013)

In India, the government isn’t maintaining systems in some cases when they should. When we’ve met with the government they’re very happy that we’re working there [through local partners]… They admit ‘we have one guy that’s supposed to be maintaining 300 systems, and it’s impossible’ so they are very supportive of communities taking responsibility for their own systems. (US-based donor interviewee, 2013)

[The National Water and Sanitation Directorate in Haiti (DINEPA's)] ability to manage and spend funds received is one major challenge to building sustainable adequate water and sanitation facilities for its citizens. Some observers suggest that DINEPA has had trouble spending the funds it already has because of a lack of managerial capacity. Since DINEPA was a relatively young agency prior to the cholera outbreak, DINEPA never had the chance to build up a robust, skilled workforce before shifting into crisis-management mode. It has had trouble convincing skilled expatriate Haitians to return to work in the nation and convincing Haitians to accept the government’s salary scale. (Bliss & Fisher, 2013)

In many Latin American countries, national regulators monitor urban service providers, but do not include rural providers, or only a small number of them, as collecting data is difficult and expensive. Other countries have been successful in mapping rural services nationwide, typically through resources from big projects or programs, but have struggled to regularly update the information due to lack of resources or unclear institutional responsibilities for on-going monitoring. The Rural Water Information System (SIAR) in Honduras, for example, performed reasonably well until external funding stopped and all data rapidly became outdated. (Smits, Uytewaal, & Sturzenegger, 2013)

In recent years, WASH in Schools has gradually been transformed from mostly small-scale, nongovernment- funded projects, to integral components of large-scale government-led education, WASH and Health-sector programmes. In this transition, gaps in managerial and technical capacity, coordination and dedicated financing have become more prominent. (UNICEF, 2012)

Both the supervisory and monitoring roles of the district administration have not been entirely satisfactory. For example, there are several instances where private firms have built and installed new water sources using second-hand rather than new parts as expected. Also, although water officers should monitor the functionality of water sources and respond quickly when they break down, including with advice about how to prevent a reoccurrence of the situation, this rarely happens. Many water sources fall into disrepair and remain broken for long periods. Although there are guidelines for water provision that envisage quality testing, only a few water sources are actually tested, even where they are shared with animals and are therefore prone to contamination. Where testing takes place, it happens only in a few cases where there are strong indications of active contamination, but not on a regular basis. (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

[The technical support unit’s main problems] limited involvement or none at all of sub-county extension workers such as health assistants and community development officers in water activities; and lack of coordination between the unit and the district water office. (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

A synthesis of evaluations from seven WaterAid programs in Africa showed that the area of greatest weakness was that national and local governments do not have the capacity and resources to manage and maintain services in the future. . .There is severe government understaffing at district level, with under-qualified personal. . . .Links between communities and District government need to be strengthened, for example, to include the establishment of district-based pump spare parts systems and promoting the role of local community representatives in reporting community WASH status. (Cotton, Adams, & Shaw, 2012)

Sustainability of services including continued financing for [parts] and technical support remain a major constraint in all programmes. However, this is a government responsibility that extends way beyond the remit of a single organization. . . .  (Cotton, Adams, & Shaw, 2012)

Also problematic is the non-involvement of district water engineers in the evaluation of bids and the awarding of tenders. The engineers are simply required to endorse the terms and conditions of implementation and to approve the bills of quantities of materials to be used. (Golooba-Mutebi, 2012)

The [District Planning and Infrastructure Services (SDPI)] sometimes does not know the exact number of water points working, not working, that exist, are broken. This is a problem that affects planning. Government needs to take responsibility to know how many water points are in their districts, which are working, which need rehabilitation and through this they could actually save money. They need to do this and incorporate it into their planning and WaterAid could support it at the start. To ensure sustainability however, they need to take this on themselves. – WaterAid staff in (Jansz, 2011)

In Paraguay, not every problem can be attributed to the community water board, since in many cases discontinuity occurs in the provision of energy by the [national provider] in several communities, the power comes irregularly, which leads to rapid wear of electric pumps and shortens their service life. Boards that have their own generators to cope with power failure or outage of electricity are very few; a generator is almost a luxury most cannot afford. In relation to electricity and its consequences, the responsibility of the Boards is shared with government institutions. No member of the Board of Directors receives salary or any remuneration in his capacity as Director, which obviously affects the professionalism and entrepreneurship that would be desirable for an institution that administers a related public health system. (AVINA, 2011)

In Paraguay, we can say that the relationships of community water & sanitation boards with the government institutions that are involved in water management are not good. Community water & sanitation boards that are closer to the capital are best linked with government institutions. With distance from the capital, visits from representatives from these institutions are limited.The percentages of the boards that have no relation to the bodies responsible for water management government reach as high as 60%. (AVINA, 2011)

The water infrastructure monitoring system in Machinga had, in effect, been proven unsustainable. (Engineers without Borders-Canada, 2010)

[It] became clear that the district had challenges related to:
a. monitoring the functionality of water points in rural communities,
b. providing adequate maintenance services to communities with broken water points,
c. identifying communities without access to improved water sources,

d. coordinating and regulating the work of NGOs involved in water projects,
e. communicating effectively among district government offices (e.g. The water office communicating to the health office), national government and donor agencies,
f. ensuring district staff are competent in their responsibilities and resourced
adequately to perform duties (Engineers without Borders-Canada, 2010)

In the Woreda [a district office in Ethiopia], 63% of the technical positions in the Health Office are vacant and 57% of the technical positions and 50% of the support staff positions in the [Woreda Water Resources Development Office (WWRDO)] are unoccupied. Moreover, sector offices do not have sufficient material capacity to enable them to be involved in better service delivery…the WWRDO tries to visit and assist the [community water & sanitation committees (WATSANCos)] and to identify problems related to scheme management as much as possible. However, these activities are irregular and not uniform, and mostly depend on budget (the major constraint) and the availability of transportation vehicles. The lack of budget for running costs, the low number of professional staff (only 41.4% of positions are staffed) and the few functional motor vehicles available for service delivery are felt to be major factors behind the poor performance of the WWRDO in supporting the WATSANCos. (Deneke & Abebe, 2008)

Malawi commenced decentralisation in 1999; there is still a long way to go in terms of availability of resources and capacities at district level. District Water Offices are grossly understaffed and poorly equipped. Many District Water Officers lack experience and are hardly given any support. The lack of transport, low staff numbers, and poor resources means that the support to O&M is negligible. (Baumann & Danert, 2008)

It was observed that in the WWRDO and other sector offices information management systems are very poor. The WWRDO and Woreda Health Office do not have a record officer. Documents are placed haphazardly and are difficult to access. Most are in hard copy which makes the documentation system very primitive. Most of the documents regarding the schemes developed in the Woreda are not in the hands of the WWRDO. The office explained that the documents are in the hands of the [Zonal Water Resources Development Office (ZWRDO)], [Bureau of Water Resources (BoWR)] or the scheme-installing organisation. (Deneke & Abebe, 2008)

Many barriers to progress in [water, sanitation, and hygiene (WS&H)] lie outside the sector. Weak institutions and poor governance affect the ability to “do business” effectively, to bring about beneficial change, and to focus on poverty reduction. The major barriers to progress in WS&H lie among the institutions (central and local Government), policies and realities of ‘developing’ countries. The public sector is often weak in terms of skills, structures, decision-making processes, and bureaucratic procedures. Furthermore, it is often unduly influenced by foreign institutions including donors, which do not always fully understand the context into which their advice and requirements are offered. Policies tend increasingly to follow a one-size-fits-all model, but the realities of policy implementation are often quite different from the theory set out on paper. Poor management and accountability at decentralized local Government, and consequent opportunities for corruption, exacerbate the situation. (Cranfield University, AguaConsult, & IRC, 2006)

Although the Government of Kenya has limited resources for rural water supply, there remains the need for more efficient use of current human and financial resources. Staff salaries for [district water officers (DWOs)] are paid by central Government and yet many staff remain idle because they are unable to obtain adequate fuel to visit the field and communities are unable to pay the daily allowances requested for staff and transportation. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)

[In Kenya], among the main duties of the District Water Offices is monitoring of rural water supplies, yet at present this seems to be undertaken on an ad-hoc basis, normally in conjunction with other agencies, if at all. Lack of financial resources is the stated reason for this. Most DWOs own vehicles but are unable to afford adequate fuel. Water officers also complain of a lack of equipment for the collection of hydrological data. At present, there are no district-level databases on operation and maintenance of existing water points, or on groundwater data. (Harvey, Ikumi, & Mutethia, 2003)


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