Water development projects continue to struggle with sustainability. “Rehabilitation” is a common term used for the construction of new water systems to replace systems that have failed prematurely. Prematurely failing water infra is a serious threat to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.1 of universal and equitable access to safely managed drinking water. The rehabilitation of severely damaged infrastructure requires new capital investment, which is many times higher than the cost to upkeep existing infra 1
To reach success in water goals of the SDG, it is important to focus on maintenance NOW.
The underlying challenges with water development projects are complex, as they are comprised of social, political, economic and technical aspects. This blog presents a case study of Ethiopia’s policies related to operation and maintenance of rural water systems, that was carried out at Aalto University as a master’s thesis work in cooperation with the COWASH project. The policy analysis was found to be useful in gaining insight and discovery into the complex issues of sustainability of water development projects and how operation and maintenance are connected to them.
Link to master’s thesis work: “Policy analysis of Ethiopia’s rural water operation and maintenance policies” at Aalto University: http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi:aalto-202108298516
COWASH is a bilateral development project between the governments of Finland and Ethiopia aiming to achieve universal and equitable access to water, sanitation, and hygiene in rural Ethiopia. More information at: https://www.cmpethiopia.org/
Infrastructure investments are typically characterized by a long design life span and a large upfront cost. Once infrastructure is built the capital cost decreases over time, but the cost to keep the service at desired levels increases. The operation and maintenance (O&M) investment to sustain SDG targets 6.1 and 6.2 are estimated to exceed the capital investment needs by the year 2030 2, see Figure 1 below.
At the same time, The Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) reports, that even the simplest technology of hand pumps have a high degree of non-functionality after two years 3,4. A quarter of water points being nonfunctional before their predicted lifetime (Figure 2) indicates that there are severe gaps in the funding and attention given to operation and maintenance of these systems.
The Millenium Development Goals attempted to halve the population without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. The challenge with the indicator used was that it utilized an infrastructure approach, which poorly depicts if the communities reached by these systems are actually receiving adequate water services. For example, in the case of Ethiopia, when water quality was considered in access to safe drinking water, the national percentage of Ethiopia’s MDG 7C dropped by 11% 5.
The MDC 7C should act as a cautionary example of hastily reaching for coverage of water infra. Speeding towards coverage can lead to sub-standard water systems and neglect of existing infra, which in turn increases the non-functionality in the long term 6.
The SDG 6.1 has many improvements by guiding monitoring towards the overall quality of service provided 7. At the same time, it also has its own potential pitfalls. By definition, the safely managed drinking water services require technically more advanced water systems than those achieved with the MDGs. Yet, even these simpler improved water systems have been struggling with sustainability and operation and maintenance (O&M) issues as presented above.
Having a constant pool of water points needing rehabilitation is diverting investments from the SDG 6.1 goal and gaining access to the unserved peoples. The estimated capital investment needed, to reach the SDG targets 6.1 and 6.2 globally, is over three times the level of investment that was used to reach the MDGs 2. Thus, it is crucial that the large capital investment in water infrastructure is secured by improving O&M.
Policy analysis of Ethiopia’s rural water operation and maintenance policies
The larger aim of the thesis carried out at Aalto University was to find out if a push towards advanced rural water systems backfire on the poor and unserved rural populations, as they are unable to operate and maintain them in the years to come? The larger theme was studied through three research questions (see below) and a case study of Ethiopia’s water policies. The objective was to explore how Ethiopia’s water policies and guidelines address operation and maintenance (O&M) in the context of rural water.
(1) How well are the Triple-S building blocks covered in Ethiopia’s national water policies and guidelines related to O&M issues?
(2) How do WASH professionals view O&M in Ethiopia and what are the biggest bottlenecks?
(3) How do WASH professionals view the SDG 6.1 goals from an O&M perspective and the capacity of communities to operate and maintain more complex water systems?
The method used qualitative policy document analysis of Ethiopia’s national water policies (n = 3) within a modified Triple-S framework (Figure 3). The document analysis was triangulated with 11 surveys and three interviews of Ethiopian rural water professionals, at three different administrative levels.
Ethiopia’s policies were found to cover well O&M issues related to the Triple-S building blocks. Nevertheless, the implementation seems to be lacking. The major constraint for effective O&M does not seem to be awareness or desire to support rural water schemes at the service provider level. The woredas were found to consider O&M as very important but had limited capacity (human and financial) to support communities. Even with the limited capacity they were found to work around non-existing budgets to carry out some form of post-construction support to improve the operation and O&M of community-managed water schemes.
There has been a clear attempt to improve the definition of institutional roles and responsibilities in the policies, but they were still found to be somewhat unclear or vague when it comes to O&M. The policies themselves also revealed many of the bottlenecks of rural water. This shows that the challenges related to O&M and sustainability of rural water in Ethiopia are quite well known but haven’t yet received the resources to tackle them.
A growing trend towards more complex water infra in the development of rural water was observed. At the same time, it was recognized that communities are not expected to have the capacity to operate and maintain these more advanced systems. Yet, community management is the main management modality promoted in the policies and the gap moving towards more complex water schemes has not adequately been addressed.
Although the study was somewhat limited in the amount of primary data, the method utilized in this study was found to be effective in gaining an overview of the O&M challenges and providing answers to the research questions.
The implementation and oversight of policies related to O&M should be prioritized. As oversight and implementation of policies require resources, it would be beneficial to allocate them to policies that have the greatest impact on O&M. As the results showed that many of the local level issues with O&M are well known and there is still a need to clarify the roles and responsibilities of many of the actors involved with rural water. A governance or organizational analysis of institutions involved in post-construction support and O&M could be useful. It would be important for this study not to only consider the local woreda or service provider level but also national and regional actors as well.
The ability of community-managed water supply systems to be sustainable depends much on the resources, human and financial, available to support the community. Capacity, institutions, and guidelines should be updated and improved to be able to support more complex systems on a wider scale before increasing and expanding to more complex systems. There is also a need to make sure the political economy of rural water also shifts so that it supports O&M, capacity building and monitoring for service delivery.
The case study of Ethiopia’s O&M policies will hopefully draw more attention to the important role O&M has in reaching SDG 6.1 in a financially sustainable manner. The findings are limited to the case of Ethiopia but can act as a platform for practitioners and researchers of the rural water development sector to further discuss, study and research the topic.
Esra Marvin holds a M.Sc. (Tech.) in Water and Environmental Engineering from Aalto University and a B.Eng. in Environmental Engineering from Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. His MSc thesis focused on Ethiopia’s operation and maintenance policies related to rural water. Esra’s professional passion has always been water and he hopes to continue to learn more about the O&M and asset management aspects of it. His previous work experience includes working as an advisor for rural sanitation systems in Finland. Currently, he is working as a project manager at Ramboll Water in Finland, carrying out various engineering and consulting works related to water and wastewater networks.
Contact at: https://fi.linkedin.com/in/esra-marvin-485b482b
- Rioja F. What Is the Value of Infrastructure Maintenance? A Survey. Infrastruct L Policies. 2013:347-365. https://www.lincolninst.edu/pubs/dl/2304_1644_LPConf_2012_ch13_What Is the Value of Infrastructure Maintenance.pdf.
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- Banks B, Furey S. What’s Working, Where, and for How Long. A 2016 Water Point Update to the RWSN. 7th RWSN Forum. 2016;(4):2016. doi:10.1021/es402086n.Fisher
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- World Bank Group. Sustainability Assessment of Rural Water Service Delivery Models. Washington DC: World Bank; 2017. doi:10.1596/27988