Tracking Water Sustainability
March 30, 2011
CEO, Water For People
The debate around "sustainability" is somewhat surprising. Arguments rage over the issue for reasons I still struggle to fully understand. Simply put, sustainability means that water flows, toilets are used and hands are washed, forever. Not for awhile or for the operational life for a particular piece of hardware, but rather to the point that children grow up expecting water to flow, expecting toilets to be available to them at all times, and unthinkingly wash their hands.
Measuring this also tends to be overcomplicated. At Water For People, we look at the following for water supply:
- Quantities – the volume of water provided per day meets government standards (as standards vary from country to country). If quantities diminish, then sustainability is threatened
- Quality – water quality meets government standards or if not, is at least known to communities/families so they can decide whether the efforts associated with treatment merit the costs
- Access – number of users, within government defined distances, and most importantly – water supplies expanding with populations over time
- Down Time – less than 1 day/month for basic Operations &Maintenance and repairs. More than this means women and children are back in polluted rivers and streams fetching water
- Finance – we look at 3 key times and link them to finance. Within 3 years after construction, communities/owners/government (or a combination of these) should have demonstrated the ability to collect money and maintain the system to the conditions explained above. After 6 years, communities/owners/government (or a combination of these) should be able to pay for the most expensive part, and after 10 years there should be enough money in place to replace the infrastructure. Truthfully, this time frame is more likely for handpumps than for more expansive gravity fed schemes, so this may need to be reconsidered
If we can show that water is flowing at locally acceptable quantities and quality, that access is within (do you mean in line?) line with government targets, and that systems are extending with populations, that down time is limited, and that finances are in place to eventually replace infrastructure, then we are pretty confident a project is on track to be sustainable. If any of these are off base, then the system has challenges that may undermine sustainability over time.
Sanitation – at Water for People sustainability in sanitation is focused on pathogen-rich feces being contained away from the immediate environment, with sanitation facilities being fee of feces and urine on the floor and walls, and where all family members use the latrine for defecation. The challenge is to spread this beyond families to communities, but this is how we calculate whether our program is on track. Handwashing is harder – with handwashing we focus on knowledge and on observational evidence that soap and water is available and used. This isn’t a perfect measurement, and we are open to better ideas on all of this. But it is certainly a great start, linked to our commitment to a minimum of 10 years post-construction monitoring.