Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Don't these people want clean water? (Part 2)

This morning I met with the head water engineer at the Millennium Villages Project in Ruhiira, Uganda. The MVP in Ruhiira is within a few kilometers of a previous ACTS project. In 2009 the community protected a spring that we are now considering for use in a new project. I dropped by the offices to introduce myself and see if we might collaborate with MVP.

The meeting was very encouraging; the engineer was excited to partner with a local NGO given our long history in the area and our existing relationship with the communities. And I was excited to find a talented Ugandan engineer with some new ideas about how to implement a GFS project. In my last post I lamented how difficult it is to make a project sustainable. This engineer suggested a different method gaining popularity in Uganda: private operators.

Over the years, GFS implementers have tried different ways to maintain the system after construction. In the past little thought was given to maintenance, the assumption being that the users would naturally have an interest in maintaining the system themselves, and would find the money and skill to do so. The number of broken systems littering Uganda speaks otherwise. More recently, implementers have created "tap stand" committees to perform operation and maintenance (O&M). These committees are formed of elected individuals from the community, and their function is to collect fees and perform maintenance. The engineer I spoke to today made a good point, one that I am now discovering: these committees often fade away after the construction is finished. Now, this is less of an issue for ACTS because it maintains a presence in the area for years - it's not going anywhere, and is therefore able to return to communities and encourage them to continue their commitment. However, this is not done without difficulty. But for most implementers, the system breaks down within a few years of completion. Therefore, some are now willing to license management of the system to a private operator. There are several advantages to this approach:
  • Uptime is in the operator's interest: every inoperative tap means lost revenue. The operator therefore has an interest in a high level of maintenance.
  • Smaller individual payments: instead of having a committee come door-to-door looking for 1,000 UGX every month, the operator can put locks on each tap, and then charge for every jerry can of water. The charge might be 40-50 UGX. The smaller payment makes a huge difference because of the short-term mentality people have here. It's difficult to save money for any period of time, even a month. Paying 50 UGX a time would likely be much preferable than a 1,000 UGX lump sum.
What are the drawbacks? I can think of a few:
  • Who do you license? Choosing an operator would likely be a very political decision. What qualifications should they have? What criteria would disqualify them? How do you keep the selection process transparent and fair?
  • Land issues: in ACTS projects, we ask the community to donate all land for tanks, pipes, and tap-stands. We do this because the system is for the community's benefit. But if now someone stands to make money, I don't think landowners would simply give away their land. And if they don't, then the construction costs could be much higher. Where would this extra money come from? Would funding agencies foot the extra cost, or would it be passed along to the community in the form of user fees? (user fees typically only cover operation costs, with the construction costs coming from a funding agency such as CIDA).
  • Community consent: would communities agree to pay a private operator? Would they trust them? Tap-stand committees have the advantage of being composed of people from the community, whom users presumably know and trust.
Personally, I think the advantage to using a private operator could be great. Any task that can be reasonably performed by the private sector likely has a greater chance for long-term sustainability because it is in the operator's financial interest.


  1. What about charging MORE for it. One interesting phenomenon in Software is that if it is too cheap, often people that need it will not use it, for whatever psychological reason. You can do something like charge the aggregate community a larger amount, which may be the same or slightly more than each family, perhaps that will work better?

  2. Well I honestly never thought about doing that! My guess is that the communities we serve aren't at the income level where this sort of psychological effect plays out. As for software, I've noticed this even in my own purchases. I'm actually more likely to buy something from the Apple App store if it costs $1 than nothing because I think it's more likely to be a well-made product.