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Water Management for Communities

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Dedicated to Andrew Livingstone

Training Handout

A community must determine who is responsible for maintenance, who is responsible for repair, and how it is to be managed

Operating a Community Water Supply Facility:

There is a tendency for people to think that all we have to do is build a water supply system, and there it is. Someone will look after it, or it will take care of itself.

Community members are no different. You, as their mobilizer, need to remind them that, if they have chosen water supply as their highest priority, not only is their management needed to construct it, they will also have to make arrangements for caring for it, making it continue to work.

One of the saddest sights to see when visiting rural Africa is the thousands of hand pumps, not working, sitting throughout the land. What a waste of resources used in constructing them, for them to be non-functional.

A community water supply facility (or water point) suffers wear and tear and it may require regular inputs such as fuel and lubrication. It also needs protection against damage by deliberate vandals, careless humans, and rambunctious animals. Now and again it will need repairs.

When choosing and planning a water supply facility, the community must consider how it will ensure that it will continue to function. Your job as a mobilizer is to ensure that community members, and their executive, know that.

Part of that decision making will also be to determine who will do it, and who will supervise and ensure that it gets done. If no one is identified, and held responsible, it will not get done.

Not a One-Off Event:

When a community decides that water is to be its priority, it may assume that it will just construct a facility, and then its responsibility will be over.

As noted in the Mobilization module, your intervention may start with a single community project, but is expected to be continued for as long as necessary. In the case of water, the community executive must make a commitment from the start to work after construction of the project. The project implementation executive (CIC) formed by the community can become the water and development committee of the community. Or, in contrast, this may be an opportune time to form another executive, quietly dropping those members who are not making the grade.

Note, here, that your perception and astuteness are important. The executive will be more effective and community empowerment more likely to happen when all the executive members have exemplary characters. Note the sixteen elements of empowerment. Trust and altruism are among them. Dishonesty is one of the five major Factors of Poverty. If one or more executive is not altruistic and puts personal needs or desires ahead of the community, and/or if one or more members may be willing to find ways to divert project resources to personal use, then the executive and the community are weakened. How you go about getting the community to organize a water committee will be based upon your observations.

Since the water supply facility must be an ongoing thing, it is time you announce that the community must form a water and/or development committee. This new executive will not have the job of designing a project reflecting the priority of the community. That has been done. It will have to devise ways to ensure the water remains flowing.

The Water Committee will have to take responsibility for water supply. It will execute the community's wishes to have volunteer maintenance or paid maintenance (see below), and monitor, supervise, guide, encourage and support those who will maintain the facility. The Water Committee must report to the community about finances of operations, and the repair and maintenance situation.

See Organize to review your methods of organizing a water committee.

Volunteers or Paid Staff?

An important decision of the community and its Water Committee is how to arrange that there are enough resources to ensure the water supply facility keeps the water flowing. There are plus and minus consequences of using unpaid volunteers or paid staff.

Using unpaid volunteers, of course, means that less money changes hands, but does not eliminate the fact that some costs will be incurred. Volunteers may be less reliable and perhaps not so willing to follow the instructions of the water committee. Paid staff must be paid, and on a regular basis, or they might seek work elsewhere.

The decision should be made by the community, expressed through its water committee. What would be best is a public meeting, orchestrated by you the mobilizer, chaired by the Water Committee or the executive. The pros and cons of using paid or unpaid personnel to maintain the facility should be listed on the board, perhaps by you, and a priority chosen, much as in a brainstorm session.

You need to make it clear that the worker, paid or unpaid, should only have one supervisor, and that person should be the chair of the water committee. You should also work with the committee in developing a Job Description, to minimize differences of opinion that might arise later.

If community members or committee members do not like something that is happening, they need to raise the issue with the water committee as a whole, and not personally try to control the worker.

Payment Arrangements:

How then does the community pay the operating expenses? It needs income in order to pay the salary of any staff, to buy lubricants and fuel, to buy spare parts, and to pay for labour for any repairs.

A simple method, which works well in many communities, is to charge a small user fee, a few pennies per litre. These fees can be collected by the water attendant, and handed over to the treasurer of the Water Committee, who will then pay the attendant a regular salary.

This approach, however, depends upon a high integrity of everyone handling the cash. Without open and transparent records, it is open to abuse. Remember that altruism and truat are among the sixteen elements of the strength of an organization or community, and that dishonesty is one of the five major factors of poverty.

One alternative to this is to have a contract with the attendant who is to take a certain percentage of fees collected. The attendant knows that some money therefore must be handed over to the treasurer at regular intervals, and should represent the total received minus the attendant's share. There is still room for embezzlement by the attendant and the treasurer, so the water committee should ensure that it monitors operations closely. It may choose to elect persons from among its membership to monitor on a regular basis and report back to committee.

A different approach is to have flat water rates paid by all residents, or those living within an area that includes the majority of the users. Members of the water committee must carefully consider the pros and cons of these alternatives, and the probabilities of successful operations to keep the water flowing.

This should be a community decision, and all transactions made as transparent as feasible.

Money not paid to the attendant needs to be banked, and used to buy fuel as needed, lubricants, spare parts and other repair and maintenance costs. It should be the responsibility of the community, through public meetings, and executed by the Water Committee.


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© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2012.10.09

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