A hidden crisis? Strengthening the evidence base on the sustainability of rural groundwater services

Lead Research Organisation: Overseas Development Inst ODI (Internat)
Department Name: Water Policy Programme WPP

Abstract

Extending access to improved groundwater sources for the estimated 344 million Africans currently without access to safe water is fundamental to many of the development efforts to improve health, reduce poverty and increase the resilience of households to climate change. Considerable progress has been made in increasing water coverage under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with estimates indicating 322 million people have gained access to safe water over the period 1990 to 2010. However, there is growing concern that coverage statistics based on assumed levels of functionality and service may conceal real problems of service sustainability. The published evidence, albeit fragmented and methodologically unclear, suggests that perhaps 30% or more of groundwater-based water sources 'fail' within a few years of construction. Sector professionals have known about such problems for years, but the emphasis on investment and infrastructure, rather than long term results, has diverted attention away from what actually happens to facilities once built.

Despite the suggested scale of the problem, there is also very little evidence on why sources fail. In the absence of systematic evidence on the extent and causes of failure, donors and country governments risk repeating mistakes and achieving poor value for money. The cumulative loss of investment in large numbers of failed sources could be enormous - tens of millions of dollars - and public health and livelihood benefits are lost if people revert to unimproved water sources on a temporary or permanent basis.

The causes of groundwater-dependent rural water failure are complex, and supply failure is likely to be the result of a number of inter-related contributory factors, ranging from changes in demand for water, reduction in rainfall, inappropriate engineering, and governance. These factors will have significantly different importance and contribution to source failure in different settings. Unravelling the causes of supply failure requires an understanding of (1) groundwater conditions and trends, (2) water point siting, design and construction, (3) financing, management and backstopping arrangements, and (4) demand pressures and peaks.

This research programme sets out to address the key knowledge and evidence gap surrounding rural groundwater supply failure in Africa, and by developing a robust methodology for diagnosing why systems fail, which can be used to inform decisions around the construction of new water supply points, and the upkeep and rehabilitation of existing ones. The project will apply the methodology to a pilot study in Uganda to develop the first systematic evidence base on causes of groundwater supply and source failure. This will be the first rigorous assessment of the causes of failure, and the outputs of the research will significantly increase the capacity of donors and country governments, and NGOs, to ensure investment in water achieves lasting access to safe drinking water. The research will lead to realised benefits to the poor rural communities reliant on failing groundwater-based water supplies, particularly women and children as the main water collectors. Only by providing reliable evidence of the scale of the problem, and its underlying causes, can the problem be addressed.

Planned Impact

Extending access to sustainable groundwater services to the estimated 344 million Africans suffering water insecurity is fundamental to development efforts to improve health, reduce poverty and increase resilience of households across sub-Saharan Africa. It is also vital that existing water supply systems continue to provide reliable, safe water, or hard won public health and poverty reduction gains will be lost. However, there is now a growing body of evidence - albeit fragmented - to suggest that a significant proportion of systems fail within a few years of construction. Despite the scale of the problem, there is a lack of clarity on the reasons for failure, and to date, little rigorous and coherent academic research in this issue. In the absence of systematic evidence, donors and country governments currently have no way of systematically assessing whether or not services continue to function over time, and know little about the extent and causes of failure, aside from anecdotal evidence. This research proposal sets out to develop a robust methodology to determine the causes of source and service failure, and to develop the first systematic evidence base on the nature and scale of the sustainability problem. This will be the first rigorous assessment of the causes of failure, and the outputs of the research will increase the capacity of donors and country governments, and NGOs, to ensure investment in water achieves enduring increases in coverage.

The methodology and evidence base generated by the research will have significant academic impact. The work will produce: the first rigorous assessment of groundwater supply failure; develop new knowledge and understanding to causes of groundwater source and service failure; develop the first systematic evidence base on the nature and scale of groundwater supply failure; and provide a rigorous basis for much more coherent research needed in this area. Academic impact will be delivered by publication of the work within an international, open-access peer-reviewed publication, and development of an open access database, compiling systematic information and data the different causes of source failure.

The outputs from this research will be used by Donors, country governments at a national and local level, international and local NGOs, local water practitioners, and service providers. The outputs of the research will have significant development impact by:
>Providing donors, country governments, and NGOs with the data and framework to understand groundwater source failure, and to collect further systematic data and information on source failure.
>Significantly increase the capacity of donors, country governments, and NGOs and local practitioners to direct more effective investment in WASH with greater emphasis on sustainability of services
>Assist governments, NGOs, and practitioners to mitigate existing groundwater supply failure
>Providing a basis for new coherent research programmes into rural water supply and groundwater resources (e.g. DFID water security and sustainability call).

The benefits of sustained access to groundwater in rural areas include improved health, poverty reduction and increased resilience to climate variability and change. These benefits particularly accrue to women and children as the main water collectors - those most likely to lose from higher water collection times and lost opportunities in education and work. The outputs from this research would be used by donors, country governments, international and local NGOs, local water practitioners, and service providers within Uganda, to inform both the monitoring and diagnosis of problems in existing programmes, and to influence the design of new ones to reduce or prevent technical, financial, environmental and/or institutional mistakes being repeated. The research would also inform work currently being commissioned by DFID on VfM and sustainability, as well as the RCF.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Through an audit of water points carried out in rural Uganda with WaterAid, the team discovered that a major cause of breakdowns and poor performance was shoddy construction. Previously, other factors had been blamed for such problems, including low/inadequate cost-recovery for repair and maintenance. The main grant (underway) will compile further evidence on the causes - and consequences - of non functionality, with recommendations for improving long term performance.
Exploitation Route Main research phase currently underway in Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi. Findings already feeding into government policy dialogues, and also regional debates through fora such as Sanitation and Water For All: http://sanitationandwaterforall.org/
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL https://upgro.org/
 
Description The findings have helped inform an unpublished World Bank Sector Poverty Diagnostics paper for Ethiopia. The published multi-country summary report is available online, and includes findings about constraints to rural water point functionality that originated in this research.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services