This gets me everytime. And it happens a lot. It’s a well intentioned statement by a well intentioned donor, and it’s completely fair.
But unfortunately, no water system in the world, not even the one you are drinking water from today is functioning at 100% capacity, and regrettably this is something that we haven’t talked about enough. Before we talk about the tough news, here are the key takeaways:
- In 30 years of building gravity flow systems, by our latest audit, only 7.9% of our tapstands are not working “at all.” You can view this map HERE. This exceeds industry standards by over 100%.
- We’re not satisfied with a substandard level of performance or service, so we’re going back to these 30 systems to improve capacity, hygiene and sanitation training and latrine coverage to set these communities up for success for decades to come.
- We’re spending a deliberate amount of time and money over the next four years and looking for donors willing to partner with us to pilot new market based solutions to improve sustainability and health outcomes that pair with our already world leading sustainable water solutions.
Here are three core reasons why systems fail (there may be others):
- The technology or hardware simply fails: pipes break, parts crack. This happens in Canada just like in Uganda. Thankfully the technology we implement (Gravity Flow Systems) has an unusually long, “natural” life; however, they still fail. A shovel accidentally cuts a pipe, a tap snaps off due to carelessness, cement cracks from age, etc. When that happens, you depend on strong governance to fix it.
- Governance models break down: Once we build a system, we give that system to the local community, who forms a governance committee to manage it. They employ a caretaker and pay for that caretaker with a self-directed user fee. While our training has improved (we spend longer in the community) and we’ve now gotten better results here, entirely managed governance that is dependent on a community with members earning less than $1 a day to fund a caretaker and volunteer “forever” to care for this public utility, is a very tough initiative. It leads to the problem of the commons, which is exacerbated by extreme poverty. Which brings us to the third point.
- Ownership can get complicated and co-opted. When governance looks weak, stronger members of the community (in reality or perception) can dominate control over a system – whether that’s the government, a business owner, the Church or others. They’ll run illegal taps, or simply say they are now in control of the maintenance of this public good. Because we’ve been active in the region for 30 years, we can play a role here, interjecting on behalf of the users, trying to broker solutions and more – but it’s no longer our system, and not our community to dictate. And so, ownership lessens.
One of the very first things I learned when I started with Acts for Water was that the Water Crisis was not simply a technology problem, it was a human one, and humans are complicated.
We’re proud of our industry leading sustainability. We’re proud of this next five year plan to go back, improve the performance of our systems, and leverage these assets to serve even more through extensions to new regions. And if you want to learn more what that next step looks like for us, check it out here. I’m perhaps most proud of the new models that we’re going to be piloting to improve the sustainability and health outcomes of these systems – to try to address these core problems of governance, ownership, and infrastructure. But I’m also under no illusions that this will be the last time we address this matter. Because sustainability – like human relationships – is a map, not a destination, and this is a journey we’re looking forward to going further: together, rather than faster: alone.
If you’d like to join us on this journey to becoming the most sustainable water charity in Canada (if not the world), a Monthly Member is the best way to do this.