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Looking at ‘Software’ Solutions When it Comes to Water

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Water projects often focus on hardware when it comes to finding solutions to scarcity. That is, to drill boreholes, construct storage tanks, and build water points. All too often, the software aspect of the solution does not receive the attention and resources it needs. These solutions, such as management training and user sensitization, have a much longer time horizon with many more challenges, including cultural tendencies and low educational attainment.

The Mbola cluster in Tanzania has no rivers or lakes and solely relies on groundwater and rainwater. Previously, villagers used traditional shallow wells for most of their water needs. This presents a problem in both the rainy and dry season. In the rainy season, runoff from agricultural and human waste drain into these wells and contaminate the water. In the dry season, many wells simply dry up and villagers walk longer distances and wait in longer lines to get unsafe water.

With the intervention of the MVP, Mbola has seen a remarkable progress in the number of villagers with access to safe water. To date, 17 new boreholes have been drilled, 14 more have been rehabilitated, 22 shallow wells have been dug, and 6 rainwater-harvesting systems have been constructed. In December 2012, the cluster’s only piped water scheme was completed, supplying water to 3 villages and 3,500 people. Its source is a 75m deep borehole with a submersible pump that runs on electricity from the grid.

As a MS candidate in Sustainability Management focusing on water resource management, I was eager to work with the team here and find out how the community has taken over the operation and maintenance of their newly built infrastructure. However, when I arrived, the highly anticipated piped water scheme had been closed for the last 5 months. Weak management and governance paved way to the downfall of an otherwise perfectly functioning system.

In 2012, Water User Groups (WUG) were set up at each water point to ensure its upkeep and sustainability. Each WUG comprises of a Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer, who are elected by their members. I spent the first 6 weeks visiting these different WUGs to collect data about their constitution, consumption patterns, financial management and other activities. The Single Point WUGs (not under the scheme) had stronger management due to its simpler structure and continuous supply of water. This gave me some foundation to base my recommendations for the scheme.

Under the scheme, villagers only received water 2 or 3 days a week due to weak supply management. They were having to pay a fixed fee per water point regardless of the number of users or liters of consumption. The Board, who oversees the scheme, set this price in order to pay for electricity to run the pump. Today, the Board is in debt for a new pump that was purchased last December. Both the funds to run it and the storage tanks have all but dried up.

I decided that the scheme needed some seed money, at least enough to cover the first month’s electricity bill (USD$400). I also felt uneasy about there being just one borehole that supplies the scheme. Although I accounted for depreciation in my cost analysis, pump and borehole longevity is very difficult to predict. Therefore I decided to raise funds to drill a new borehole ($5600) in an area where hydrogeological surveys were already conducted. My target of raising $6000 was met on July 22, with an extra $500 on top of it.

The author with community members in Mbola.

The author with community members in Mbola.

To ensure the scheme’s sustainability, I held a meeting with the board members and village government to overhaul its existing framework. The first requirement was everyday access with priority to domestic use. I then recommended a volumetric pricing system and monetary compensation to previously volunteered positions, which was well received. I used part of the funds to have all the meters read and fixed so that consumption can be measured and crosschecked with collection. The funds will also be used to hold trainings for leaders and users to explain the monetary value of water. I am drafting a more robust template for WUG constitutions, and creating audit forms and metrics to record progress.

Even in water scarce areas such as Mbola, safe water is taken for granted and many villagers do not want to pay for it even if it is affordable. My personal mission is to explain the economic and environmental cost of safe and clean water. I hope to share more results in my next update.

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