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Lessons learned from the International H2O Collaboration

By Arnold R. Grahl

Rotary News 20 March 2013 

Dozens of broken hand pumps dot villages in Ghana evidence of well-intentioned efforts gone awry because sustainability wasn't built into the projects that installed them. Perhaps fees weren't collected to fund repairs, or local officials weren't recruited to manage and oversee continued operations.

School latrines also fail at a high rate, as projects often overlook the fact that they must be emptied periodically.

These are just two of the findings from a recent review of the International H2O Collaboration, a partnership between Rotary International and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that is beginning its fifth year.

As part of the partnership's commitment to sustainability, it hired an independent contractor, Aguaconsult, to review the more than 15,000 measures from water systems and hygiene training to wastewater treatment plants funded by the partnership in Ghana, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines.

Sustainability index

The review included the creation of the WASH Sustainability Index, a tool designed to assess the long-term success and sustainability of these projects. The tool eventually will be available for Rotarians to use in planning more effective water and sanitation projects.

Water and sanitation projects often are measured by the systems built and the number of people they are expected to serve. But experts are finding that these numbers don't tell the whole story. Other conditions must be in place for projects to outlast their initial funding. These so-called soft elements include reliable management, long-term support, sound financial planning, training, and supportive government policies.

The WASH Sustainability Index essentially is a series of questions that determine whether these soft elements exist. To grade each action, Aguaconsult applied these questions to three levels of project involvement individuals and organizations responsible for managing a service or system; local governments, nongovernmental organizations, and public agencies that provide support or oversight; and government and regulatory agencies that set policies, adopt technical standards, and conduct periodic review.

″The Aquaconsult team made a valiant effort in attempting to quantify the uniquely qualitative aspects of sustainability," says Sean Cantella, of Relief International, an organization that worked with USAID to implement the index in Ghana. "They should be applauded for their novel effort to look beyond simply counting the number of facilities in order to estimate the likelihood that facilities will be available for the long term."

Report findings

Aguaconsult's report had high praise for Rotarians' expertise, noting that equipment like wells, pumps and water systems have been well designed and meet all technical standards. But it found weaknesses in most other areas. Among the findings and conclusions:

  • Collecting tariffs or user fees is important for long-term success. In many of the projects reviewed, user fees were either not collected or were set too low to provide enough money to replace worn-out equipment and parts. Considering the life cycle of equipment, and having frank discussions about what costs will be faced and by whom, can help projects avoid failure.
  • Implementing projects in an institutional or policy vacuum increases the risk they will simply "fall through the cracks" once the project partners leave. In some communities, no agency was assigned to oversee results. Rotarians should involve relevant authorities from the outset and ensure that newly built systems are registered and integrated with other public works so they receive support and monitoring.
  • The ability and willingness of local agencies to provide long-term follow-up are critical to sustainability. Ghana and the Dominican Republic have a national program for promoting hygiene, and their health ministries have strong urban branches. But such support is often absent in rural areas. In the Philippines, rural community-managed systems were found to suffer from a "lack of political will." Training local government staff to manage and administer projects, and improving supply chains and services, can help.
  • Advocacy aimed at correcting policy or capacity gaps is an important and valid investment in long-term success.

World Water Day

The H2O Collaboration is one example of how Rotarians are working year-round to provide access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation. On 22 March, Rotarians will join the observance of World Water Day. Established by the United Nations in 1992, the day highlights the importance of fresh water and the need for sustainable management of water resources. This year's theme is water cooperation.


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