14/12/2012 07:35 GMT | Updated 12/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Sustaining the Progress: Managing Lasting Water Facilities in Ethiopia

Historically, the rural water sector has been replete with cases of failed water systems because mechanisms to ensure their sustainability have not always been prioritised.

However, sustainability is achievable, as demonstrated during a recent trip to WaterAid programmes in drought-prone Konso, Ethiopia, where there are some exciting and innovative projects in place that are making real progress in overcoming the challenges in ensuring a lasting access to clean water.

For WaterAid, sustainability is an area of critical concern and one we have been focusing on to ensure services can transform people's lives in the long term. As well as doing more to help the 783 million people without access to clean water and 2.5 billion with nowhere safe to go to the toilet, we need to do better. Indeed, we have developed a framework to guide Country Programmes, partners, and others in the sector on achieving sustainability.

All too often, governments have focused on the provision of new water supplies with much less attention or resources for operations and maintenance. Local community management systems are also notorious for failing to survive much beyond the completion of the project implementation phase. A lack of technical skills, remoteness of locations, poor infrastructure, poor quality of spare parts, an almost non-existent supply chain in many parts of the developing world are just a few of the issues that affect the sustainability.

In Konso, it was heartening to see that many of the basic mechanisms are in place. Each community has a Women's WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) Committee, which oversees the water provision to the area. There is a tap attendant at each water point who operates the scheme for fixed hours each day and collects 50 cents per 20 litres to form a fund for maintenance. In many cases, the attendants are women, helping empower them and challenge any existing gender inequalities.

The responsibility of communities to manage their water and sanitation services forms a central component of much of the sector's policy and strategy and this set up is similar to what I've seen in many of the projects I've visited elsewhere. However, it was even more interesting to see the existence of two other organisations - a plumbers' co-operative and a spare parts co-operative.

The plumbers' co-operative is based in the nearby town of Karat and has a number of trained technicians who can be called upon to attend to maintenance issues, serving a radius of about 40 kms. They are very much in demand and earn a reasonable income.

Likewise, the spare parts co-operative established just four months ago stocks essential spare parts for water projects and is vital for the continued functioning of the services. Both these were established by the district authorities of Konso and WaterAid has supported them with a small working capital.

External support to the community management system, such as national and local government, together with suppliers of goods and services, is crucial to achieving long-term running of facilities. It was therefore promising to see a formal Memorandum of Association signed between and among the local community, the local civil society organisation, the plumbers' co-operative, the spare parts co-operative and the Konso Woreda.

Additionally, there is a women's co-operative in Gelgele and Kolmele, which has been set up around a bio-gas plant and a livestock breeding unit, managed by a 41-member women's self help group. The income from this group is expected to support additional investments at a small scale to meet future needs, but more importantly, makes it an enterprise that can bring women together and strengthen their institution.

These are certainly early days and only time will tell if these have really been effective. However, the significance of this arrangement is that it exists after years of discussions with the local community, the local civil society organisation, and the district authorities. The effectiveness so far of the capacity building and community mobilisation is evident.

The Chief Administrator of the Konso Woreda, a young man called Barako Belachew Guyita, said: "In our district, 46% of the people have access to safe water. WaterAid supported our work in six of the 43 kebeles, accounting for 25% of the population of 236,000. This support has been critical as we have also developed our capacities. It is up to us now, at the district level, to aim for 100% coverage over the next five years, for which we will strive to attract resources from other sources, including the regional and federal governments".

The mechanisms are in place, the willingness is there. What is now needed is for these to continue to be monitored and developed. It would be worth visiting this community in five years' time and see what has happened.

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