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THE ROLE OF COMMUNITY BUILDING IN SUSTAINABLE WATER AND SANITATION PROGRAMMES

by Horst Kleinschmidt, Director, Mvula Trust, South Africa


I am pleased and honoured to have this opportunity to speak to you how commitment to sound developmental principles and learning from experience has shaped our work to provide a real and tangible basis for the often misused word: sustainability.

Mvula Trust is a South African Non-Governmental organisation, set up in 1993 with the goal of providing rural community water supply and sanitation. We responded to a critical need and demand from a sector of the population who had been ignored and neglected by the apartheid rulers for decades. After the first democratic elections in 1994 we developed a close working relationship with the new Department of Water Affairs and Forestry who equally started a programme that would cater for rural people whom the previous racist state had nothing to offer.

The Context

We are an NGO in a very specific and defined sector. Our capacity to deliver is around 10% of that which Government is able to deliver. Being relatively small, and retaining our autonomy through income from some sources other than Government, does have advantages, as I hope will become clear in my brief contribution here today.

For those of you visiting South Africa may I make the bold observation that our achievements in the water and sanitation sector buck the trend we observe in the majority of developing countries the world over. Our Government, assisted by Non-Governmental organisations and private sector collaboration, is rapidly extending water and sanitation services to the poor of this country. The unserved are decreasing in number. Those served are significantly, served in a viable and sustainable context that we believe will not fail, break down or become inoperable with the passage of time. Although our track record is brief as yet, we feel that we base our achievement on sound principles that will stand the test of time. We are keenly aware of the many countries where water supply and sanitation services are absent or are breaking down forever increasing numbers of the population. We believe we buck this phenomenon. We believe that we employ a methodology and practices which will be replicable elsewhere in the world.

Let me focus on that which I think is the key to our successful ventures to date. Before doing so let me paint a further context about Mvula Trust. Over the past five years we have completed some 172 water and sanitation projects, providing service to a rural population of more than 500,000. We have a further 350 projects that are at various points of construction and we have the capacity and desire to take on more work. To date, as far as our work is concerned, we have relied on grant funding from DWAF or from overseas funders to pay for the capital cost, but not the recurrent cost of these schemes. In future we aim to rely additionally on loan finance to build infrastructure where new Local Authorities are able to structure bankable projects. Bankability will rely on the affordability of targeted clients in part and on the creative cross subsidisation in part.

The way in which we work

Participatory approaches must be practiced fully and properly. There is nothing new in what I say, as you all know. There is however, all too often a gap between policy and practice. In the case of Mvula community participation means this: The centre piece of any village or community project we entertain relies on a accountable and elected community water committee. Besides being accountable the committee, if need be will be trained by our staff in the essential tasks expected of them. We also insist on significant representation of women on the committee as a prerequisite for the project to be supported. For the project to proceed we provide training and orientation that will ensure that we can deposit funds, on a tranche basis, into the local committee’s bank account. This will ensure that expression is given to the concept of beneficiary ownership –ownership in the sense of being in charge of the service that is to be rendered, thus ensuring that doing-for is replaced by doing-by-ourselves. Obviously this is not always easy, and obviously problems arise and mistakes are made. We state categorically however that our experience to date confirms that this approach is the correct one and that it is perfectly practicable.

By providing the local committee with real and tangible power we then expect them, in consultation with us, to engage the engineers, the trainers and the suppliers of pipes and pumps etc. Invariably, in our experience, committee members turn to us for advice and help.

At one of our projects, Leokaneng, the following quote is recorded: the day our cheque book arrived, with our name on it, then we knew it was our project, and not the engineers.

Local water committee are obviously expected to account for the money they receive. If errors are made or problems arise corrective action is initiated by our staff. In a few instances projects were halted or abandoned because we were not able to solve basic issues of governance. Commonly accepted accounting principles, variances, tolerance thresholds and an understanding of acceptable risk exercises our minds and our conduct continuously. We draw the auditing profession into our approach. Conceptually we want them to grasp the nettle of dealing with poverty and development rather than just standing aside and ignoring this sector of our society.

On the basis of this approach we have built all our projects and we are convinced that it is the correct approach. Our confidence in the local community, despite the lack of formal training and previous experience is one key pre-requisite for the subsequent sustainability of a commissioned water project of this kind.There are a variety of other factors that need to be taken in account.

In order for our interaction at rural village level to succeed we strongly believe that our own staff or as I will call them our development practitioners need to enjoy the trust and confidence of the beneficiary community. Nothing achieves this better than our motivated and trained staff who additionally need to reflect the following attributes:

  • They need to speak the language and idiom of the local community
  • They need to be part of or have close empathy with the local costum and traditions
  • And in our South African context it is a valuable asset, if our staff can also demonstrate a proven record of having fought apartheid rather than having resisted change or having perpetuated racial domination.

If the above ingredients are in place project viability is greatly enhanced.

Another key element in our policy is that we expect communities to raise from their number a sum of money we refer to as an "emergency fund". This is a commitment by each beneficiary household, prior to starting a project, to contribute to the future up-keep of the water scheme. From this spare parts and other maintenance costs are paid. The fund has to be replenished by the community if funds are drawn down for the upkeep of the plant.

Water committees also raise a levy from households once the scheme is operational. This is to cover costs such as the wages of pump operators, fuel etc. Different committees have used different means to enforce payment. One frequent method is to cease pumping water to the taps until all have paid. In most instances this has the desired effect.

We also pay committees an incentive bonus if they maintain the scheme and the emergency fund for a period of more than two years after commissioning the project. A number of our schemes are old enough for us now to present them with such a bonus. The value of the bonus is 5% of the value of the original scheme. I recently visited two communities in the Northern Province who now plan to use this bonus to extend the water scheme they are in charge of.

A further key factor that ensures the success of the schemes we implement is to return to commissioned schemes and to have a rigorous monitoring and evaluation of such schemes. The importance of this is two-fold

Corrective action is taken at local level to ensure that the scheme continues to operate properly to the satisfaction of its customers

And, to note what the implications are for Mvula Trust itself in terms of our detailed policy guidelines. Our organisation is particularly keen to ensure that our experience is recorded and reduced to policy manuals that are continuously updated as we learn from our experience.

Our experience and its policy implications form the basis of an on-going dialogue with the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. We are satisfied that there is a creative and continuous dialogue between the Department and ourselves:

A new dynamic in our environment is the relationship that needs to manifest itself between a village water committee and the emerging local authorities throughout rural South Africa. These authorities are new and are part of the democratisation of our society. They also have distinct legal obligations as regards the supply of water and sanitation services to the people under their jurisdiction. Mvula Trust is playing a key role in facilitating appropriate legal understandings between water committees and local authorities. Where this depends on the local authority playing a new role Mvula serves as the training agent for such authorities.

Another insight that Mvula feels strongly about is the period it takes to build physical infrastructure and the period it takes to build the Institutional Social Development (ISD). Training and mentoring, which form part of ISD is not an incidental add-on; nor is it something that engineers or politicians think should be sacrificed when budgets are tight; neither is it something that takes as long as it takes to lay the pipes and install the pump. ISD takes its own time – it takes in fact longer than building physical infrastructure – AND it starts long before the physical work starts and carries on after the physical work is completed. It also requires follow-up at intervals when the formal training et ??? all is complete. It is absolutely vital that we do not compromise on the time it takes to build the people who are to maintain the system and pay for its upkeep. If you get this element right, the real meaning of sustainability will have been brought considerably nearer our reach.

My last point refers to payment for services. In South Africa we are very concerned, and rightly so, that people pay for the service they receive. From our vantage point, dealing with rural South Africa we notice the following:

There are many people who cannot afford to pay because they are too poor to pay. This needs to be understood before you put a system in place that later on cannot be kept going because people are not able to pay. In rural South Africa such considerations need attention especially when there is no basis for cross-subsidisation.

A second reason may relate to willingness to pay. This has a variety of social roots. One significant factor for not paying is however the perception that you are not provided with an adequate or reliable service. This needs to be understood carefully before enforcement is contemplated.

A further and significant factor is that of reliable and proper billing for services. Very often we may refer to the low recovery cost of a system and blame it on the customer. In our experience it is as often that the customer is not at fault but the poor and wanting authority who fail in their billing or debt collecting system. Where billing systems exist they often fail to communicate properly with their customers. Bureaucratic notices with threatening implications very often sour the relations between this type of customer and the authority responsible for collecting dues.

I trust that you have found my plug for the conditionalities that make rural community water and sanitation services sustainable useful. Many of my points may appear to be obvious. But if they are not spelt out and are not practiced with conviction, poor people will continue to blamed when in fact the blame belongs somewhere else.