Recently, a group of water professionals developed a tool called WaterCompass to guide selection of appropriate drinking water methods. I was one of them. When presenting it, I was prepared for just about any question regarding details. Instead, the first inquiry was a simple ‘why’? Why did we do it? Despite the preparations, I was so lost in the details that I had a hard time giving a convincing response…
In 2012, not only water professionals but also the broad public rejoiced when it was announced that the Millennium Development Goal for the provision of safe (drinking) water was finally met. Many acknowledged that the problem was not eradicated – there are still hundreds of millions of people without safe water – but the optimism was great that drinking water expenditures could be cut and that we may finally shift our focus and capacities to alleviate irrigation challenges, sanitation problems and possibly even improve nutrient recovery from solid wastes into agriculture.
But have development interventions really achieved long-term success?
Is the general notion of success in the emerging water sectors justified? Perhaps not completely. When looking at a smaller-scale, developing water projects always seem so successful at first. The euphoria of completion goes hand in hand with reports on the (usually very large) number of people benefiting from the achievements. Far-reaching, positive effects are reported that one way or another can all be traced back to the realization of the project. Officials pay newsworthy visits to the project location and everyone shares at least a moment of hope that things are looking up even for the most vulnerable.
Then as the promotion ends, the public attention fades away. Things go back to normal. For a year, or two or perhaps one more… but unfortunately in many cases fresh news would eventually arrive: a new water project is about to start for the very same location for the very same people. But how can they be in need of a new water project so soon? Most of the time, it is not an upgrade. It appears that the previous initiative has proven inefficient, severely under-utilized or just plain unaffordable. So what went wrong? Is it the technology? Bad construction? No, most often not.
Solution: adjust intervention to context and stakeholders
The problem is often the mismatch between the water intervention method and the context. For example, high-tech water supply systems are implemented in areas with no background infrastructure. Community-level water delivery is implemented where everyone is accustomed to obtaining water right at the household. Electricity-powered water installations are implemented where the power grid breaks down on a daily basis. Or simply a method that might be appropriate in every aspect… except its users never wanted it in the first place.
Wealthy, developed countries do not have these problems since the centralized, piped water networks became dominant in water delivery. Today, their technological choices are straight-forward, because the small number of options are evaluated through standards and regulations. In the majority of developing countries, such a sector is still to come. Without a proper infrastructure, it is better to apply a variety of decentralized methods. These methods cannot be applied everywhere with the same efficiency. If they are to last, they have to be chosen carefully for their intended location. Not only the technical aspects, but user preference for likely acceptance, the relevant institutions for potential managing, the financial needs for affordability and a lot more needs to be part of the selection process.
So the simple ‘why’
And this is where I can finally try to formulate an answer to that simple ‘why’. It is not easy to have all relevant information and each potential method at hand. Water sourcebooks and decision aids testify that it requires considerable know-how to find the potentially best methods. Decision-support tools like the WaterCompass may prove useful in this regard. They do not replace the actual experts, but guide them in the planning process. They make the identification of potential methods more objective and provide information that can be used by all project participants to discuss the ultimate choice of technology. With that, these tools contribute to a more strategic method selection and a more participatory process.
If the WaterCompass can deliver in this regard is yet to be proven. However, if decision-support tools are used more systematically, then I am convinced that we will sooner reach the lasting success in emerging water sectors and can start thinking on what developing challenge to focus on next.
Have you heard of any similar tools used in the irrigation sector? Please share with us in the comments section below.
About the author:
Gábor Szántó is a water engineer at PRACTICA Foundation and is a co-developer of decision support tools aiming at a more rational method selection in developing and emergency response initiatives.