Pump-priming payments for sustainable water services in rural Africa

A new article published in World Development discusses ways to overcome barriers to the financial sustainability of rural water services in sub-Saharan Africa.

Locally managed handpumps provide water services to around 200 million people in rural Africa. Handpump failures often result in extended service disruption leading to high but avoidable financial, health, and development costs.

A study by Johanna Koehler, Patrick Thomson and Dr Robert Hope at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment uses unique observational data from monitoring handpump usage in rural Kenya. The authors evaluate how dramatic improvements in maintenance services influence payment preferences.

Results reveal steps to enhance rural water supply sustainability by pooling maintenance and financial risks at scale supported by advances in monitoring and payment technologies.

The authors argue that there are three major barriers to achieving regular rural water user payments to promote financial sustainability:

  • Institutional barriers indicate that the organisational structure of the user group influences the regular collection of user fees from all handpump users.
  • Due to geographic barriers handpump density in certain areas can negatively impact payment behavior.
  • Operational barriers frequently cause handpumps to remain unrepaired for an extended period, discouraging users from paying, as the source is considered unreliable. This constitutes a downward spiral with the risk of long-term failure in service delivery.

Three major findings are identified to prime rural water user payments in Africa. First, a reliable and fast maintenance service is key to sustaining rural water user payments. Second, these payments are subject to demand, which is related to the spatial distribution of handpumps. Hence, clustering should be avoided for financially sustainable services and new handpump installations determined by verifiable metrics. Third, the management of community handpumps takes several forms along the public–private spectrum. Almost half of the handpumps self-organise in clubs and choose a semi-privatised model with a higher payment structure.

Understanding operational, geographic, and institutional barriers of rural water user payments contributes to developing an innovative, output-based payment model for rural water services in Africa. The real test will be if users support the introduction of a new payment system, which acknowledges the higher value for money that the new maintenance service system creates. This research indicates that the communities support such reforms if reliable services are delivered.

The findings offer pathways toward the suggested water targets of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda promoting, inter alia, universal and sustainable access to safe drinking water and raising service standards, as well as robust and effective water governance with more effective institutions and administrative systems.

The study demonstrates the need for continuous monitoring of rural water services, as well as suggesting strategies for achieving this. Water service performance data are key to defining a baseline and measuring progress toward sustainable services at the local level, for operationalising a maintenance service provider model at the supra-communal level and testing an output-based payment model at the national and international levels.

The Government of Kenya’s Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB) acknowledges the importance of such performance data ‘enabling WASREB to ensure that satisfactory performance levels are achieved and maintained, and enhancing transparency and accountability within the rural sector’ (WASREB, 2014, p. 79). Thus, the data can support and monitor national policy goals that promote progress toward universal access and more reliable improved water services for the rural poor.

Related links

Koehler, J., Thomson, P. and Hope, R. (2015) Pump-priming payments for sustainable water services in rural Africa. World Development, 74: 397-411.

Smart Water Systems research

The Government of Kenya’s Water Services Regulatory Board Impact Report (2014)

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