Almost 900 million people worldwide use water from unimproved sources, a threat to their health and productivity. The majority of these people live in rural areas. 

Two main challenges dominate the water supply sector: increasing coverage, and assuring sustainability. Technical, operational, and institutional aspects influence these challenges.

The impact water supply programmes have on people’s livelihood through increased coverage, greater sustainability, and better demand responsiveness is undoubted. And in many countries, strong efforts got them on track to achieve the MDGs. This is indeed a huge achievement.

Technically appropriate solutions are necessary to increase the coverage of water supply in rural areas. Whether the water derives from different sources such as from surface water, spring,  ground water or even rainwater catchments, local, or is developed from different methods, such as gravity schemes, wells, boreholes, the decentralized systems are usually the most cost-effective approach. In fact, the majority of people in the developing world gain access to groundwater either by means of a bucket and rope or by using a hand pump. And although, particularly in rural Africa, boreholes are the best alternative for safe drinking water provision, the long-term functioning of such systems is questionable, with high rates of non-operational systems. In light of past experiences and developments, the hand pump system should therefore assure a range of requirements: a robust and reliable operation, the ease of maintenance by the caretaker, the local availability and affordability of spare parts and cost effectiveness.

Community participation and management has been key for rural water supply in many countries. It is essential to involve the community at an early stage in the choice of type and location of the water scheme and discuss contributions in kind or cash and a management model, to be fully aware and empowered to operate and maintain the system. Community management has its limitation, not only in terms of scale but also in capacities and legal status.  At the same time, it does not imply necessarily that communities must take care of everything or pay the full cost themselves. Partnerships with private sector, often local and small scale, can be established to assure quality of needed services. The government plays a crucial role by strengthening and developing the community management model on promoting improved policy and practice, for example by assuring a legal status of community owned water supply organization. Strongly engaged community organizations, paired with follow-up support and training, can make a crucial difference in assuring sustainability.

Systems sustainability might be challenged obviously by inappropriate technology: poor construction, the unavailability or high cost of spare parts, energy, missing professional support services, thefts or just the drying-up of source water. However, the failure rate can't be attributed to technological reasons alone, and is often a result of social and institutional factors, such as community involvement and creation of ownership at an early stage. Thus, the adoption of appropriate technology needs to be coupled with clear and effective management and governance strategies to ensure that water services are sustained. Self-supply, increased household or community investment in water treatment, construction and upgrading can also contribute to improved operation. Regular water point mapping, even possible now through mobile phones technology, can provide valuable information for functionality and sustainability.

WSSCC’s mission is scaling-up water supplies and ensuring their sustainability. As such, WSSCC collaborates with the main sector actors – through various networks and partnerships – in addressing technical, operational, and institutional questions related to rural water supply. See also the discussion on scaling-up supply services.

Last updated: Tue, 11/16/2010 - 00:02