5 Questions for… Dr. Snehalatha Mekala of WASHCost India

Editors Note: We pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector as part of our “5 Questions for…” series. In this post, Dr. Snehalatha Mekala, former country coordinator for WASHCost India, shares her insights into life-cycle costing, working with communities to collect WASH data, and other learnings from the WASHCost India project in response to our questions.

Dr. Snehalatha Mekala, WASHCost India

1.  What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

A critical issue standing in the way of successful community-based management of WASH services is the lack of technical, human, financial, and other resources in local communities to properly manage the water supply systems — even when governments do hand these over for community management. This lack of adequate operation and maintenance (including capital maintenance) reduces the life spans of these systems, and as a result doubles the investments required. This not only increases the costs of water service delivery (essential also for sanitation and hygiene) — especially in countries that can hardly afford to make such investment — but also affects the poor and the marginalized disproportionately.

The belief that local communities can manage on their own has only been validated by a few exceptions — islands of success created by NGOs or pilot projects, which have not been sustained when scaled up. Local communities do require timely and long-term support, both technically and financially, if they are to manage the WASH issues on their own.

2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

As part of the WASHCost India project, we adopted a learning alliance approach where key sector stakeholders — especially policy decision-makers at the Water Supply and Sanitation Department in India’s Andhra Pradesh State  — were involved in designing and implementing a five-year  research project that aimed to embed research results for lasting policy influence. Since these key stakeholders provided the data on investments made and the research findings on services delivered, it was relatively easy for them to realize that skewed investments do not deliver equitable services. What I mean by skewed investments is the higher percentage of investments on hardware versus the lower percentage on O&M and direct support (i.e., costs for awareness generation and capacity building). Furthermore, investments were skewed towards providing infrastructure to benefit rich households with less of a focus on poor households. It was also relatively easier for stakeholders to understand the need to adopt a Life Cycle Costing Approach (LCCA) for resources allocation — with each cost component getting appropriate allocations so that the water supply systems delivered services as per design. We thus learnt that:

  • Ownership by the key stakeholders in the research process (from design to results) is critical
  • Quick dissemination of findings is essential
  • Perhaps most importantly, this process requires time and champions
  • Impact is slow but percolates into the system more effectively than the conventional research process of simply ‘presenting findings’ to decision-makers  

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

It was a challenge in the WASHCost project to collect village-level data on costs and services, especially without written records. But the work in pilot villages to collect data through maps, graphs, and participatory methods (e.g., focus group discussions) — and to discuss possible solutions using geo-referenced maps — helped greatly. Villagers understood, perhaps for the first time, the importance of collecting data and using data to understand the relationship between the costs and services, and how using data can help them understand their village-level problems and possible solutions. Collecting cost and service data and discussing O&M-related WASH issues triggered community action in some villages to address these issues (although in some other villages there was only a passive reception!). Thus, while the process continued, it certainly built a sense of ownership and we hope it will be sustained.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?

Mapping water points and monitoring the functionality and service delivery of these systems by using smart phones are really exiting and can bring lots of improvement to the sector. The piloting done in the WASHCost project using these technologies to develop water security plans provided many insights into how many bore wells were drilled in the last ten years, how deep they were, and what impact they had on drinking water availability. I do accept, however, that while water point mapping and functionality mapping with advanced technological devices and gadgets are helpful, there has to be a support system to address queries and doubts and to resolve emerging problems quickly.

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?  

The IMIS database, created by the Indian government’s Ministry of Water and Sanitation to monitor and report on the drinking water and sanitation across the entire country of 1 billion people, is certainly an impressive achievement (even if the reliability of the data will need cross-verification in some cases). The India Water Portal  and the India Sanitation Portal  are of great use for people working on these issues as they cover all relevant national news on water and sanitation, from legislations and the latest research reports to tested solutions and case studies from the field. The WaterSoft system developed by the National Informatics Centre for the Department of Rural Water Supply in the state of Andhra Pradesh is also a stupendous achievement, containing detailed cost and technical information on the water supply infrastructure in all 76,000 villages across the entire state (which is 275,000 sq. km — larger than Ghana).