A Year-Two Update on Leveraging Savings Groups for Water Point Sustainability

By Chris Prottas

Forty five percent of wells in rural Uganda are broken. The majority fall into disuse after several years of inadequate maintenance. In communities where two-thirds of households lack cash savings, the challenge of collectively saving for future repairs is evident.

Yet savings groups have a long history helping the poorest rural communities to mobilize one or two thousand dollars a year in savings across 25-30 households. In 2017, The Water Trust tried adapting this methodology to also save for a shared water point.

After one year, the 18 communities had generated savings and interest of more than $1,500, and spent or saved more than $160 on their water point. This represents dramatic increase from a baseline of just $2. Last year on this blog we shared the year-one results on water point finances and community sanitation.

Since then we have created more than 120 groups – which we call “self-help groups” – to sustain access to water for 30,000 people. In January we consolidated monitoring data on all sites, including year-two data for the initial pilot cohort of 18 communities. A two-page summary of those results is now available.

Key findings include:

  • 94% of pilot groups and water points active and functioning after two years
  • $169 spent on water point maintenance or kept in reserve fund after two years of group operations
  • Total annual group savings and interest generated increased from $1,500 in year one to $2,300 in year two

Importantly, as we expand the program to new communities – including sites with water points built by government and other NGOs – group performance matches that of the smaller initial pilot.

Ultimately, we are interested in how these groups affect the long-term functionality of these water points. In the short-term, we are focusing on proxy indicators that reflect whether the community is actively mobilizing and expending money on the water point’s maintenance and repairs. We will continue to also monitor how the long-term functionality of these water points varies from similar water points nearby.

We expect the groups will significantly reduce the number of water points that are non-functional due to a lack of appropriate maintenance and repair that might cost between $40 and $150 in a given year.

This relatively low-cost maintenance both keeps clean water flowing and avoids the need for more costly repairs which will be beyond the community’s means. For example, in western Uganda we encounter many non-functional water points that could have been avoided with basic maintenance – and that now will cost $2,500 to rehabilitate.

We do anticipate there will be some technical problems – such as a shallow well running dry or an improperly sited borehole – that will be beyond the means of these groups. The government and supporting actors will continue to have an important role to play in operations and maintenance. We hope that self-help groups will allow these efforts to focus on the villages, schools, and health centers of greatest need.

Beyond these results, our second year of implementation has brought several lessons learned that now inform our program:

  • Physically separate water point funds: In year one, group constitutions stipulated the funds to be collected from households and to be kept in reserve. However, water point contributions were kept in the same physical bag as personal savings. The lack of a dedicated bag for holding the water funds both made accounting and controls more difficult. In consultation with communities we made this adjustment to our program design and the group operations.
  • Invest in community-based trainers: We have always worked with “natural leaders” in communities to help champion our work when we are not there. In year two we piloted a larger investment – additional training, a bicycle, mobile minutes, and other goods and materials – in select community members to play a more active role in both monitoring and coaching communities. This work includes coaching of self-help groups in the person’s neighboring areas. This relatively small investment allowed our staff to support three-times the numbers of communities, and also increased community buy-in and ownership.
  • Mobile decision support is needed for scale: We monitor a large number of data points for each self-help group on at least a quarterly basis, including membership, attendance, group savings, group loans, water point contributions, water point expenses, and other information. In addition, we also collect monthly data on sanitation facilities for the broader village.  This data was easy to manage for the initial 18-site pilot, but overwhelming at more than 100 sites. This year we partnered with mangologic to develop a tool that not only allows for offline data collection, but real-time data validation, and real-time coaching to the staff person based on what they enter.
  • Prepare for the worst when working with existing water points. As we expanded to sites built by other organizations, 8% of water points required a much more significant capital investment in rehabilitation than expected. This variation occurred despite technical assessments conducted several months prior to the project. While the poor condition of water points is not a surprise in and of itself, it is a challenge as we look to saturate a given area with the self-help groups. We trained eight groups in our expansion areas, for example, that will require capital investment to even have a functional water point to begin with. Looking forward, the poor condition of water points designated as “functional” is itself an obstacle to scaling a management model that can maintain water points going forward.
  • The same trust and collective action problems with village water points also affect school operations and maintenance: the operations and maintenance of school infrastructure – from water to sanitation – remains a significant problem, and critical supplies, such as soap and menstrual pads, often go unbudgeted and unfunded. In discussion with parents and teachers, the same low-trust dynamics that occur with volunteer water point committees also occur with school administration. This year we are exploring whether self-help groups in a given school catchment area can join together in a school-level association to improve both the transparency and accountability of school budgeting as well as increase the funding available for these critical needs.

Looking forward, self-help groups can play an important role in financing sustainable water and sanitation. We are working to expand the evidence base on this approach, and plan to support organizations to adapt and implement the approach in other locations in Uganda and beyond. We encourage peer organizations and funders interested in rural water and sanitation sustainability to consider this approach in other contexts.