Community Banking for Sustainable Water at the Last Mile

The Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector has succeeded in significantly expanding access to clean water in rural communities. Yet the sector’s community-led approaches to sustain rural water have too often failed, with an estimated one in three hand pumps in rural Africa non-functional at any given moment. The sector has acknowledged the limitations of the community-based management model, and responded with a number of new pilots and initiatives.

By Chris Prottas

In 2016, in response to inadequate sustainability results, The Water Trust piloted several new approaches to build the capacity of communities to maintain their water points. Early results support our belief that independently-managed rural water points can be sustainable, provided the community receives regular coaching visits and forms a community savings group to manage the well’s finances.

Our experience

In our eight years of operations in rural Uganda, our village programs have improved water availability and quality, significantly reducing self-reported diarrhea and time spent traveling to distant water sources. Our annual monitoring of all past projects since 2008 demonstrates high functionality (5% non-functional or decommissioned) and water quality (8% high e.coli contamination), but only with significant ongoing support from The Water Trust. Too often we failed to equip communities to operate and maintain their wells independently. The situation is illustrated by data from surveys taken one year after we trained local Water and Sanitation Committees (WSCs) to maintain the water points:

  • Only 59% of WSCs were functional.
  • 27% of communities had no savings for repairs.
  • Of WSCs with savings, the average amount accumulated was just $22 – not nearly enough to pay for maintenance and likely repairs.

In response to these findings, last summer we conducted focus group discussions with community members, local officials, and mechanics to explore the challenges to sustainable water point management. We identified the following constraints:

  • Water, sanitation, and hygiene represents a narrow subset of the challenges and concerns confronting households. The narrow mandate of the WSC institution limits its perceived importance and community interest.
  • The informal WSC structure and financial management practices fail to engender adequate trust in community members to collect, save and spend fees.
  • Fee collection creates a significant burden for volunteer WSC members, who have to regularly travel to 30 to 50 households in a large area to attempt to collect fees.
  • The WSC institution is inherently weak due to its lack of a material incentive to meet and fulfill its obligations, and its small member size (typically 4-6).



Community-based management: Beyond Water and Sanitation Committees 

In 2016, we partnered with 20 villages to form savings and credit cooperatives, consisting of 25-30 community members that all share the same water source. In addition to serving as a resource for personal savings and loans, the legally-registered organization takes responsibility for the collection of maintenance fees and payment for maintenance and repairs. With constitutions and rules based on the well-established Village Savings and Loan Association methodology, members meet weekly to contribute maintenances fees, save, and take out loans. Over a period of 18 months, staff make regular coaching visits to build the group capacity for self-management and promote hygiene and sanitation.

The Self-Help-Group (SHG) approach addresses several weaknesses identified in traditional volunteer-led approaches to water site maintenance and sanitation and hygiene promotion:

  • Engages community priorities: integrates water, sanitation, and hygiene work into a legally-registered institution with a broader mandate that speaks to community priorities (e.g., access to finance for business investment, children’s education, and medical care.)
  • Builds a trustworthy local institution: formal savings group structure and transparent financial management practices engender trust in community members to collect, save and spend fees.
  • Reduces the burden of fee collection: community members make payments as part of the weekly savings process.
  • Builds a robust local institution: The savings group institution is inherently strong as members have a material incentive to meet and the large size (25-30 members) allows for the institution to endure as individuals come and go. Follow-up studies show that more than 94% of savings groups founded with the VSLA methodology survive more than five years.

After nine months, the early results are encouraging. While the average community previously had only $6 on hand for maintenance and repairs, now 95% of groups have adequate savings (>$70) designated for maintenance and repairs. More broadly, the average group has $720 in total savings, with group members borrowing as needed to invest in their livelihoods and navigate the many cashflow challenges faced by poor, rural farmers.


Key takeaways for the WASH sector

  • The SHG approach can be replicated by NGOs and governments as an alternative to the traditional community-based management (CBM) model for rural water points, as well as the traditional VSLA program.
  • In Uganda, district governments are unable to financially support villages for ongoing water point maintenance and repairs. While more should be done to strengthen district-level capacity to invest in WASH, the bottom-up SHG approach aligns with both their interests and constraints. Further, local governments maintain staff that could implement the SHG approach, provided they were appropriately trained and managed.
  • Before scaling this approach, it is critical to rigorously evaluate the impact of the program on both intermediate outcomes (e.g., water point reliability) and health outcomes. In 2018, we hope to conduct a randomized controlled trial of the program.
  • We encourage and support peer organizations to adapt and test this approach in other environments in order to understand both the depth of its impact and the breadth of its suitability.

While this article has focused on the program’s impact on water point sustainability, stay tuned for a second article next week, which will explore how SHGs and regular coaching visits can spur improved hygiene and sanitation.

Chris Prottas is the Executive Director of The Water Trust. Check out Chris and The Water Trust on Twitter:@ChrisProttas @TheWaterTrust