About 10 years ago, I was sitting in a plastic chair, sweating under the shade of the water office roof, during a water board meeting in the rural community of Santa Clara, El Salvador. Our Engineers Without Borders team had installed a new water system about a year prior and we returned every year to provide “post construction support”, helping train and guide in the administration, operation, and maintenance of the system.
The water board was drafting new regulations and we had heard that some people in the community weren’t so sure about them. As I listened (through our translator) as they read the new regulations, I quickly got uncomfortable and even offended by what I was hearing. These new members of this supposedly volunteer board were proposing that they should get paid for every meeting they attended.
Leaders wanting to take a portion of community funds…this fit perfectly into the definition of corruption we all had in our minds, especially from what we had been told about political leaders in the country. Frustrated, we voiced our opinion that the water board was a volunteer committee and should not receive payment and that all the funds received should go to the community fund to ensure a sustainable water system.
Fast forward 10 years.
I had been a Peace Corps WASH volunteer for about 2 years, and I was sitting in a meeting in the municipal auditorium in Peru, speaking with stakeholders from the province, the region, and the national government about rural water systems. Based on my experience working with rural water committees, I was advocating for the state to contribute a type of subsidy to help pay rural water system operators.
I present a plan to hire operators from the local communities to each be in charge of three nearby water systems, with the water committees paying a portion of the operator salary and the state paying the rest. I explain that rural water boards simply can’t raise enough funds to pay an operator enough so that he or she is able to prioritize maintaining the water system over working on his/her farm or other work that puts food on the table. My proposed plan would ensure a trained operator was maintaining the systems, and it would bring jobs with stable salaries to trained and capable people in the rural communities.
A certain member of a government water authority (whose salary comes from the national government) responded that the government should not give any more financial help to the rural water systems because the rural populations have already received a lot from the state (in many cases the government builds the rural water systems), and he goes on to say that it is a bad habit that the people get used to receiving “handouts” from the government. (He even added that the some of these rural populations even have smart phones so they should be able to pay the required water fee.*)
He was voicing a common sentiment in Peru that comes from a distaste for government help and even social programs because so many political parties give nominal gifts to populous areas to win votes.
His statement also aligns with the international development strategy and philosophy that has been used for decades to construct rural water systems – the international aid community builds water systems and gifts them to the community, leaving the responsibility to maintain the system in the hands of the community.
Before entering Peace Corps, I might have agreed with this point of view, but having lived the reality of working with small, rural farming communities, my perspective has changed. And I’m not the only one. The academic literature shows that nearly 50% of constructed water systems stop working before their useful life and are not repaired, and a growing consensus points to the flaws in relying on “community based management” where the community is “gifted” a water system and then bears the full burden of maintenance and operation.
The water boards I work with in Peru are volunteers, a perfect example of this community-based management strategy. In their free time, these moms and dads with full time jobs are expected to manage a technical business – running a water system. In their free time, they have to attend meetings to learn how to run the water system and then also do all the tasks associated with managing that system.
Most of these water systems serve less than 100 households, so it is rare to find a community that has 5 people with enough free time, enough passion, and enough knowledge to be able to do this job well. I have yet to see it. (The best ones I have seen are rare cases, where a community has two really strong and passionate leaders whose kids are already grown, and they are able to do a decent job of managing the water system, with a lot of support from the local government.)
In addition to the water board that manages the legal and financial aspects of the water system, a community needs an operator to maintain the system. In a city of thousands of users, each user can pay $1 per month and the community can raise $1,000 each month (still not enough to maintain a system well), and in rural areas with only 10 or 30 users, each person would have to pay an exorbitant water use fee to raise enough funds just to pay a full time operator. Additionally, these are populations of mostly farmers, with a very low income in the first place.
So, as I sat in this meeting in Peru, having worked closely with farmers and rural populations trying to manage their own water systems, I recognized how easy it was for a government employee who worked in an office and received a fixed salary to not understand the reality of the people living in rural areas. And it made me remember that day in El Salvador, talking to the water board.
I am now embarrassed to remember that we chastised the water board for wanting to pay themselves for the time they put into managing their community water system. “What ignorant arrogance,” I think. While it is truly a slippery slope for a water board to pay its members because it does allow for corruption, it is also necessary for people to receive incentives and to be compensated for the time they give to a job as important as ensuring that the community has safe drinking water.
Would you want to live somewhere where the people managing your water supply were volunteers or were not paid well and had another full time job on the side?
While I am proud of the work we have done in improving the capacity of the volunteer water committees here, and they are doing excellent work, they are less than 10% of all the rural water systems in the district, (and they don’t all have potable water 100% of the time because they don’t have full time operators).
Based on my experiences, I would want my water system to be managed by a professional business with quality government oversight, and I would be willing to pay a fraction of a dollar more in my taxes or in my water fees to ensure that people living in rural areas – the farmers providing the food that feeds us – have potable water to drink.
*Regarding the comment about rural populations having smart phones, there are a couple of important things to point out here, the first one being that many of the rural populations where I work live in areas where there isn’t even cell phone service. One of the communities where I work has cell phone service, but when I need to talk to the operator, I can’t call him directly because he doesn’t have a cell phone – I have to call the wife of the treasurer to be able to get a message to the water board. Not only does not every person have a phone, not even every household has a phone (and the person who does have the phone has a simple phone, not a smart phone). And while some poor people here do have smart phones it’s because it is actually cheaper to have a smart phone to be able to communicate by whatsapp (which is practically free to use here), whereas having a plan with calling and texting usually costs more.
**That El Salvador project I mentioned is doing a decent job with community-based management, but it is one of few (and it receives a government subsidy that helps with the financial situation.)