For a while now the buzzword in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector has been ‘systems’.
Two of our team went to see a systems-led approach to getting water to communities a year or so ago and I must confess I didn’t get their enthusiasm.
Having just been to Rwanda to see ‘systems’ we’ve been funding, I am now a huge enthusiast too. I have seen the future.
To explain. For years we’ve been funding ‘holes in the ground’ – drilling holes and putting pumps on top of them, whether they be hand pumps or solar powered pumps. More recently we’ve been fixing hundreds of pumps in Malawi, which have fallen into disrepair over the decades they’ve been installed. And this will always be needed for intermediate intervention – so we will continue to fund these types of projects to provide water in many of the world’s poorest communities. But it is inspiring to see what the future of the WASH sector looks like, and what the new projects we’re funding can achieve.
As a ‘donor’ (not something I call ourselves very often) we are used to the ‘life span of a pump’ conversations, the ‘communities being trained in maintenance’ talks and the ‘families paying for water through small tariffs’ discussions (sometimes as little as a dollar a month).
But as a donor, I’m always looking for ways to improve the sustainability of solutions – like SMS messaging systems we have on solar powered pumps in Northern Kenya, which tell us when a pump needs repairing.
However, after 24 hours in Rwanda seeing what they are doing with ‘systems’ even in rural communities, the penny dropped.
We have long since given up on outside loos and hand-pumps in the garden (my grandparents lived through that era).
We have water utilities that maintain our water and sanitation infrastructure – built through government and commercial loans, grants or subsidies. And we pay for that service.
We wouldn’t settle for a hand-pump or an outside loo any more. So why should people in developing countries?
It might take time for governments to get there, but they will.
I’ve seen the future. And the future is blue.