For Rural Water Systems, Small and Simple is a "Pipe Dream"

Rural water systems face many unfair biases and assumptions. Photo: ADB
Rural water systems face many unfair biases and assumptions. Photo: ADB

By Neeta Pokhrel

The idea that rural water schemes are only sustainable if small, simple and locally managed is a bias that must be overcome to get more clean water to the people who need it.

It’s time to question the age-old and universal bias among water professionals, policymakers, and funding partners in all of Asia, and elsewhere in the developing world, that rural water schemes are only sustainable if small, simple and locally managed. This is a bias that has disproportionately thwarted the rural water sector to date and deprived rural people of the higher service standards that urban citizens can take for granted.

In July 2019, India launched Nal Se Jal, a central-government program to give piped water connections to every household in the country, allocating a budget of $50 billion over 5 years. This was a move to be warmly welcomed, since only 18% of rural people in India have a household water connection. For this to improve and India to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 target of universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030, such a concerted focus is needed.

Recently, when I led a team to prepare a large-scale rural water project in India, I came across several biases from multiple stakeholders. Here are the three most prevalent:

Bias 1: Rural schemes must be small and simple. While designing rural or urban water schemes we must ensure appropriate and least-cost solutions based on a lifecycle analysis. But this should not result in hundreds of small-scale schemes. In just one district of West Bengal, we found 211 drinking water schemes in 2017 that either the state or communities were managing. This doesn’t bode well either for efficient use of resources or operational sustainability.

Most policymakers still think household connections for rural areas are a luxury. But they are a must in ensuring health benefits and water conservation. One of the greatest public health threats in India is from naturally elevated levels of arsenic and fluoride in groundwater. India’s Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in May 2018 estimated around 27 million people in India were at risk from arsenic and fluoride. Drinking water with high concentrations of arsenic in the long term can lead to a range of health problems, including cancer, while chronic exposure to fluoride may cause dental or skeletal fluorosis and bone diseases.

Some 82% of rural communities in India receive water through public stand-posts. A survey commissioned by the Public Health Engineering Department in Baduria district of West Bengal in 2016 showed that such public stand-post-based schemes may result in people continuing to drink from contaminated on-premises sources.

The “small is better” approach results in rural schemes designed for block-level habitations rather than for a basin or a district. The consequences are suboptimal use of water resources and loss of economies of scale. Citizens may be better off with long-term plans that assist in guiding development and connecting existing and future systems into a grid-based supply.

  Three biases faced by rural water supply projects

Bias 2: Only community managed rural schemes are sustainable. Throughout South Asia, the sustainability of rural water services has remained a major challenge, mainly because of weak institutional arrangements, limited community participation, and inadequate financing of maintenance. India has launched various policy reforms and programs to decentralize service delivery, but most states are struggling to set the right institutional framework to manage services.

Decades back when water professionals helped rural communities, it was either through a dug well, handpump or tube well, or by tapping a local spring or river through simple gravity fed systems and stand-posts. They were small and easily managed by communities. We are somewhat stuck with that image of rural schemes. With SDG 6 and governments setting the bar higher, we need to internalize that piped water schemes, rural or urban, exhibit the same features and design principles. It is a specialized job to construct and maintain these services, not something that communities can simply be asked to do. Responsibilities should be given to those able to bear them, and if needed, split.

We are seeing this happening on the project I helped prepare in India. The West Bengal government issued an order to 66 village councils that involved splitting and giving responsibilities for bulk supply, technical backstopping and monitoring to the state bodies, and distribution network management to the local bodies. The project also ensures a minimum 33% women in service delivery. This innovative institutional model, I trust, will pave the way forward for the sector.

Bias 3: ‘Smart’ is a frill for rural schemes. Cost of technology-based smart systems are rapidly declining in India, making them more affordable. Government bodies, such as Indian Railways, are laying fiber cables along their tracks. Most villagers have smart phones. Smart features including simple flow and level sensors, and real time monitoring of water quality, are common features of urban water systems.

The same is needed, more so, in piped rural schemes that involve long distance transmission mains, spatially dispersed assets, and need for pollution monitoring. They reduce the operational burden and ensure health benefits. While designing such features for our project, we were often asked about its appropriateness, even when costs were less than 2% of the entire scheme and were clearly outweighed by benefits. It is not the costs but a “not needed” bias that stops professionals from exploring smart systems in the first place for rural schemes, thus depriving users from the efficiency gains they offer.

The National Institution for Transforming India, also called NITI Aayog, India’s top policy arm, estimated in 2018 that 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress. To help tackle the deepening water security crisis, achieve SDG 6 targets, and enhance climate resilience, policymakers and water professionals should focus on planning for comprehensive, long-term and basin-wide approaches. This means shedding some biases on the way. The health and safety of millions of people depend on it.