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  • Harold Lockwood

Desk Study: Professionalising Rural Water

Aguaconsult led a desk study from December 2021–March 2022 as part of USAID’s REAL-Water Activity to identify the available evidence and knowledge gaps related to the professionalisation of rural water supply and to inform research plans.

The study is available here.

A person filling one of six green plastic containers with water. The containers are tied to the back of a bike.

The study concludes with a number of key findings:

• Rural landscapes are changing, and expectations for higher service levels are rising: people want better, more reliable, services and are increasingly prepared to pay for them particularly for piped on premise supplies.


• A progressive, but slow, transition to improving rural services. Coverage is increasing, the quality of services is rising (expressed in terms of safely managed, piped to home services) and countries are aiming to achieve higher standards articulated in explicit policy goals. However, on aggregate, rural populations still trail their urban counterparts.


• There is strong correlation between economic growth and increased rural water supply coverage. However, there are exceptions (or “positive deviants”) of countries which have accelerated rural water sector coverage faster than their economic growth over the last 20 years: this is the case of Mali, Uganda, Senegal,


• There is a widespread recognition for the need to shift approaches to achieve SDG 6.1. Evidence of limited improvements in access, functionality rates, service levels and systemic weaknesses over the past decades are widespread; the direction of travel has reached a consensus in the rural water sector to shift from a focus on infrastructure provision to a broader consideration of systemic capacities to deliver reliable, safe, and permanent services.


• It is also now widely understood that to achieve universal, sustainable access, more holistic approaches must be adopted which recognize the delivery of rural water as a system. Ensuring that all key components of the water system are established and functioning, and that sufficient and adequate financing is in place are core requirements.


• Community based management (CBM) remains the predominant model in most low- and middle-income countries, despite known limitations which have been documented for many years and are well-articulated in the literature. Significant efforts to improve the performance of CBM and introduce alternative management arrangements are underway in many countries. These processes are loosely referred to as “professionalization”, but the concept is not well defined in the literature and relates to different processes at different levels:


• Strengthening CBM: through the provision of improved management capacity, training, and long-term, regularized support from external entities, including through the establishment of mechanisms for specialist maintenance providers, and/or the creation

of more horizontal, groupings or associations of CBM service providers.


• Adopting alternative models: through the involvement of public utilities, or private operators with more skilled and remunerated management staff, to either directly operate water supply facilities or to provide outsourced maintenance functions.


• Rethinking the scale of service provision through “consolidation” or “aggregation” of water supply schemes across defined service areas to achieve greater financial viability and spread risk, thereby making the O&M more viable at scale and to attract more

professional operators.


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