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Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report

5.4 Sustaining the solutions

This section considers how solutions can be sustained in institutional, financial and natural resource terms. Sustainable development has been usefully defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (21). While many aspects of sustainability have been explored by a number of authors, there are two principal ones of concern to hygiene, sanitation and water supply:

  • Functional sustainability. Can the institutions and finances carry on long after the initial excitement of system inauguration? Or will the system collapse into disuse because essential funds or skills for operation and maintenance cannot be found?
  • Environmental sustainability. Will system operation damage the environment (and thereby health and prosperity) for future generations? Will other environmental changes damage the water resource to the point where future services become difficult or impossible to maintain?
A series of meetings across Africa led to the conclusion that important factors determining the sustainability of water supply and sanitation projects included:
  • Community participation in all stages of project planning, design, implementation, management and operation, with consideration of gender issues.
  • Political commitment.
  • Intersectoral coordination, collaboration and cooperation.
  • Adequate institutional frameworks.
  • Human resources development in all its forms and at all levels.
  • Self-improvement of communities.
  • Better hygiene and sanitation.
  • Improved information management.
  • Improved environmental sanitation in communities.
  • Use of appropriate technologies.
  • Involvement of the private sector through sound regulatory and controlling mechanisms.

Source: (22)

These questions are explored in greater detail below, starting with issues of functional sustainability. Some of the factors with implications for the sustainability of water supply and sanitation systems are examined in Box 5.5.

One of the hardest lessons for the water supply and sanitation sector is that making the initial capital investment is often the easiest part of the job. It is often relatively easy to find the resources (money, labour, materials and organization) for one big push to build something. It is, however, much more difficult to maintain a truly sustainable system. A number of principles illustrate this point (see Box 5.6). No service is sustainable in the long run if its costs cannot be recovered; to the extent that recurrent costs are subsidized directly by the state, the system's users are hostage to political whim. On the other hand, this does not mean that all users must necessarily pay the same share of the cost, or even that the cost of each user's services must be recovered from that individual user. In practice, some degree of cross-subsidy is inevitable due to the complexity of calculating the costs of individual household service. More importantly, some degree of cross-subsidy from wealthier to poorer users is desirable to ensure access for all, and thus minimize disease and maximize public health benefits.

At the beginning of the 1990s, following an extensive consultation process, the Operation and Maintenance Working Group established crucial principles that were aimed at improving the sustainability of water supply and sanitation services. They are:
  • The provision of safe water is a service and requires a service-orientated attitude on the part of the agencies involved. Water should be managed as a commodity: its use should be financially sound, but subject to legal and regulatory controls to ensure its conservation, protection and well-balanced use.
  • Water and sanitation services should normally be set at a level that users are willing to finance, operate and maintain.
  • Water supply and sanitation systems should be managed and operated in accordance with the principles of good business practice. The form of management will vary according to the local situation. The agency should adopt an open policy and be fully accountable to its customers.

The Working Group also considered that govern-ments should have a legitimate concern to satisfy the basic needs of disadvantaged segments of their population, and may require agencies to provide services through special financial arrangements, possibly on a temporary basis, to  promote public health and economic development.

Source: (23)

Institutional sustainability and the mobilization of individual resources for water supply and sanitation depend upon the existence of a reliable and fair legal framework. The enormous energy that individuals and families can mobilize for water supply and sanitation depends greatly upon the security of their future. No family will invest in sanitation if they will not benefit from it; for example, if they fear eviction. Similarly, the problem of groundwater depletion in south Asia and other parts of the world has much to do with poorly defined property rights between drinking-water consumers and those who irrigate agricultural fields. These examples are symptoms of the overall complexity of many aspects of water-related law and regulation.

There has been increasing recognition of the need to treat water as vulnerable and scarce resource, especially since the Dublin conference (24). Domestic water supply plays a small role in the water balance of most countries, and water consumption for irrigation often exceeds domestic consumption by a factor of ten or twenty. Uncontrolled irrigation, on the other hand, can play a major role in eroding the sustainability of domestic water supply. This is apparent in parts of south Asia, where the water table in some areas has dropped dramatically because of overpumping for heavily subsidized irrigation. As the water table drops, domestic water wells and boreholes dry up and water supplies fall into disuse. In other areas, exploitation of relatively good quality groundwater for irrigation may occur alongside expensive treatment of contaminated surface water for domestic supply. Resolution of this type of conflict has lead to the recognition that integrated management approaches are important, particularly integrated water resource management.

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