Editorial LinksRivers and RegionsIssuesDisactersPolicy

May / June 2003

Zambian Water Pictures
Water Resource Info Database

OPINION - Confusing Cause and Effect


Founder : Len Abrams
Water Policy International

    Return to the Documents Page     
    Return to the Development Page    
    Return to the South African Water Scene Page    


The following documents were drafted by Len Abrams as part of an ongoing attempt to solve the problem of lack of sustainability of water supply services in poor communities.  Whilst the documents were written in a South African context as part of an on-going policy development process, they are broadly applicable to developing contexts.

There are four documents:-


Understanding Sustainability of local water services (below)
Sustainability management guidelines (pdf file)
Sustainability management checklist (pdf file)
Poverty and water supply and sanitation services (pdf file)


Understanding Sustainability

of local water services



A global problem
Defining sustainability

In search of the "silver bullet"

The clockwork myth

No community is an island

Service provision - a human activity

The difference between a service and a project

Thresholds for sustainable services

Critical support

Relationship between the village and the nation

The two essential "phases" of sustainability


A global problem

Sustainability is a problem which faces all development, in industrialised countries as well as in the developing world. In recent years the debate has taken on new urgency through the adoption of Agenda 21 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. In the global debate sustainability is considered primarily in terms of continuing to improve human well-being, whilst not undermining the natural resource base on which future generations will have to depend.

The term "sustainability" in the context of this document, however, is limited in its meaning. It is used not to refer to the tension between development and the natural environment, but rather to refer to the narrow context of service delivery in the fields of water supply and sanitation in a developing country. Maintenance and protection of the natural resource base remains a prerequisite for durable services.

The provision of adequate water supply and sanitation services to the people of the developing world has been an ongoing quest which has occupied the minds of development experts and governments for the past 40 years. Although a great deal has been done, enormous amounts of money have been spent, and Drinking Water Decades have been proclaimed, coverage levels remain inadequate. In recent years a new trend has been emerging - throughout the developing world increasing amounts of money are now being spent on the rehabilitation of water services which have previously been installed but which have fallen into disrepair.

The figures quoted for coverage by most countries do not usually include the dereliction rate. Accurate figures for dereliction rates are not available. Rehabilitation is an embarrassment to most governments as it implies that, not only did they require assistance to implement the original project, but they are not capable of keeping services going and hence the original investment has been wasted.

As these very difficult realities come to light it becomes increasingly clear that sustainability is an issue to be addressed at the very beginning of development programmes and that if sustainability is not assured there is little point in spending the money except for very short-term welfare purposes.

The following comments develop a framework for understanding sustainability. It is based on the hard realities of success and failure, on both local and international experience, and on the urgent necessity to find answers to questions which effect the everyday lives of millions of people in Southern Africa.

Defining sustainability.

At one level sustainability is very simple. It is whether or not something continues to work over time. For a water service, this would mean that water continues to be available for the period for which it was designed in the same quantity and at the same quality as it was designed. In other words, if a person can turn the tap in 15 or 20 years time and the water comes out at the same rate and quality as the day the scheme was commissioned, then it is a sustainable supply (provided, of course, that at some time the scheme had not become derelict and had to be completely rehabilitated).

If the water flows then all of the many elements which are required for sustainability must have been in place. There must have been money for recurring expenses and for the occasional repair, there must have been acceptance from the consumers of the service, the source supplying the service must have been adequate, the design must have been properly done and there must have been sound construction. These elements include the following factors:-

In search of the "silver bullet".

Over the past few decades many things have been learned about development. The learning has generally taken place in phases when different factors were "discovered" and championed. In the seventies the issue was appropriate technology. Arising out of the scientific advances of the first half of the century, technology was regarded as being the basis of endless advancement and the solution to development. There was something of a reaction to technology as the panacea, particularly as it was often applied inappropriately. This led to the appropriate technology, 'small is beautiful' philosophy.

Then, in the 1980s, it became obvious, particularly with the passing of the colonial era and the growing identity of developing countries (the South), that 'grass-root' communities should be empowered and made responsible for the management of their own affairs, and so community management became very important. In the nineties capacity building has been identified as a critical factor. There are other issues which are coming to the fore at present such as proper financing, political will and the importance of behavioural change.

There is a tendency for each one of these issues to be seen by their proponents as the answer or the missing key - the "silver bullet" of development.

The clockwork myth.

Experience has shown that each one of the issues above are vitally important and necessary for sustainable development, but none of them is sufficient in itself. Through the years a myth has emerged that, if only the right combination of factors could be put together at community level, sustainability could be achieved and a service such as a water supply could be set up and would continue to function without outside involvement. If all the parts were assembled correctly - technical, social, administration etc., the project could be wound up like a clock and would continue to work, by itself, for the next twenty years.

This is a myth and it develops false expectations. It can also be used as an excuse. The implementing agent could say (and this has been said many times in different forms) that all the components were put into place - if the scheme does not work it is the community's fault, not theirs. Equally, the community may say that the scheme is not working, obviously something must have been done wrong at the start. This is particularly likely in the light of Southern Africa’s past where there has been a long list of factors mitigating against sustainable development such as no local governments and social and political fragmentation.

No community is an island.

The problem with the clockwork myth is that it assumes that the "community" is an island - that it functions on its own, isolated from the rest of society. This is clearly not the case in Africa or anywhere else. There are a host of interconnections between rural communities and the broader society, through such social mechanisms as migrant labour, the influence of urban drift, education and health systems, modern communication, and the mass media such as radio and television. These create both linkages and expectations. There is a constant movement and mutual influence between different parts of the whole society. This social flux is an essential part of development and a key element of sustainability as it provides the basis for support to communities.

Service provision - a human activity.

The clockwork myth also falsely assumes that a service or project can have a pre-determined 'life' which can be set up through deterministic processes and expected to continue to function on its own. Services and their provision certainly have an important physical and technical element but their provision, administration and maintenance depend on complex processes of human organisation. Development and sustainability are human processes - not technical or engineering processes. To understand this is to discover half the solution to the problem of sustainability.

A helpful although somewhat cynical view of development is that it is the art of finding the greatest confluence of self-interest. This can, however, be very helpful when attempting to answer the difficult questions surrounding sustainability. Questions of affordability, for example, can be better understood from the perspective of a mother of 5 in a remote rural village with an absentee husband providing irregular and inadequate remittances - is it in her interests to commit herself to an expense which represents a significant proportion of her below-the-poverty-line income to get water from a tap when she could continue the back-breaking task of fetching free water? If her interests coincide with those of her neighbours, there may be grounds for a successful project.

Identification of such realities as self-interest assists in the important process of gaining a more realistic and honest perspective on development and sustainability. The tendencies to romanticise development are brought to a rude awakening with the hard realities of dereliction and failure. It may not be easy or even expedient to say to the poor that they have to pay for their services but not to tell them is to ensure that their expectations will be dashed. We can be assured that each person will weigh the merits and costs and determine their own interests in the matter. Ensuring that people can make these choices from an informed perspective, and that their decisions are communicated at the beginning of a project, could have saved the wastage of many millions of dollars on projects which were not sustainable because they were not, in the opinion of the 'beneficiaries', in their best interests.

The difference between a service and a project

One of the recurring reasons why sustainability is often a problem is that it is not necessarily an objective! This happens when the issue is approached from the perspective of constructing a water supply or a sanitation facility rather than providing a service. There is a vast difference between the two approaches - one is an event whilst the other is an ongoing process. One provides a once-off product (pipes in the ground) which is essentially technical in nature and requires little human interaction, whilst the other is a complex process requiring a great deal of interaction between customers/consumers, providers, local authority etc.. One is an end in itself after which the engineer can say "I've done my bit" whilst the other is a means to an end - a perpetuated benefit to the community. The project is in fact just a phase in the process of service provision.

When water supply and sanitation is seen as a series of projects where the construction is the element which enjoys most of the attention, rather than the provision of a service, then it is hardly surprising that the projects are unsustainable. A service includes the initial construction phase but is primarily an ongoing business of supplying (selling) water to consumers (customers) over a long period of time.

Thresholds for sustainable services

To establish and run a service a number of activities are required such as the collection of revenue, administration, technical operation, maintenance and governance. Skills are required to undertake these activities effectively, in order to keep the service running. If there are insufficient skills in any particular area it can have disastrous effects on the entire service. For example if the administration (bookkeeping, accurate billing, payment of wages etc.) is not adequate, the technical staff may not be paid resulting in the system not being maintained and customer dissatisfaction, payment resistance and finally the collapse of the service.

The minimum levels of skills which are required to keep a service functional, could be regarded as a series of thresholds which, if breached, could result in the failure of the service. Thresholds do not only exist in terms of skills but also in areas such as public awareness and opinion, the wealth of the community and their ongoing ability to pay for the services, social conflict and other areas.

Critical support

Even if the various thresholds are established initially and exist at the commencement of the service, contrary to the clockwork myth, they will not last. Pumps will inevitably break down; trained, capable people move on; conflicts arise. A fundamental element of sustainability is the support which a community or local government can expect from outside of itself. The support infrastructure, and the capacity of that structure to perform its function of support, is critical to sustainability. A village level scheme will require support from the District, and, in similar fashion, the District will require support from the provincial structure etc. etc.

Thus, in order to ensure sustainable services at village level, effort and attention needs to be put into the full range of support institutions. This is another reason why the project approach seldom results in sustainable development. If the support structure is not built, with its own sustainability thresholds, the separate projects will not be able to regenerate themselves and will fall into dereliction.

It is important that the support is derived from the appropriate source. It has been proven throughout the developing and developed world that it is not possible for a central government to support the local level directly. The lines of communication and accountability are too long.

Relationship between the village and the nation

Given that sustainability involves factors that go beyond individual communities, and given that communities are not islands in the broader society, it is reasonable to expect that there is a relationship between the viability of village level functions and the health of the broader society. If the nation can sustain, for example, a sound education system, then this will affect the skills available to run local services. If the country has high employment rates at reasonable wage scales then there will generally be improved affordability for village level services. In fact it is unreasonable to expect that village level services will be sustainable in a country with a weak economy, corruption, conflict or other problems.

South Africa presents an interesting example. "Sustainable" services have been provided for many years in the "first world" sector of the country - in the larger cities and in the rural towns. These are places with viable local economies which are integrated into the national economy which has generally been healthy and growing, albeit that their wealth was created at the expense of the majority, through their exploitation. However, in the "third world" sector which, because of 'separate development' and other policies of the past, was constrained from developing, the situation is very different. There is large scale poverty, not only in monetary terms but also in terms of education, health and local services. It has proven to be very difficult to establish sustainable services, even of the most basic standards, in the midst of this poverty. Sustainability at local level in South Africa therefore depends, to a degree, on macro policy issues related to the integration of South Africa's economy, economic growth and the success of national policies in areas such as education and health care.

The two essential "phases" of sustainability

There are two important phases in the provision of services which are critical to sustainability. These are the initiation phase and the ongoing phase.

The initiation phase is the establishment of the service, from the recognition that a service is needed, through the articulation of a demand, the planning of the service, the design and construction of the physical infrastructure, the establishment of the institutional framework, and the initial commissioning.

The ongoing phase is the rest of the service's life. It includes operating the services to the satisfaction of the consumers, collecting revenue, maintenance of the infrastructure, administration, and all of the other day-to-day activities. It is a much more difficult phase to succeed in than the initiation phase.

Because service provision is essentially a process of human organisation and the use of technology to the benefit of society it must be expected that things will go wrong during the ongoing phase. The key is to ensure that the conditions exist to re-establish the required thresholds and to regenerate the service without it falling into dereliction and needing to be completely rehabilitated. The preferred terminology for the ongoing phase is the "Continuation" phase.

In terms of sustainability, there are activities which can be done or which can be omitted in both the Initiation and the Continuation phases which will either promote sustainability or mitigate against it. A great deal of effort has been invested in getting the Initiation phase of service provision right - demand driven development, capacity building, community awareness, project initiation, the development of Key Performance Indicators etc. By comparison very little thought has been given to the Continuation phase.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to extrapolate whether or not the activities undertaken during the Initiation phase will result in long term sustainability. Certainly there are a number of incorrect things which can be done or correct things which can be omitted which will mean that the service has no chance of succeeding from the beginning, but to attempt to extrapolate into the future is to assume too deterministic an approach. Perhaps it is an indication that the clockwork myth is still adhered to. If proper attention were given to the Continuation phase it would not be necessary to try to build into the Initiation phase all the requirements for the service to continue to function for the rest of its design life without any support.

The key to sustainability in the Continuation phase is the support system which should be in existence through the institutional arrangement of local government, district councils, provincial government and the national government. It is clear therefore that if "projects" are to survive and real services are to be delivered, equal if not more attention, investment and expertise needs to be targeted at ensuring that the institutional support systems are established and have the capacity to perform their functions. The clockwork myth applies to each institutional layer - it is not reasonable to assume that a District Council, for example, can be set up and will continue to function over the years without support.


The above comments provide a conceptual framework for understanding sustainability. The primary stated objective of most governments in the field of water supply and sanitation is sustainable service delivery at local level. The challenge is to identify the factors which will promote sustainability in both the Initiation and the Continuation phases of service provision.

Because development and service provision are primarily human processes, however, the debate about sustainability and best practice will continue.


Water Web Management Ltd
1 Dome Hill, Caterham
Surrey CR3 6EE, UK



© 2000/1 Water Policy International Ltd -
Materials may be used with consent and acknowledgement.

| Home | Features | Water Education | Development | News | Documents | Rivers & Regions| Water Issues | Disasters | Water Policy | Editorial | Links |