by Nick Baldry

As I write today it is hot: I have to remind myself that it is a luxury to be able to potter through to the kitchen and turn a conveniently located tap to get a glass of water. It's a luxury I have because the local infrastructure is well funded enough to keep it in good repair. Should that infrastructure fail, it would be an inconvenience rather than a disaster with bottled water available in abundance. Others are far less fortunate. The villagers Wells Bring Hope serves in rural Niger don’t have the option of buying a few liters of water from the nearest store. Their journey for water is likely to be many miles on a highly unsafe route, and the end result is water that is often unclean to the point of being life-threatening.

In such a context the sustainability of the wells that Wells Bring Hope drills is a hot topic. Once we provide a clean water supply, it would be cruel beyond imagination for that supply to fail down the line. We are not the only ones thinking along these lines as this summer’s release of the GLAAS 2012 report has prompted much discussion on sustainability across the WASH sector. It is worth looking at what processes Wells Bring Hope has in place to ensure that our wells are truly sustainable as well examining best practices in the broader WASH sector.

For Wells Bring Hope, sustainability means that a hand-pump well is still fully functional, without ongoing external support, at the end of its advertised life. In simpler terms, this means that the well is still working properly at least 20 years after installation.

One of the key factors in maintaining the sustainability of a well is ensuring that it is financially sustainable, a factor that is all too often neglected.

{photo by Gil Garcetti}

Between the first Glass report in 2010 and the most recent edition, WASH funding has risen slightly; however, there are major issues in terms of financial sustainability in the sector. The vast majority of funds are channeled into new capital expenditure and increasing capacity building while only 31% goes into operation and maintenance costs. While increasing capacity is a vital part of increasing access to clean water and sanitation, such lopsided investment means that today’s new wells may very well be joining the legions of non-functioning facilities in a few years’ time. In a recent webinar hosted by Catarina Fonseca estimated that, at present, 40% of rural systems are non-functioning, that represents $744 million dollars’ worth of investment that is currently wasted as wells lie in disrepair, failing to provide their vital service to rural communities.

Wells Bring Hope has a track record far superior to the 40% failure rate quoted by Catalina Fonseca. Out of 174 wells drilled since 2008, 174 are fully operational at the time of writing. A large part of that is the result of the appropriate use of technology (an important topic, which will be expanded upon in a later blog), but another key component is the primary role that the local community takes in maintaining the well and ensuring its financial sustainability. Prior to drilling, a committee is established to run the well, and a small charge for service is levied on all users. The committee then uses this money for maintenance and any necessary repairs. Without this small, community-generated fund, repairing and maintaining the well would be impossible, and without this maintenance, the wells useful life would be dramatically reduced. In addition our partners at World Vision work with each village where we drill for at least 15 years. Part of that continued work includes monitoring and evaluating the well to ensure that it is in working order.

Drilling a well, holding a grand opening for a well, maybe even dedicating a well to a donor or someone of importance in the local community is the headline grabber, the glamour part of the job. That is a massively enjoyable part of what we do and that is why, in the broader WASH sector, the majority of funding goes to well drilling. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? Ensuring funding is in place long-term is not quite as thrilling. No one comes and pats you on the back for ensuring that a well has a long-term funding plan. That doesn’t change the fact that without making a well financially sustainable, the fanfare that went with your grand opening was merely a false dawn for the village where you drilled. The truth is that taking the time to make sure a new well will last is as important as drilling it in the first place.