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Keeping the water flowing

Reliable access to enough safe and affordable water is crucial for our health and wellbeing

Written by Frank Greaves, Charles Macai and Rachel Stevens 2023

Water flows out of a metal handpump being used by a woman in Sierra Leone.

A village handpump in Sierra Leone. Photo: Ralph Hodgson/Tearfund

A smiling Brazilian woman collects water from a running tap fixed to a red brick wall.

From: Safe drinking water - Footsteps 120

How to value, look after and ensure the safety of drinking water

Reliable access to enough safe and affordable drinking water is crucial for the health and wellbeing of us all. 

However, about a quarter of the world’s population do not have this, according to the 2022 World Health Organization report, State of the world’s drinking water. Instead, they have to work hard to obtain even small amounts of water from sources that are often contaminated. 

‘Each year, contaminated drinking water is a major contributor to the death from diarrhoea of more than 1.5 million people.’

A study by WaterAid in rural Malawi, Ethiopia and Nepal showed that many people have to walk up to eight kilometres to collect water, often twice a day. As a result, children miss out on school and adults have less time to earn money and take part in other activities.

The physical act of carrying water on the head or back or by hand can result in pain and injury to the neck and spine. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are particularly at risk of injury and exhaustion, with potential long-term health implications for them and their babies. Walking long distances to collect water may also increase their risk of being exposed to sexual and gender-based violence.

Two smiling Ethiopian women walk with a group of donkeys that are carrying plastic jerry cans of water on their backs.

Orbisa Hando (left) and her friend arrive home after collecting water in Afar, Ethiopia. Photo: Chris Hoskins/Tearfund

Water management

Having water infrastructure available, such as community tap stands, is just one part of a water service. To keep the water flowing through wells, tap stands and handpumps, good management structures need to be in place to enable routine operation and maintenance tasks to happen, as well as more complex repairs.

Water management arrangements vary across the world. They may include:

  • household self-supply, where a family has a water supply on their own land (eg a well, borehole or rainwater tank) and are either responsible for maintaining and repairing it themselves, or they pay someone else to do it
  • no set collective management structure, where decisions about how to carry out and pay for repairs are only made by groups of users when something breaks down 
  • community management, where a community has a structure in place, usually run by volunteers, which may include collecting payments for water on a regular basis, according to use or when a repair is needed 
  • formal management, where people pay a set amount of money to an organisation (local, regional or national), which is responsible for providing a water service.

Although tasks such as changing worn parts in a handpump can be quite straightforward, they depend on people with the right skills and tools being available when needed. And the large number of non-functioning water points around the world shows that community-based management that relies on volunteers often does not work.

Water businesses

In response to this, a growing number of communities are starting to use business-based approaches to improve the safety and reliability of their water services. These approaches usually include:

  • the recruitment of trained and paid staff 
  • clear legal, policy and accountability agreements between the water service provider, the water authority (usually a government department) and the users.

Sometimes a community may decide to use contractors to maintain and repair their water supply. For example, the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar in Kenya has set up an insurance scheme where communities pay an annual amount and the diocese employs mechanics to carry out the work.

Boreholes with handpumps are charged an annual subscription of approximately US$50, and motorised pumps are charged an annual subscription of approximately US$100. If the cost of a repair exceeds US$300 then the community is required to contribute 30 per cent of the cost, and the diocese covers the rest. 

A male plumber from the Democratic Republic of Congo holds a blue metal plumbing tool.

Juma Idi is a plumber in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. He helps to maintain his local ASUREP water network. Photo: Jane Beesley/Tearfund

Income generation

As well as making a water service safer and more reliable, having a business-based management arrangement in place can provide opportunities for families to increase their income. This may be through direct employment in the business, or because a reliable water source close to home means they have more time to work, rather than walking long distances to collect water.

‘Having water infrastructure available, such as community tap stands, is just one part of a water service.’

In semi-urban locations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tearfund has piloted a water management model called ‘Associations des usagers des réseaux d’eau potable’ (ASUREP: Drinking water network user associations). An ASUREP is a legally recognised structure, which mixes private-sector management practices with community membership and governance. This includes a general assembly made up of community members and paid staff responsible for the daily operation and management of the water supply.

Since it was established in 2021, the ASUREP in Beni has collected over US$30,000 in user tariffs. This has been used to cover maintenance and salary costs, and also to provide low-interest loans to more than 20 community groups. These loans are used for many purposes including small-business development and to cover education and health expenses. The ASUREP uses income from the repayment of these loans to improve and expand the water service.


Additional resources

Written by

Written by  Frank Greaves, Charles Macai and Rachel Stevens

Frank Greaves, Charles Macai and Rachel Stevens are water, sanitation and hygiene specialists in Tearfund’s Thematic Support Team

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