In an interview with Peter Sharry, he spoke about community ownership of water management infrastructure and associated cost-recovery options. This article explores the best practices guiding this approach in closer detail.
While full cost recovery is desirable to promote the sustainability of water management frameworks, realistically, water users in developing countries may only have the means to pay for a small portion of costs. If users cannot recover development costs, typical development practices will not work, and alternative methods must be used.
Cost recovery through inclusive community practices
In many international development settings, donors keep costs down by involving the community in labour and operation. Involvement also can ensure that water users have a stake in the ownership of the system, encouraging more responsible use throughout the life-cycle of the system.
The World Bank indicates that choosing the right type of water technology for a framework is one of the first steps in cost recovery, as investment depends on what, exactly, is being implemented. Operation and maintenance costs will also depend greatly on what technology is used.
“A community may be able to provide in-kind contribution such as labour towards the construction of a wastewater collection system. With a simple on-site wastewater system, the community may be able to do most of the construction. Knowledge of technology options is therefore essential for a community to be able to decide which option to choose. In the end, they will have to pay for both the investment and operating costs if the service is to be sustainable in the long term.”
The World Health Organization offers a similar outlook, saying, “One way in which costs can be reduced is to encourage greater community or consumer involvement in operating and maintaining the supply. This is an approach commonly used in less developed countries.”
Peter Sharry, Director at Axiom Water Technologies, has seen this method play out in the communities he has served.
“I really like the idea of having a community nominated water manager,” says Sharry. “It’s something that we’ve been teasing out with the couple of communities I’m working with…When we do this, someone needs to look after it and the community needs to pay that person.
“My experience is that community members value the opportunity to access a reliable water supply. This translates to a willingness to pay for the service according, to their ability, and is evident in attitudes to water supply and sustainability”
User payments and subsidies
Charging user payments, according to WHO, is important, even if the population cannot sustain the entirety of cost recovery.
“Where Government subsidises the supply of water to poorer sections of the community, it is important that some element of household payment, however nominal, is retained to encourage responsible use of water supplies and infrastructure.”
However, if user fees cannot fill the gap between water charges and full cost recovery, which can be a common issue in developing areas, it is still important to ensure continued and reliable access to water. This can be accomplished by reducing the cost of service, usually done through increasing subsidies.
When provided equitably in a context that is not affected by corruption, government and private subsidies can be seen as a long-term cost-saving mechanism, as safe water access provides better health outcomes and socioeconomic opportunities for developing areas.