Water system sustainability and the need for change
Getting Value From Data
We’ve already made the case that data, by itself, is useless. What matters more is the capacity and commitment to using continually updated data to improve decision making. In this post, we zoom in on Water for Good’s maintenance services, and recent initiatives to improve the service utilizing data that’s been collected continually since 2011!
Read on, water nerds!
Data Collection and What’s Next
Water for Good has one of the largest and longest-running circuit rider water pump repair programs in the world. Operating since 2004, local technicians have continually operated for 14 years. During that time, we have serviced more than 1,500 community water pumps in the Central African Republic. Our technicians consistently achieve over 90% functionality at any given time across the entire network.
These local teams have completed tens of thousands of service visits. Since implementing electronic reporting in 2011, we now have just over 10,000 service visit records that include details on the functionality, repairs made, community information. The data is also GPS and photo-verified.
We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we still have work to do!
Now, we’re increasing our commitment to incorporate local technician’s insights and all the data they’ve collected from the field to drive service improvements.
Financial sustainability is a key challenge for the rural water sector. We’re aiming to provide a service that communities can afford and that they are willing to pay for. So, the goals of our program improvements are threefold:
1. Provide great services that improve the functionality of rural water points in CAR
2. Reduce the costs of service
3. Improve incentives for communities to pay for the service
How far are we from full cost-recovery?
In 2017, we collected $10,561 in community contributions, covering 5% of the total program costs. We can see from our data that there are opportunities to improve the service, reduce costs, and increase community payments for services.
So, what can be done to steadily increase the revenue from communities, and increase the financial sustainability of the program?
In the fall of 2017, we began a process of re-evaluation, testing, and putting in place new policies and ideas in an effort to move towards our goal of a truly sustainable model. We’re already seeing slight improvements, with the first half of 2018 bringing in $8,202 in community contributions. If this trend continues, it will result in a 50% increase in community contributions over last year.
Better Routes and Oversight
Using GPS trackers on vehicles and more extensive analysis of repair reports, we’ve begun a more intensive oversight program. This isn’t about being Big Brother. The fact is, that our local technicians in the field don’t have the advantage of being able to quickly analyze the thousands of reports they’ve turned in. So, we are making an effort this year to report back to them, giving them a better overall view of inefficiencies in the program and together designing routes in greater detail that reflect insights from data collected in the program.
We’ve already worked together to identify dozens of community pumps that had been regularly missed on routes and discovered ways to reduce fuel, food, and lodging expenses, all by designing more detailed routes.
From Monthly to Flat Rate
For the past 14 years, we’ve charged communities a monthly fee of 4,000 CFA (about $7), in essence, an insurance policy against pump failure. Water for Good technicians would visit a few times each year, and repair broken pumps, as well as perform preventative maintenance. Unfortunately, communities have grown frustrated with this model—when our technicians don’t show up on time (often for valid reasons such as collapsed bridges, insecurity due to civil conflict, impassable roads in rainy season) the community still is expected to pay the same monthly amount, even though they’re not receiving the service they need. Understandably, they refuse to pay for service they haven’t received and become disappointed with our program.
To resolve this, in 2018 we’ve moved to a flat 20,000 CFA (about $33) fee per service visit. Most communities receive two visits a year which is a slight decrease in annual cost for the average community.
Reducing Services for Non-Participating Communities
A second problem we’ve observed—some communities are not interested in paying at all. They’d rather have a broken hand pump and wait as long as it takes to get another NGO to provide repairs for free. We’ve now implemented a system for our pump technicians to complete only a monitoring visit after repeated non-payment (completing an electronic report on the functional status of the pump but skipping repairs or preventative maintenance). The technicians will continue to engage the community leaders, and encourage their participation in the program. However, this will reduce the amount of time and money spent on non-participating communities. If the communities decide to rejoin the Water for Good maintenance program, a process is in place whereby they can do so: a full-price repair to the well must be made to the pump, funded by the community, after which they resume the flat-rate per service visit system. We also have a process for technicians and/or communities to make the case that they really cannot afford their maintenance fees.
Our goal is NOT to be punitive. These changes give the communities visibility into the true cost of providing clean water and make our practices more fair for those communities that do pay.
Throughout 2018-2019 we are assessing the impact of this change in approach. We expect an initial drop in overall functionality across the network of wells we currently maintain and an increase in revenue collected.
We’ve put in our first order for hand pumps that include built-in water meters. These meters measure the volume of water pumped at each water point. This new data will allow us to experiment with yet another financial model—communities that opt-in will collect and pay a per-liter fee.
An average pump on the outskirts of a medium-sized town/city in CAR produces approximately 5,000 liters every day. These communities often already charge end-users 25 CFA (about $.04) for a 20-liter jug of water. This technology will make their fee collection at the pump more transparent and help the community hold the pump attendant accountable for the funds that are collected. For the pilot of this model, we are proposing that the community continue to collect 25 CFA per jug. Then the well committee will set aside 5 CFA per 20-liter jug for their maintenance fees, and keep the remaining 20 CFA for their own use. That will result in 1,250 CFA (about $2) per day paid toward maintenance, which is sufficient to cover all parts and labor for excellent, service. The beauty of this model is that as the use of the pump decreases or increases, the revenue collected and the cost of maintaining the pump fluctuate accordingly.
Water for Good launched a new service model last year to make our model more efficient in high-density population centers. We chose the city of Berberati (population just over 100,000 people) for our location, and have been servicing the 61 wells in this city under this new model since November 2017. With a technician based in the city and a 48hr response time, the communities don’t have to deal with long-down times. We also implemented a full cost repair invoicing system. The community is billed the full cost of the repair, payable in monthly installments over 6 months if necessary. Due to the higher average income, and the high level of economic activity in the city, this is a viable option that would be harder to pull off in a small remote village. We don’t yet have enough data to know how successful or scalable this model is, but it’s exciting to try a new model, and see what lessons we learn from it that will increase our efficiency across the entire program.
Focus on Repairs
Over much of the past 14 years, we’ve tried to combine water pump repair with community hygiene training. We sent a community trainer along with the pump technician and his assistant. Their role was to do the reporting and work with the community members to increase sanitation and hygiene practices in each community.
In reality, the community trainers would rarely have enough time in each community. The repair technician usually completes his work in less than 30 minutes, and only occasionally would a longer repair be necessary. The extra person on the team increased the food and housing expenses during the 3-4 week missions but didn’t really add much value.
For 2018, we removed the extra person, and now have the reporting done by the technician or his assistant. We also simplified the reporting, and no longer attempt to collect community sanitation and hygiene information. This saves time on the reporting, allowing the technician to move on quickly to the next well.