Water system sustainability and the need for change.

Professionalization: A social process by which any trade or occupation transforms itself into a true “profession of the highest integrity and competence.”

Professional hand pump technician, Jean-Baptiste Sakassi, pulls Vergnet pump out of the borehole with help from community members in the Central African Republic, May 2018. Jean-Baptiste has over 10 years of experiences and has completed thousands of pump repairs.

Right now, professional technicians keep water flowing from more than 1,000 hand pumps across the Central African Republic.  Since 2004, Water for Good has been building a network that provides qualified and trained pump technicians and a distribution network of spare parts. This service reaches community water projects in some of the most rural, remote communities. In 2011, we took steps to formalize and systemize this service, integrating electronic reporting, and we are using the data we have collected to make this service more efficient and responsive.

Watch this video to see what it looks like for local teams to provide professional services to a “Dozen Wells in A Day.”

Why is this needed?

For the past 20+ years, people with good intentions have installed water projects in rural Sub Saharan Africa. This is great, because people need water. The downfall is that the pumps eventually break. In order to prepare for that eventuality, people with good intentions have often trained someone local in the community to repair the broken pump. This makes sense. But what happens when the local technician attempts to repair the pump but has forgotten what to do, has lost their tools, or needs more parts?

The reality is, in many rural contexts, the surrounding enabling environment is not sufficient for communities to maintain their water point, despite the training. For example, spare parts may not be available in any local markets. Local government may not monitor or provide support. As a result, the ongoing functionality rates of rural hand pumps (capital investments) are often, quite frankly, abysmal, ranging from 15% – 50% of projects failing. This rate of failure has multiple causes but includes the local communities’ inability to access a simple part and/or qualified repair technicians.

For the past 10 to 15 years, there has been an increased recognition that something needs to change.

The cycle of “Find funding > Implement a project > Allow the project to fail > Find Funding > Rehabilitate the project > Allow the project to fail” is stale.  

Instead, there has to a be a consistent asset management plan in place. All mechanical parts (including hand pumps) will eventually fail, and a systems-based approach is necessary to support local communities and their water infrastructure (most often hand pumps) when that happens.

So, what’s the solution?

Continuous improvement: “Evaluating processes regularly using proven methods and tools to ensure that expected outcomes are achieved in the most efficient way possible.”

Water for Good, operating in the unique and challenging context of the Central African Republic, has found that providing preventative maintenance and repair on a circuit, with two visits a year, is efficient, cost-effective, and drastically improves functionality of rural water points.

Below, we compare our approach to the common alternative in this country, known as “artisan repair,” where local people are trained to repair the pumps but not integrated into ongoing monitoring and support. We are acutely aware there are still some deficiencies in our own model, circuit rider services, so we’ve tried to summarize the tradeoffs below!

A Tale of Two Approaches to Rural Water Services: 

Artisan Repair Services

The major advantage of this approach is responsiveness. Someone local to the community is there when the problem occurs.

However, the underlying issues in practice have been:

  • Lack of supply chains for parts,
  • Lack of support, and
  • Lack of monitoring for success.

There is rarely ongoing training or observation of how well these local technicians perform. In some of the most rural contexts, it is next to impossible to get additional spare parts. In general, there is a lack of qualified labor and part distribution.

Circuit Rider Services

The major advantage is the distribution network of technical expertise and spare parts. These mobile teams provide preventative maintenance and repair services on all the water points during 3 week long “circuits,” or predetermined routes. When the teams return to base camp, they replenish stocks, repair vehicles, upload reports, and prepare to head back out on another circuit. The reports they provide allow for assessment, monitoring, and improvement. The technicians are reliable, but NOT responsive. Why? Due to the remoteness of many communities, in most instances it is not cost effective to respond to service requests outside of the predetermined route. Therefore, if the pump breaks down, the community must wait until the technicians’ next circuit through their area.

Going forward, Water for Good is working to blend these two approaches. In upcoming posts, we will touch on how we are decentralizing elements of this program to make it more responsive. We will also discuss how we are using the data collected over the past 7 years to drive programmatic improvements in the current system.

Ultimately, Water for Good is committed to helping build a framework for service provision that can scale across the county and be provided by the local private sector, in coordination with the local government and NGO sector.

So, what do YOU think?

Are professionalized services a key to sustainability? How can the public and private sector do better to collaborate on the delivery of professionalized services?

Please join the conversation! Comment below, or connect via email: info@waterforgood.org

The series culminates during the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden at the end of August, where we would love to meet up with other attendees! We will also have representatives at the 41st WEDC conference in Nakuru, Kenya in July, 2018. Contact info@waterforgood.org if you’d like to connect!


Nilsson, Henrik (n.d.). “Professionalism, Lecture 5, What is a Profession?” (PDF). University of Nottingham. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-26. Retrieved 2007-08-05.