What ever became of DRA?
Back to the blog after a long break – holidays and exploding work load
… this was provoked by an interesting question that came up during a recent visit to Washington to present and discuss some of the findings from our Water Services that Last and Life Cycle Cost work. We had been presenting findings from a 13 country study into the current status of rural water supply.
The question was (paraphrasing), ‘what about DRA’? DRA – the Demand Responsive Approach – all pervasive a few years ago but which seems to have fallen off the map a bit recently. The DRA under which rural water users make informed decisions about the type and level of service that they want (and for which they can pay) thus ensuring sustainability.
What triggered the question was advocacy on our part for governments (and others) to put more money into providing post constrtion support to communities, specifically what we call direct support – basically technical and managerial backstopping by local government, NGOs, or local private sectors – as one building block in attaining more sustainable and higher quality services.
The questioner was, I think, basically saying: ‘if for years we have tried to follow a “demand responsive approach” – then does it make sense to now advocate for supply driven post-construction support to help keep the systems going?’. It was very helpful in crystallising out a number of developing thoughts relating to the findings of some of our WASHCost research work in Ghana. In a nutshell, it all comes down to what is an acceptable level of service. And if the level of service that a community is willing or able to pay for is below what we believe this (acceptable level) to be – what should we do about it?
First the most recent data behind this thinking. When we went to the field and interviewed over a thousand Ghanaians in 3 districts in three different regions, we used as a yardstick the Ghanaian Community Water and Sanitation Agency’s own design parameters. These set a basic level of service as being able to: access at least 20litres of water per person per day; within 500 metres of a person’s house; with the supply working 95% of the time; and, with a single source (tap or pump) shared by no more than 300 people.
Using this benchmark we found that 73% of the people in our sample did not meet it on one or more of the indicators. What is more, 71% of the systems visited 39% were unreliable (according to the 95% reliability measure).
Yet Ghana has relatively high rural coverage according to the JMP figures – somewhere around 75% coverage. What is going on?
In a nutshell – and we still need to do more work on the data – I think something like this. People are using the water points as and when necessary. Where there are alternatives – especially during the rainy season – this can mean not very often. The result is extended periods of ‘down-time’ for hand pumps. Which are then repaired when there is no alternative.
What does this have to do with DRA and direct support costs? Only this. This pattern of poorly and infrequently maintained handpumps represents a genuine level of demand. The level of demand of poor people who have multiple priorities in life – of which ‘clean’ water is outweighed by ‘convenient’ water. In other words, people who are happy to settle for a level of service that CWSA would see as being sub-standard; who are happy to drink from ‘traditional’ sources, and who turn to the hand-pump only some of the time – basically when there is no other more convenient alternative.
The question then – from a WASH policy perspective – is this. Do we – as development workers, governments, concerned citizens – feel that this is acceptable? After all the capital investment of putting in tens of thousands of boreholes over the last 30-40 years, do we really want to see them used as an emergency fallback for when the ‘traditional’ schemes dry up. And, if we don’t, what do we want to do about it? Because the evidence is gradually coming out that if we DON’T want people to use a safe source only as an emergency fallback for a few months in the dry season – if we DO think that people should have access to a safe water source every day of the year that they actually use – then we may have to accept that there is no real alternative to dealing upfront with the need for supply side push – and therefore for (whisper it) subsidy.
And if we buy the subsidy (at least for the poorest of the rural poor) line, what are we talking about?
The difference between the on-again-off-again pure DRA model of sometimes working handpumps, and a fully reliable always on service with properly maintained pumps, is probably in the order of a few dollars per person per year – probably not much more than 2-3. With 2-3 US$ per person (additional to the capital costs of putting in the borehole in the first place), a typical African district of 100,000 people would have access to a budget of a couple of hundred thousand dollars per year – which would be enough for occasional visits to communities to make sure that everything is working, and to carry out any repairs necessary.
As we dig further and further into the data on the costs of providing rural water services, my own feeling is that it becomes ever more clear that subsidy is unavoidable if we wish to gain the public health benefits of all (or most) rural users taking their drinking water from some form of protected source. And we will have to subsidise even more if we want rural users to start using safe household treatment and storage. Indeed, we probably need to start addressing safe water a lot more like we address safe sanitation – accepting that behaviour change is at least as important as hardware provision (and that – sorry CLTS – it needs subsidy to work).