The biggest myth of all – rural people want clean drinking water?

During the opening plenary, Richard Carter of WaterAid presents RWSN’s excellent “myths of the rural water supply sector paper”.  I’ve liked this paper since it first appeared, capturing as it does in a succinct and pithy form so many of the challenges the sector faces in moving beyond manically sticking holes in the ground and starting to actually provide sustainable services that people might one day value and use.

That said, I think that there is one myth that may have been missed – or only partially addressed.  And this is the myth that there is an inherent demand for ‘clean’ drinking water in rural areas.  In my experience there isn’t.  There is a demand for water – of course.  There is a demand for convenient water (that you don’t have to march for miles lugging a jerry can to collect).   There is demand for (no adjective added) drinking water.  And for livestock water.  And for irrigation water. And for business water.  And much of this demand is well captured in myth no. 4 – “what rural dwellers need is 20 litres per person per day of clean water”.  Which makes the point that actually people need far less than 20 litres of clean water (probably only about 5 for actual drinking and cooking) and quite a bit more for other uses.  As a long time supporter of multiple use systems (MUS) (link) I can only cheer this one.

But … the assumption is still there that there is demand for these 5 litres of clean water.  And there isn’t – at least not always.  Of course, from a public health perspective people need at least five litres of clean water.  But without basic education and behaviour change interventions people do not demand it. This is not just an academic point – but has critical implications for sustainability and willingness to pay for services – which is of course what the forum is all about.  Becuase, at the end of the day, willingness to pay for difficult to access ‘clean’ water supplies will tend to suffer from easy access to ‘dirty’ other sources unless people are aware of and believe in the health benefits of not doing so.

The challenge is therefore exactly the same as is found in the sanitation sector where, interestingly, the response seems to be to stop trying to provide any service at all ,instead, raise awareness and trigger behaviour change.  Now, to be clear, I am not about to advocate a CLTS for water. Indeed I don’t advocate CLTS for sanitation!  But it does seem that we need to be much stronger within the rural water sector on advocating for and supporting basic hygienic behaviour change as part of our approach to increased sustainability.  Why is it that the WA and the SH seem to be so firmly separated?  Maybe its time for WHooSH….

One Response to “The biggest myth of all – rural people want clean drinking water?”
  1. There is a government responsibility to educate its citizens, in this case hygiene awareness and education. Without that of course it is a myth that there would be a demand for clean (safe) water.

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