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….

4 Responses to “The biggest myth of all – rural people want clean drinking water?”
  1. Stef Smits says:

    Interesting thoughts. I would agree with your statement that people not always want clean drinking water, but wouldn’t call it the biggest myth of all. Our research in Colombia shows very contradictory findings on that. In some of the systems where user satisfaction was highest, water quality indicators were lowest. People were happy to get good amounts of water with a good continuous supply. In others, it was the other way around: groundwater systems, where actual water quality is good, people complained most about water quality, supposedly because of the taste of groundwater… i think there is just a very muddy relationship between what people need and how they appreciate the quality they actually receive, and what they are then willing to pay for. But to call it the biggest myth of all, goes too far

  2. thanks Stef. Actually – despite the ? I’m increasingly thinking that it IS the biggest mythg. And actually I think your comment is confirmatory. Basically, both of your cases illustrate the underlying point that rural people’s perception of ‘quality’ tends to have little if anythign to do with bacteriological (let alone chemical) quality. Which is hardly surprising. No one has an ‘inherent’ understanding of water qualiyt. You’ve either been exposed to (and convinced about) the germ theory of disease transmission through education – or you haven’t. No one has ever come to it by themselves – and it was only when the early microscopists looked through their lenses and saw the little creatuers bobbing around that anyone even started to imagine such an idea. Before then it was all noxious fluxes, witches, curses and so on. And of course most ‘right thinking’ doctors thought pasteur was a complete lunatic for years. So. There is no inherent understanding of ‘clean’ water and more than there is an inherent understanding that ‘getting shit on your fingers makes you sick’. The time lag between cause and effect and the range of confounding factors are too many for people to work this out from ‘life experience’. They have to be taught. And as our CLTS friends know – the most powerfuly emotion for this kind of thing is disgust. So the challenge is to trigger feeligns of disgust at the idea of drinking untreated water – and then maintaining the feeling. My own belief is that it is becuase we have done such a good job of this in the ‘West’ that sales of bottled water are so high.

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  1. […] picks up on the ‘myths of the rural water sector’ paper and suggests that we need to add ‘the biggest myth of all’: … this is the myth that there is an inherent demand for ‘clean’ drinking water in rural […]

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