Keeping projects in business for the long term has been a constant theme of the Fixes column, and if sustainability has a poster child, it would be a water pump. Travel anywhere in Africa or South Asia or Central America, and you will find a landscape dotted with the rusting skeletons of dead water pumps or wells..
In most developing countries, these water points are installed with great fanfare by the government or a charitable group. They greatly improve the lives of villagers. Having a water point in or near the village means that women don’t have to spend 6,8, even 12 hours a day on perilous journeys to fetch water from rivers or lakes. The pumps allow girls to go to school instead of staying home to help their mothers fetch water or take care of siblings. They allow villagers to drink reasonably clean water instead of risking their health with every sip.
Then something breaks on the pump — a huge catastrophe like an underground pipe bursting, or a small one, like the loss of a bolt or a washer. And it never works again.
Early death is shockingly widespread for water pumps. Perhaps the biggest study of this ever was carried out in 21 African countries by an organization called Sustainable Water Services at Scale. It found that 36 percent of pumps were not working. “This level of failure represents a waste of between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion in investments in 20 years,” said the organization.
In Tanzania, mapping of water points showed that nationally, less than half the existing rural water points were working. Of water points that were less than two years old, a quarter had already stopped functioning.
Why, when communities benefit so obviously from water, do so many water points fall out of use? The short answer is that keeping the pumps running usually falls to the community or local government. But it requires specialized skills, spare parts, tools and funds. None of these are found in rural villages.
One group taking a hard look at how to solve the problem is the British-based charity WaterAid. When the organization analyzed why water points failed in Tanzania, it found something interesting: the most sustainable were those maintained by private contractors. This is not a ready-made solution; it won’t work everywhere — really poor areas won’t be able to pay. And in some regions, problems like price gouging were associated with private operators. But WaterAid felt it might be able to solve these problems. So in the north of India, it came up with an ingenious way to do just that.
Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India — it is also one of the poorest and most drought-prone. The government has been aggressively installing new water pumps, but they quickly fall into disuse. In the Mahoba district, south of the state capital of Lucknow, there are about 12,500 community water pumps, said. K.J. Rajeev, WaterAid’s general manager for the northern region of India. “But 40 percent of them are usually down, especially in summer,” he said. And when they break, they stay broken — three-quarters of the repairs take at least a month, and many are never repaired at all.
Now things are different in Mahoba. In May, Lisa Millman, WaterAid America’s director of development and communications, was visiting a town called Charkhari. She was sitting in a small storefront office, a shop lined with shelves of hand pump parts, when a cellphone rang. The call was from the village of Kotedar, where the main hand pump had broken. A master mechanic took the call and asked some questions. This was apparently going to be a big job — five mechanics piled onto two motorbikes, along with the 10-year-old son of one of the men. They reached the village 20 minutes later. As a throng of villagers watched, they took out huge wrenches. They disassembled the pump and began pulling up heavy segments of pipe. At the tenth segment they found a hole and patched it. Two and a half hours after they arrived, the pump was reassembled and working. They got on their bikes and rode off into the sunset.
Millman, who had followed in a car, had asked the 10-year-old if he wanted to be a mechanic like his dad. “He was smirking and laughing,” she said. “But after he watched his dad repair the pump, he was in awe.”
WaterAid and its local partners have set up four workshops, called Community Participation Centers, in the Mahoba district, and the project is now expanding into the neighboring state of Bihar. A call to the workshop reaches a master mechanic. He or she can choose the appropriate mechanics in the group, depending on location and skills, to send to address the problem. Each is is equipped with a cellphone, tool kit and a bike, moped or motorbike. Including mechanics-in-training and several who work part time, the centers have 27 female mechanics.
Many of the women were landless agricultural laborers before they learned hand pump repair, and many were members of the Dalit, or Untouchable, caste — the most downtrodden in Indian society. In a very traditional region, where women cover their faces and do not speak in public, it was at first hard to find women who wanted the job. Even some who completed the training didn’t want to go out to villages and work in public, said Rajeev. Now, however, wherever they go, village men accept them and women embrace them. Seeing a mechanic in yellow hardhat and sari has opened up the spectrum of possibilities for village women.
In 14 months of work, the center mechanics have repaired more than 1,100 pumps in Mahoba. Ninety-three percent of the repairs were made within 24 hours of the phone call, and only 3 percent took more than two days. A simple repair costs a village 100 rupees — roughly $2.00 — with more complex repairs costing up to $6. Water quality testing costs $1.20. The mechanics guarantee all work.
Rajeev said that the four Mahoba workshops cost WaterAid about $40,000 to set up — to train mechanics, buy parts and tools, provide bikes and cellphones and visit village councils to promote the new service. But now WaterAid is tapering off financial support to the workshops, which are all operating sustainably and on the verge of meeting their profitability goals. “We will be providing only technical assistance and hand-holding,” he said. To keep the workshops running, the mechanic keeps 70 to 90 percent of the repair fee and deposits the rest in the workshop’s account.
Why couldn’t the market take care of this problem? There are hand pump mechanics in Mahoba, after all. But they tend to live in major market cities. Rajeev said they demanded very high fees to go out to remote villages — often too high for villages to pay. There are also information disconnects – they do no outreach to villages, so some village councils don’t know about these mechanics or how to call them.
The market also can’t finance major repairs — most villagers are too poor. The center program can work because the government has a fund that village councils can use to pay for hand pump maintenance. The fund can take 45 days to pay — too long for most traditional mechanics. Center mechanics, however, don’t mind. (Very minor repairs can usually be paid on the spot.) And now four villages have signed maintenance contracts with center workshops, paying directly from the government’s fund.
What’s happening in Mahoba is promising. But the key to this process is that the Indian government pays the bills. In the places where this problem is most serious, government is AWOL. On Wednesday I’ll look at why it has been so difficult to keep water points running, mistakes that water groups have made and what poor villages might do to keep the water flowing.
Join Fixes on Facebook and follow updates on twitter.com/nytimesfixes.