13 Feb 2012

Why did Maji Matone fail? 2. The world of water supply?

This is the second post in a series exploring possible reasons why Maji Matone hasn't worked. The previous post looked at the challenge of making the technology fit the context, specifically rural Tanzania. And the final post, (now available), will look at citizens' engagement, risk and apathy.

Why did Maji Matone fail? 2. The world of water supply?

People outside the water sector often take the view that delivering water to people should be easy. Drill a borehole, install a pump and some pipes, and you're done. Those who work in the water sector know that it's not so simple. Just as the difficult bit in Maji Matone was not finding the right technology, the difficult bit in rural water supply is about people - how the borehole, pump and pipes should be managed so that they last.

Part of this is about participation and ownership, ensuring that community members participate in planning for and installing new hardware (and that they contribute to the capital costs) with the intention that they are then more likely to take responsibility for it when the engineers and whoever paid for them have left. But part of it is also about institutions, responsibilities, legal frameworks and money. And it is this aspect that may have contributed to Maji Matone's failure. 
Whose responsibility? Who knows?

If you go to the Ministry of Water in Dar es Salaam and ask people there about sustainability of rural water supply, they will tell you that this "operations and maintenance is a community responsibility". Ask a District Water Engineer the same question and you will get much the same answer. When making the point at numerous meetings that rural water supply in Tanzania faced a sustainability crisis, this was the typical answer I received.

There's a good reason for this. If government takes responsibility for operations and maintenance, history tells us that waterpoints will fall into disrepair, starved of the funds needed to pay for fuel for pumps and spare parts when a breakdown occurs. (And if government did make funds available for these costs, that would mean less money available for communities that haven't yet benefited from public investment in pumps and pipes.) So the Tanzanian government has established a very reasonable policy, that public money will be used for investments in new hardware, and that communities should be responsible for operations and maintenance, funded by user fees.

Of course it's a little more complicated that this, even in policy. District Water Engineers, though not primarily responsible for operations and maintenance, are nevertheless responsible for supporting communities that are having trouble with operations and maintenance - for helping them find spare parts, for providing some technical expertise, advising on what needs to be done, etc. There's still a lot that District Water Departments can do to help communities manage their hardware. 

But what does all this have to do with Maji Matone? Well, one effect of this division of responsibilities is that it is used by government officials at both national and local to claim that sustainability isn't their problem. And Maji Matone was designed to mobilise citizens' voices, amplified by the media, to put pressure on District Water Departments to fix broken down waterpoints. So if our programme did what it was designed to do, and put pressure on a District Water Engineer, they could (and often did) simply turn around and say "not my problem". 

On one level it's pretty clear that this wasn't the main reason for the programme's failure. We did a good job of turning information provided by citizens into action by District Water Engineers and repaired waterpoints, the problem that we didn't get as much information from citizens as we had hoped. But perhaps these institutional responsibilities were part of the reason why citizens didn't send us messages. 

Convincing community members to take their responsibility for operations and maintenance seriously is a big part of what District Water Engineers do when overseeing the installation of new waterpoints. So they put a lot of effort into explaining to people that when a waterpoint breaks down, it's up to them to fix it. Messages communicated to the community are simplified and nuances about local government's responsibility for technical backstopping get lost. And if they've done this work well, there's a possibility that citizens were reluctant to send us messages because they didn't expect the District Water Engineers to take their messages seriously.

It's certainly a possibility, and some of my colleagues put a lot of weight on this point. It's also a possibility that general confusion about institutional responsibilities creates uncertainty, which discourages people from sending messages. 

But personally I don't think citizens' understanding of government policy on rural water supply is high enough for this to have been a reason for low levels of engagement. The perception that government is responsible for water supply services is still widespread, even if expectations for government provision of services are very low.