New Perspectives on CBM 'plus': lessons from 17 Indian states

Posted on 07/03/2016 by Goufrane Mansour and Harold Lockwood

Members of the Aguaconsult team attended a session organised by Cranfield University and IRC,  held at the Australian High Commission in London, to present the preliminary results of their field research from India. The evening provided an opportunity to reflect on community-based management, and what the key ingredients of success might look like.

In far too may cases “handing-over” the management of rural water supply to communities is a euphemism for “abandonment”, to use the words of Richard Carter, who chaired the evening. Consensus is building that the challenge of enabling water provision in rural contexts is largely related to making services last beyond early stages of infrastructure provision. Hand-over should happen when communities have the capacity and expertise to operate water systems, as well as the appropriate support mechanisms in place. But what does it take to implement this approach, now often referred to “community-management plus”?

The Community Water Plus project, implemented by Cranfield and IRC with funding from Australia’s DFAT, looked at 20 rural water schemes in 17 states across India – representing a wide range of economic status and human development – to identify this “plus”. The event in London showcased four of these water schemes, in Punjab, Kerala, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, as examples of good practice, shared preliminary conclusions, and drew out lessons for more global applications for other countries in transition.

In all cases, engaging with and empowering local communities, from onset of the construction project, was key to making service provision last. Activities were implemented to identify the needs and demands, to build community knowledge (e.g. to overview construction), but also to incentivise financial contribution. In the scheme considered in Odisha for example communities contributed up to 30% of total costs. In all four experiences presented, tariffs were applied, but the presenters did not specify whether these enabled cost-recovery. These findings reinforce other recent findings on costs, showing average per capita investment costs of around $175 and annual operation costs of around $15 per person for piped schemes – this brings us to the order of magnitude factor of double initial capital costs over a twenty-year life-span which has been identified by other researchers. 

Beyond communities, institutional reforms were pointed out as drivers of success. In Punjab, a World Bank-funded scheme supported institutional reforms for rural water local governance. Under the pilot project, responsibilities of the reformed Punjab Department for Water Supply and Sanitation went beyond the traditional role of planning and construction to include community outreach and support activities.

India’s experience is an example for other countries, also in transition from low-income to middle-income status (we can think of Ghana as an example here). The country’s economic growth is translated into increased funding for the rural water sector and a new focus on piped water schemes, which are not only leap-frogging point source systems, but rapidly going from single to multi-scheme systems often serving tens of thousands of households. It is likely that hand-pumps will be a thing from the past for most rural areas of India in the next two decades or so.  In this evolution of the rural water sector, political will is playing a key role – speakers at the event noted that even before he was Prime Minister, Modi was already engaging in institutional reforms in Gujarat, his home state, and thus leading the way for other states. India’s example shows that the “plus” in community management means on-going support to communities, both in the form of infrastructure investments and capacity building, and therefore deeper involvement from state and local governments.

However, rural India can also take lessons from other countries that experienced a rapid surge in investments in piped water schemes. All schemes considered in the research were five years old or less, whereas in countries such as Benin or Senegal, governments have been engaged in reforming the rural water sector since the 1990s. Rural water service provision has been challenged by the decay of infrastructure, with management models often inadequate to maintain and extend services to growing populations. These lessons point to the critical importance of moving tariffs towards cost recovery , which is where the India cases are still weak.

In countries like India, where funding for the sector is increasing, investments will only lead to long-lasting improvements where there is a concurrent political commitment to rural water, promoting both demand-led approaches and improvements in service level that are decent enough for populations to be willing to pay.