China’s 12th Five Year Plan set an ambitious target of enabling access to centralised water supply for 80% of the rural population as well as completely solving rural drinking water safety issues by 2015. According to the WHO/ UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, only 55.4% of the rural population had gained access to tap water despite large-scale investments by the central government.
Proper screening can mitigate sustainability issues of projects
Many of the completed projects also grapple with issues of sustainability – poor operational and financial management of facilities, deteriorating source water quality, and insufficient water supplies, resulting in a large number of failed centralised water supply schemes1. This was evident in a significant number of the more than 200 rural poor villages that Lien AID has assessed since it started implementing clean water projects in China in 2007. Critically though, we have found that such issues can often be mitigated with proper screening even before the start of a project.
Destined to fail
Approaches to rural clean water projects cannot be based on a one size fits all mentality and have to be developed according to each community’s needs, available resources, and capacities. As water projects can vary widely based on financing schemes, management and operating models, and technology and infrastructure options, a robust screening process is needed to ensure projects are appropriately matched to villages that meet the pre-requisites of different water supply schemes, which would otherwise condemn projects to failure even before they are handed over to the community.
A framework for effective and efficient implementation
In China, we have found this screening process particularly challenging due to the large rural poor population, vast geographical spread of villages, and inaccessibility of remote locations. To identify suitable rural poor villages in a cost-effective manner under such conditions, we developed the Village Water Management programme, which involves training and mentoring a national or regional platform of grassroots leaders, living and working in rural poor villages, to assist in the development and implementation of clean water projects.
In China the screening process is particularly challenging…
So, we developed the Village Water Management programme
(click on image to enlarge)
In the case of China, we leverage on the Student Village Officer (大学生村官) platform that was initiated and endorsed by the Central Organisation Department of the Chinese Communist Party. Student Village Officers are young college graduates selected by the Central Organisation Department to live and work in rural villages, helping the central government to facilitate growth in rural communities. Together with our strategic partner – the China Association of Poverty Development and Alleviation (CAPAD), we developed a training programme and biannual calls for proposals as part of CAPAD’s “Supporting the development of Student Village Officers at poverty stricken villages (支持贫困村大学生村官成长工程)” programme.
“…we leverage on the Student Village Officer (大学生村官) platform…”
Student Village Officers serving villages with acute water needs and who have obtained sufficient support from the villagers and local governments for our programme, provide the necessary information in their submitted proposals, allowing us to more cost-effectively screen suitable projects.
Continuous community engagement and stringent on-site quality control is required to build community support for and commitment to the project as well as ensure infrastructure is properly designed and built according to specifications, all of which require constant co-ordination and supervision. As the Student Village Officers live and work in the villages of concern (at least a year), they are familiar with local conditions, attuned to the needs of the community and have local government support, all of which are invaluable in delivering sustainable outcomes.
Clean water access for the last mile
The Chinese government identified 128,000 impoverished villages in its national database2. 66% of China’s rural poor are concentrated in provinces in the western region3 and studies mapping poverty stricken counties also show a close link to physical terrain, with mountainous regions having a high incidence of poverty.
Clean water access continues to lag behind other basic infrastructure services like electricity & roads
Clean water access continues to lag behind other basic infrastructure services like electricity and road networks with local governments favouring projects in villages with larger populations in an effort to meet central government goals4. As such, our work focuses predominantly on these neglected, remote and smaller villages in the Western mountainous region, in an effort to provide clean water coverage for the last mile.
Key programme levers
The Village Water Management programme in China (连援贫困村安全用水工程) aims to deliver sustainable water access through 4 key levers:
1. Centralised water supply infrastructure
In line with national policy, the programme implements centralised rural water supply schemes with piped networks, typically gravity-fed, providing continuous and sufficient supply of clean tap water to intended beneficiaries. Water source selection is crucial, as most of the built infrastructure typically only incorporate simple sedimentation tanks, in an effort to reduce operating costs and complexity.
Depending on local terrain, available water resources, and existing infrastructure, the new scheme can take the form of: new single village (centralised) water supply facilities; the rehabilitation of old, existing networks; extension of piped networks either within the village (to cover households that are further away) or cross-village (for villages that are situated close together).
2. Local water advocates
Since the start of the programme in China in 2012, more than 150 Student Village Officers have attended our 4-5 day rural water project management workshops and submitted water project proposals.
Since the start in 2012, >150 Student Village Officers have attended workshops
The Student Village Officers whose proposals are selected, are then mentored by our team throughout project implementation, further gaining practical experience in construction management, operations and maintenance, stakeholder co-ordination, community engagement, and health and hygiene promotion.
Student Village Officers are typically appointed with a 3 year contract and their subsequent career paths are diverse – joining the civil service after the completion of their contract; becoming entrepreneurs in agriculture related industries; remaining at villages to continue serving the rural communities. In a number of cases, we have had exceptional Student Village Officers who move to a different rural village and participate in our subsequent calls for proposals, helping to improve rural water access in other communities.
Thus, apart from promoting clean water use in the village they are currently serving, Student Village Officers have the potential to continue to be strong water advocates in the future, using the knowledge and skills they have gained, to influence the rural water sector either through continued grassroots work, their future agricultural businesses or policy making in the civil service.
3. Local government participation
The support and participation of local governments throughout project development and execution is crucial to ensure they share ownership of the project and are equally invested in sustainable outcomes.
Participation of local govts is crucial
County water bureaus are involved in the design and construction of the physical infrastructure, the County Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) checks and tests source water quality for adherence to national standards, village and township government officials participate in training sessions and help enforce regulations that govern the management of the water supply schemes.
4. Community management and cost-sharing
All built facilities are managed and operated by a water management committee made up of elected members from the village. The committee, and the attendant regulations governing it as well as the use of the built water facilities, are recognised and endorsed by village and township governments.
Beneficiaries typically fund between 10% – 30% of the capital cost in cash and in kind (labour) while local governments fund between 30% – 50%, with the remaining sum provided by Lien AID and other donors. Typically, beneficiaries pay water tariffs at rates that have been mutually agreed upon and which is sufficient to cover basic operating and maintenance costs based on minimum levels of demand.
Due to different village social structures and beneficiary requirements, some villages have also adopted different approaches to the management and operations of the facilities. In some villages, members of water management committees are rotated between different groups of villagers, with each group paying for operations and maintenance during its tenure, while in others maintenance costs are collected only when there is a need, with all beneficiaries contributing equally. The actual management and operations model is decided through participatory approaches.
Since 2012, the implementation of the Village Water Management programme in China has enabled 72,150 rural poor villagers from 50 rural poor villages in China to gain access to clean tap water. To ensure sustainability, we continue to monitor projects and provide additional support to water management committees and the Student Village Officers, for 2 years after project handover. Lessons learned from each cycle of projects are then applied to the next cycle, improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the programme iteratively.
To ensure projects do not go to waste, greater support from the public & private sectors are acutely needed
Sustaining and scaling outcomes in rural communities continues to be an uphill battle with multiple challenges, from data collection to increasing demand level for paid water service delivery. To ensure investments in infrastructure do not go to waste, greater participation and support from both public and private sectors are acutely needed.
1 Liu, H., 2015
2 Ministry of Agriculture of the PRC, 2014
3 China Development Research Foundation, 2011
4 Liu, H., 2015
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