Posted on Jun 02, 2021
Project failures can stem from mechanical malfunctions, of course, since wells, pumps, filters, and pipelines range in sophistication, as does the level of technical expertise required to operate them. But to hear it from Denham and other Rotarians who have decades of experience with water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) projects, human interaction — including a basic communication of expectations and responsibilities — can be the biggest challenge. Insisting on community engagement and inclusion in the decision-making process, or the failure to do so, can make or break a project.

Making a mistake isn’t the end of the world if it becomes a learning experience.

Here are lessons from four water, sanitation, and hygiene projects — and five tips for your project’s future success

Expert input

WHEN A GOVERNMENT-FUNDED GIRLS SCHOOL serving 1,400 low-income students asked the Rotary Club of Hyderabad Deccan, India, to upgrade the school’s restroom facilities, Rotarians enthusiastically embraced the idea. “Two functioning toilets were simply not enough,” says Uday Pilani, who was club president in 2018-19 when the request came. “Girls had to queue up or go to some nearby place.” Because of the lack of facilities, many girls missed classes while they were menstruating.

Rotarians spent nearly $30,000 to install 23 toilets,10 hand-washing stations, and a sanitary pad disposal bin and dispensing station; upgrade electrical wiring and lighting; and renovate the computer lab. Once the club placed an overhead tank to supply borehole water to the toilets, everything seemed to be in place.

“The moment we realized that we had goofed up was crazy,” recalls Pilani, who recently became a charter member of the Rotary Club of Lake District Moinabad. “After having spent a considerable amount of money digging the trenches and laying the evacuation pipeline, we realized that the main sewer was at a higher height, and hence the refuse could not flow toward it.” A club member who had volunteered tomake periodic campus visits to review progress was apoplectic. “He realized quite late that it was impossible for the sewage to go to the municipal lines,” says Pilani, who distinctly recalls an angry phone call, followed in short order by a board meeting with equally piquant language. “The board members just kind of looked at each other, realizing that we — so-called businessmen running large enterprises — should havehired professional engineers.”

Over three more months, the club spent an additional $5,000 “to build the biggest sump that anyone has ever built,” Pilani says. “We reviewed the whole thing properly, got some experts to make sure there were no more goof-ups, and got it completed in a very thorough manner.”

The club did not hire a professional engineer.

Smart club leaders don’t always know everything. “Rotarians should ask questions, inquire, ascertain, cross-check things,” says Pilani. “These may sound like simple tasks, but a lot of us do not do them.”

Long-term commitment

OVER THE COURSE OF 15 YEARS beginning in 1989, Neil Van Dine helped construct 1,000 wells in Haiti, founding the organization Haiti Outreach along the way. Then Van Dine commissioned a survey to determine how many of those wells were still working. “I was shocked to learn that half of them were broken,” he says. “Here I am, 15 years in, thinking, what a loss.”

Van Dine, a member of the Rotary E-Club of WASH, D9980, and his organization learned from the failures, eventually recognizing that the problems were managerial, rather than technical. “We worked with the communities to create a business plan. They have a budget, they have so many subscribers,” he says. “We went from half of the wells not working to 90 percent of them functional.”

Failure, says Van Dine, can provide a valuable blueprint. He has a favorite example. In 1997 he designed a water supply system for the residents of Bohoc, a long, bumpy ride north of Port-au-Prince. “We were going to do this whole community participation thing,” he recalls. Basically, anything that the community could provide — such as rocks, sand, and labor — would be its responsibility. Everything else would come from Haiti Outreach.

The scene that unfolded in the initial months of the two-year project might have been worthy of a movie epic, an all-hands assembly-line tableau. On the first day, 200 people showed up to work. “The next day we had 400 people, the next 500, then 600,” Van Dine says. “Hauling rock, hauling sand, digging ditches, carrying pipe, you name it. It was incredible. It was amazing how this community came together to build a water system for themselves.”

The glow was short-lived. “Within a week they were struggling to manage it,” Van Dine says. Those who worked on the system didn’t think they should have to pay for the water. Since more than 90 percent of households had worked on it, the result was a costly misadventure. “The water system failed within three years and now, over 20 years later, very little of the original structure remains,” Van Dine says. “That insight led us to think we had to change the program.”

The error was in making short-term fixes rather than taking a long-term approach with projects.

It’s important to help communities understand that their commitment to clean water is not a one-off responsibility, even if they made a significant initial contribution.

Clarity on costs

FEW OBSTACLES SURPRISE Mike Paddock, a veteran of dozens of water projects across five continents with Rotary and Engineers Without Borders. He recalls a proposal for an eight-community water distribution project in Quiché department, northwest of Guatemala City, where most residents were fetching water from surface waters or streams. Through a $225,000 joint project of Paddock’s Rotary Club of Milwaukee and the local Rotary Club of Guatemala Vista Hermosa, the water would be treated with a slow sand filter and chlorinated for delivery along an 8-mile conduction line.

But when Paddock visited to conduct a needs assessment before the start of the project, he was in for a surprise: The site already had a functioning water system. “As I looked up on the mountain, here was a huge, elevated storage tank,” Paddock says. “Then I also found a wonderfully drilled well and a dieselpowered generator to pump the water.” They were the remnants of a five-year-old, $350,000 system that had been developed by the municipal government but abandoned within a year of its completion. The reason? The cost of diesel fuel to power the generator was about 30 percent of the average household income.

“That kicked off what I call the WASH death spiral,” says Paddock. Households exited the system, and those defections drove up maintenance costs for the remaining participants; the system collapsed when costs finally became prohibitive.

That all might have been easily avoided. As Paddock points out, an economic study in the preliminary stages of the well project would have identified the cost of fuel as a major obstacle to success.

But Paddock was able to put a stopper in the “WASH death spiral.” As he studied the diesel generator, he spotted a recently installed power line some 660 feet from the well. Rather than carrying out the proposed $225,000 project, Rotarians suggested to the community the more sustainable solution of using the grid to provide the electricity to power the existing water system. With $7,500 raised from the sale of the generator, the community tapped into the grid at a cost 70 percent lower than fuel. In the end, the clubs did not need to provide any funds, only technical support on the grid connection.

Payment collection, or the lack thereof, ranks among the biggest challenges to sustainability, notes Paddock, the author of Bridging Barriers, a book about his experiences in the WASH arena. In this case, the ability of families to cover the expense of sustaining the systems had not been considered.

Communicate the cost before the project gets underway. Resist the temptation of thinking you’ll figure it out later, says Paddock. “Sometimes it doesn’t get figured out and you can’t afford the system.”

Community buy-in

REMBA ISLAND, A SCRUBBY and shanty-dotted locale in Lake Victoria on Kenya’s border with Uganda, is a case study in water and sanitation chaos. Fishermen and the small vendors serving them come from all over Africa, lured by the plentiful catch. But with only two simple pit toilets for public use on the island, open defecation was rife. Rainfall sent that sludge and refuse into the lake, which was also used for cleaning fish and washing clothes and utensils.

Rotarians began working with another nongovernmental organization in 2012 to install filters to turn lake water contaminated with E. coli into potable water. The water was then metered and sold to the inhabitants. While those filters were widely hailed, community reaction to the second step of the initiative — the installation of 29 toilets to address the sanitation woes — was another story.

After struggling to manage the removal of waste from the toilets, which filled up in one-third the time expected, the local WASH committee redesigned the toilets and introduced a fee, equivalent to about5 cents per use, to help pay the workers tasked with cleaning them. “Families could not afford this for every member,” says Deurence Onyango, a Rotarian who went on to spearhead the formation of the Rotary Club of Kisumu Mashariki, Kenya. A significant portion of the transient population also came to see the toilets as a luxury. “For cultural reasons, somebody would pay for water but not pay for the call of nature,” she says. As a result, toilet revenues were low compared with expenditures.

Project designers should have promoted the toilets as the natural companion to the water system, which had widespread appeal, Onyango says. “Institutional support is central to success.” Complicating the effort was a change in leadership among the island’s authorities midway through the initiative. To strengthen the fishing community’s support of the effort, those implementing the project eventually brought the most influential leader on the island on board and educated residents about the benefits of using the toilets.

Education and support on the need for toilets were lacking.

“Assumed ownership is not ownership,” says Onyango. Communicate with all stakeholders. “Each component must be well explained to the community, so they have that buy-in.”
“We all want to have that wonderful photo of the water flowing and the little girl drinking the water,” says Mike Paddock. “The real test is how things are working five and 10 years from now.” Here are five tips that will help ensure your project passes that test.

Suggest flexibility in rates: Inflation can erode the financial stability of any project. Encourage WASH committees to allow fee increases to account for it and to inform subscribers about the fee structure.

Recruit respected leaders: The most influential people in the community should be rallied to the cause.

Make maps of your projects and store them securely: It might seem like a small matter, but documents are easily misplaced, considering the turnover of personnel overseeing systems of buried pipes that can last for decades, says Braimah Apambire of the Rotary Club of Reno, Nevada, and the director of the Center for International Water and Sustainability at the Desert Research Institute. “If 10 years down the road people don’t know where the pipes are, you have a problem,” he says.

Meter up: Many water meters accommodate pay-as-you-go accounts, linked through cellphones. They’re also increasingly affordable, with some home units costing $30. The concept is particularly popular in the developing countries where WASH improvements are most needed.

Keep in touch: Your project may be over, but your work hasn’t ended. Nancy Gilbert of the Rotary E-Club of WASH, D9980, recalls visiting a project in Nigeria and discovering the toilets and water system had stopped working a few months after installation. “The school never reached out to the club, and the club never checked back,” she says. “Four years later, the system was in disrepair and the students had not benefited from the time and money invested. Lesson learned? Keep in touch and implement a plan for monitoring.”