Thoughts on Sustainability

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By Jonathan Annis

Maintaining sustainability (or longevity as I prefer to think of it) of water services requires  an ecosystem of support. This ecosystem includes but is not limited to policy, financing,  planning, learning, harmonization, and technology. The ecosystem is complex and  nonlinear; the broad categories are highly interdependent and failure in one aspect can have  a domino effect on the others.  Indeed, services are delivered, like children are raised, with  the support of an entire village.

Yesterday afternoon I attended a great session during which USAID and UNICEF presented sustainability checks. These are sets of tools intended to assess the ecosystem that leads to sustainability. The tools are different in their approach but similar in their inputs and outputs; the goal being to provide a snapshot of the state of the ecosystem at any given time. The tools include questions aimed at sanitation and hygiene behavior, but for the point of this discussion I’ll focus on water service delivery.

Financing was a common point of weakness identified by both. This is not surprising given that the costs of maintaining service delivery are rarely fully understood or considered when designing an intervention. Generally speaking, funding for rural WASH services comes from public, private, or user- generated investments. Most of the contexts we work in are resource scarce. Household contribution to initial capital investment and recurrent costs is typically very low. Regardless of the underlying reason, water tariffs for most rural schemes cover only a fraction of the actual cost of maintaining a water point throughout  its life span. Public funding for rural WASH is also largely insufficient to cover these costs, as are the mechanisms to provide outreach and ongoing support to communities. The third source of funding, private investments or bilateral donor projects that are not accounted for as public funds, also fail to cover these costs mainly because the funding mechanisms themselves are not structured to support costs beyond a fixed project cycle. The bottom line is that we simply don’t have a model to fund these costs at scale and we know it. So, what to do? Given that we don’t have an answer for the finance piece, should we simply throw in the towel and abandon our efforts to increase service delivery? What if other aspects of the ecosystem—remembering that finance is but one small component—are not neatly in place at the beginning?

This leads me to the second point, the “sustainability clause.” Let me say upfront that I am not familiar with the intricacies of including a  sustainability clause and I may be missing something here. My understanding is that the clause is a stipulation in a bi-lateral funding agreement that requires implementers to guarantee that services continue working for a fixed number of years after a project is done.

Wow, if it were only so cut and dry. We as implementers rarely have the time or mandate to focus on more than a few aspects of the service delivery ecosystem. Even the most comprehensive project design cannot possibly influence every component of the ecosystem in a way that guarantees sustainability. Furthermore, might having such a clause lead to perverse incentives for others in the ecosystem to neglect their responsibilities?  If communities or local government stakeholders know that they are going to be let off the hook by an implementing agency who is contractually responsible for maintaining the service, do they have an incentive to drop the ball?

Given that the finance piece remains a “black hole” and a project’s mandate does not cast a large enough net to influence the entire ecosystem, how can we as implementers be expected to bear the sustainability burden ourselves?  Might the sustainability clause lead risk-averse implementers to focus only on countries that have healthy ecosystems where the probability of success is high? Are we really ready to pull out of most of sub-Saharan Africa? Sustainability checks are essential tools and should be used more systematically to measure our progress. But the onus for correcting the shortcomings exposed by these tools should not be borne exclusively by the implementers; rather the checks should incite broader discussions among all the stakeholders, which would lead to shared accountability throughout the ecosystem as a whole.

About the Author: Jonathan Annis is a sanitation and innovation specialist with the USAID-funded WASHplus project ( His views do not represent those of USAID or the U.S. Government.

Originally posted on Water, sanitation and hygiene service monitoring