Clean Water Projects: Fixing the Cycle of “Break-Down & Repair”

Action Against Hunger joins Engineers Without Borders in exploring solutions to water project failures
ACF-South Sudan, J. Seagle/Counterpart Images
ACF-South Sudan, J. Seagle/Counterpart Images

In the following TEDx video, David Damberger of Engineers Without Borders broaches the subject of failure as it relates to international aid and development. Watch the video and read on for Action Against Hunger’s take on what he gets right—and where his argument needs some elaboration.

Damberger is right when he says that this topic is rarely discussed publicly, but while his candor here is refreshing, his conclusion—that aid has “failed [...] but only because it hasn’t failed enough”—is unjustifiably grim.

Listening to Damberger, one gets the impression that development organizations are simply plowing ahead with projects that are doomed from the start by poor follow-through and post-project planning. While this may have been what he observed in his experience with Engineers Without Borders, it should not be taken as an accurate assessment of what’s going on in the broader NGO community.

In fact, many humanitarian organizations (including Action Against Hunger) have long understood the lessons of failure articulated by Damberger. For example, he’s completely correct when he says that water points tend to break down without maintenance. However, his prescription of simply admitting failure and creating spreadsheets to track program effectiveness is, to put it mildly, not all that can be done about this.

Building Capacity, Self-Sufficiency

Nick Radin, Action Against Hunger’s Senior Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Advisor, well understands the failures Damberger is talking about. Nick acknowledges that this cycle of “break-down and repair, break-down and repair [of water points] has, in some cases, created a belief among beneficiaries where they say ‘We don’t need to maintain our water infrastructure because if it breaks down, another NGO will come along and replace it.’ And while such an outlook is understandable amongst vulnerable people who lead difficult lives, so long as NGOs are repairing and re-repairing the same water points, it means that other unserved communities will not receive assistance.”

The solution, says Nick, is not to pack up and go home:

“NGOs are increasingly working with local authorities, community-based organizations, and water committees to ensure infrastructure is maintained… as, the best way to teach people to operate and maintain a system is to train, enable and advise them in how to carry out routine maintenance or major repairs themselves.”
—Nick Radin, Senior Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Advisor, Action Against Hunger

Tackling Technical & Organizational Failures

But as Damberger says, it’s often the case that communities can’t afford to replace faulty parts when an improved water source breaks down. This, too, is a problem with solutions that Damberger does not mention, says Nick. “It’s often a question not of equipment breaking down but of social cohesion, a responsible water committee building a cash reserve [by requiring small fees to use the water point while it operates] so that when it breaks down a new one can be bought or repairs made.” And when the community can’t afford even small fees, NGOs are more than ever working to strengthen local water ministries so they have the capacity to help communities operate and maintain their water points. In this way, citizens also learn to hold local authorities accountable instead of waiting for another NGO to come along.

Greater Coordination, Coverage, Efficiency

And if that’s still not enough, there’s a relatively recent strategy called the “cluster approach” that shows promise. The essence of the cluster approach is that different organizations with similar missions are now coordinating with one another to ensure that their projects do not overlap and waste resources. This helps ensure that the situation Damberger describes—multiple failed water points built by a jumble of different agencies—is replaced by greater agency coordination, improved coverage, and a more efficient use of aid dollars.

Ultimately, Damberger raises some great points even when he fails to include some recent advances. ACF applauds the discussion that Engineers Without Borders is having as we and all our colleague NGOs strive to ensure ever-more effective aid.

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About Alex Ruthrauff

Alex is Action Against Hunger’s Donor Engagement Officer. He helps our supporters stay informed and active in the fight against hunger.