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Assisting district authorities to improve access to water and sanitation in rural Tanzania

Access to water and sanitation in rural areas calls for more than a technical fix. Policymakers nowadays increasingly abhor the notion that top-down approaches that downplay local authorities may ever work. We at EScGD have come to the same conclusion after almost a decade of close work with rural District Water Departments in Tanzania.

The district of Same in the Kilimanjaro Region encapsulates a good number of the obstacles to safe water and sanitation in Tanzania. The area became the target of the pilot phase of the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Program, an intervention by the Tanzanian government that stretched from 2002 through 2008. The pilot program was meant to address long-standing barriers to access – e.g. a dearth of water points, non-functional pumps installed in previous programs, or weaknesses in local capacities for management. The District Water Department was deemed crucial. Local authorities were assisted in this regard by the Spanish NGO Ingeniería Sin Fronteras ApD (ISF-ApD), which implemented a parallel scheme intended to tackle poor sustainability, a chief deficiency of erstwhile interventions.




Thus, our first study characterized the status of water points across the district of Same. The exercise was carried out twice, first as a baseline study by the end of 2006, and subsequently again in July 2009. The second exercise also included the Kigoma and Kibondo Rural districts, up to a total of 3,363 water points. By contrast with conventional approaches to Water Point Mapping, we also measured the usual parameters but also included water quality and year-round functionality – an approach later replicated in Kenya. The analysis provided solid evidence to the hypothesis that functionality rates decrease dramatically over time, and that the service delivery approach underlying past interventions is not particularly helpful for sustainability. Equally interesting, the study also underscored that the existing capacities in the communities substantially shaped long-term sustainability. As a result, ISF-ApD and EScGD pioneered the introduction of an innovative solution, Water and Sanitation Unit Support, comprising members of nine departments, as a strategy to improve community management.



Our research over the years has also highlighted the relevance of the sociopolitical dimension. The Alejandro Jiménez’s doctoral dissertation in 2010 surfaced how policy incoherence, technical weaknesses in implementation and political influences undermined an allocation of resources based upon considerations of low coverage. Thereby, for instance, those communities that contributed more cash were prioritized. Such evidences connected with a parallel research stream that unveiled that only one third of development funds for water and sanitation actually went to the villages. To tackle those shortcomings, EScGD assisted in the elaboration of a new district plan premised upon needs rather than upon demands.

We do not call however for a neglect of technical analyses. In fact, by examining conventional aspects such as quality – i.e. colony-forming units – and type of technology, we have established that governmental figures for coverage in Tanzania are systematically overestimated. Thus, when quality and seasonality were factored in, coverage fell by 40% on average. If only because of that, more comprehensive methodologies for Water Point Mapping need be adopted – at a cost of only 20 dollars per water point. The charm of technical fixes, nevertheless, cannot obscure the relevance of the policy aspects, particularly at the local level. 

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