World Bank-RWSN COWASH Webinar

Yesterday I sat in on another webinar talking about Community-Led Accelerated WASH in Ethiopia, or COWASH.  The presentation was given by Arto Souminem who is the Chief Technical Advisor of the COWASH program in Ethiopia.  Arto also works for Ramboll Finland which is a large consulting firm, and has a Master’s of Science in water supply and sanitation as well as over 25 years experience in leading rural and urban bilateral water and sanitation projects funded by the Finnish government in Ethiopia, Kenya, Vietnam, and Namibia.  The COWASH project in Ethiopia is funded mainly by the Finnish government and pairs neighborhoods with a Micro-Finance Institution (MFI) which then distributes the money to the neighborhood in order for them to build new or maintain existing water and sanitation facilities in that neighborhood.  COWASH is meant to be a sustainable solution to the WASH problems seen throughout the world, so let’s take a look and see how it measures up.

The presentation started out by Arto showing us a couple of charts to give us an idea of the situation in Ethiopia.

Rural Ethiopia is like most of the rural areas in the developing world in that, as you can see, they’re doing much better in getting their people access to water than they are getting them access to sanitation, but they’re not doing great in either category.

Moving on to a little background on the COWASH project.   The planning for the project started in May 2011, however the implementation of the project has only been going on in Ethiopia for the past 9 months (except for two test projects) and will run until June of 2016.  It is funded mainly by Finland (33 million EUR) and UNICEF (26 million EUR); however the Ethiopian government also is contributing to the project (9 million EUR).  The aim of the project is to support the establishment of the Community Managed Project (CMP) “funding mechanism in water supply, sanitation and hygiene to accelerate the implementation of universal access to water in Ethiopia”.  They plan over the next three years to help communities build 4517 water points in Ethiopia and have calculated that this will help 1.2 million people get access to clean water and sanitation.

The idea for this project came from the realization that in order to have a sustainable water supply and sanitation program you need to increase the community ownership and get them involved.  The way that the COWASH project aims to do this is by delegating the financial management of the project to the people that will be affected by it.  The people are also in charge of implementation of the water supply and sanitation facilities.  They’re basically in charge of the entire show.  The COWASH project calls this the Community Managed Project (CMP) approach.  I’ve always been a fan of appropriate technologies because it gives the community the power to build, work, and repair their own equipment.  This approach takes it to a whole new level.  The community is using the money to develope a water system like they are running a business, and when people are in control of what they’re doing they feel more empowered.  This is completely the opposite of how things normally work where the government is given the funding and they buy the material and equipment and then go and install it.  With the CMP approach the government’s role is limited to supporting the communities through capacity building and technical support (which although limited is a very important part of the process).  Because the boots only hit the ground 9 months ago there hasn’t been any evaluation of the current projects, but the two test projects in the Amhara and BSG regions were touted as being very successful.  The Water Supply Program Africa, which is a World Bank program, looked at these two test projects in 2010 and concluded that the project increased ownership and sustainability of water points as well as facilitating improvements in the speed that water points are constructed.  As I said before the funds are channeled to the communities through Micro Finance Institutions.  The project looked into other avenues of getting the money to the communities, such as traditional banks or through using the government, however they found that the MFI’s were the best route to go for a number of reasons.

So why use MFI’s?  One big reason is because there are not always banks available.  There are over 2,000 MFIs in Ethiopia, and they even put offices in some small villages whereas the banks are much less visible in many parts of Ethiopia.  Also, the MFIs are flexible because they have their own funds.  Because of this if for some reason there is an interruption in the flow of money the projects can continue on by using these funds.  The MFIs are also very community focused and their main mission is to help the community to develop.   A direct result of this mission is the micro-insurance program they are currently developing.  This program is an effort to help the communities no matter what the climate and land throw at them.  It would not be used for O&M but instead would be used if something happened where the community no longer had access to water.  So this money would be used to either set up another source of getting water or to buy water for the community.  Now let’s take a look at the characteristics of the CMP.

Most of the characteristics of the CMP are specific to this approach and have not been done anywhere else in the world besides with this program.  The main characteristic that makes this approach so different is that the communities will be wholly responsible for the funds transferred to them.  In order for the community to gain these funds they need to submit an application that fully spells out what type of system they plan to use and how they plan to do it.  From there the district WASH team looks over the application and the methods and materials that the community wants to use and either they approve it or they don’t.  If they don’t they will go back to the community and talk and negotiate with them to get the application to a point where everyone is happy.  The communities also have to demonstrate their willingness and ability to finance the future operations and maintenance (O&M) management of the project they will build.  These projects are not subsidized by the government and the communities are asked to provide an up-front contribution that will cover the costs of O&M for one year.  Most of the time this works out to be an amount less than $100 US.

Besides clean water and sanitation what does the CMP accomplish?  First, and maybe most important, it increases the ownership of the community which empowers them and leads to improved functionality and capacity.  The functionality is improved because since the communities own the project they are more willing to put time into upkeep, and the capacity increases because it encourages the community to work on other projects that they may have felt they weren’t able to accomplish before this.  Also, it changes the traditional way things are done so now the government is facilitating and supporting the project instead of funding and implementing it themselves.  This relates back to the first point and also helps the community feel that it has ownership over the project.  As most of us know anything that the government is involved in will take forever to be completed, but with this approach you take the government out of the equation, and this improves efficiency.  In one case the district government had said they could install 20-30 water points in a year, and instead with the implementation of this approach 140 were installed.  You can see the improvement in efficiency in this graph:

Because of this improved efficiency the costs also drop.  With one of the test projects they went from the old method and started using the CMP approach.  What they found was that under the old approach a water point was costing about 10,000 EUR, however after the implementation of the CMP approach this dropped to a little over 3,000 EUR per water point.  Here’s another graph showing how costs change as the program is implemented:

Another benefit to this approach is that it brings the local private sector into these communities since they will be the ones providing the materials and equipment for the projects.  This is huge because it has the ability to help the local economy which leads to growth and prosperity for those businesses.  All of these characteristics add up to what sounds like a great approach to this problem.

Like anything new there are challenges in implementing the CMP approach.  One of the main problems that they are facing is that people are skeptical.  Many people don’t believe that these communities can manage the money and the project themselves.  However, Arto said that in many cases when you bring these skeptics to one of their test projects and show them what has been done they change their mind very quickly.  Another challenge they have is that it is a lot harder for the people in these communities to work with a high level of technology such as water towers and drilling.  That being said there are communities where high level technology has been used with success, and the COWASH team is testing how to best implement these types of high level technologies into projects going forward.  Lastly, most of the projects going on currently outside of this program are using the old approach.  This challenge of moving people over to the new CMP approach will take time, but as they continue to be successful people will start to realize that it’s the better way to go.

Overall I thought this webinar was very informative, and the CMP approach sounds like a great idea.  In order for people to care about and take responsibility for something you need to give them ownership.  I kind of think about it like cars people had in high school.  The cars that were given to kids by their parents were always dirty and dinged up because the kids didn’t have to give anything to get the car so they didn’t really care about it.  On the other hand when you looked at the cars of the kids that bought them themselves they were always clean and looking good.  It’s a sense of pride.  When you work on a project or pay for something yourself you all the sudden realize its value and that makes you care a lot more.  This sense of pride leads to people feeling more empowered and realizing that they can do more than what they believed they were capable of.  This approach not only gets people clean water and sanitation, but can change the future of a community by changing the way people think about themselves.  I look forward to seeing how Arto and his team do in the next year.  If their two test projects are any indications then it seems that there is now a new and better approach to getting clean water and sanitation to those that don’t have it.  Stop back next week for another World Bank-RWSN webinar series summary.


World Bank-RWSN COWASH Webinar
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