Defender or Prius? When it comes to WASH technologies, are we asking the wrong questions?

The Rope Pump - the Land Rover of rural water supply? (Photo: RWSN/Skat)

The Rope Pump – the Land Rover of rural water supply? (Photo: RWSN/Skat)

In her latest blog post “What’s wrong with a free car?”, Susan Davis of Improve International argues that giving away cars for free would not solve mobility problems for those on low incomes and that likewise, with WASH projects, giving away a capital asset does not help a ‘beneficiary’ if it leaves them with crippling running costs that they can’t afford. In planning WASH services we need to consider lifecycle costs.

There are also parallels in terms of technology choice: do you buy an old Land Rover, which will be unreliable but many things can be fixed by the owner (My neighbour and I changed a head gasket and a cracked cylinder head on my 20-year-old Defender, and I spent many happy – and unhappy – hours tinkering),  or do you buy a Toyota Prius that will be ultra-efficient and reliable, but when it does break will cost and fortune and needs specialist skills and materials.

What should water users in say, Nicaragua or South Sudan, choose for their pump? Would they be better with a handpump that is precision-manufactured out of the very best materials to make it as reliable as possible, or a Rope Pump or an EMAS pump that can be made cheaply from readily available materials, and can be easily fixed by the user if it goes wrong.

It may seem to perverse to compare the two situations where millions everyday around the world do not have access to safe water, let alone a vehicle. But I found Susan’s comparison a helpful one in explaining the value of a topic like lifecycle costing that at first glance can seem intangible and academic.  In the WASHtech project we, along with our project partners IRC, WaterAid, Cranfield, KNUST and Netwas, have embedded the findings of WASHCost from day one so that the assessment of the applicability of new WASH technologies tries to get the whole picture.

What lifecycle costing does is that it shows us that there are better questions to questions to ask than just “which technology is better”.  Instead:  for any given context, which approach to supplying a water service is the most financially sustainable? What are all the costs involved, not just the CapEx and OpEx? If water users and Government can be provided with that information, in a way that is clear and understandable, then they have a fighting chance of getting a system that works, and continues to work.

3 thoughts on “Defender or Prius? When it comes to WASH technologies, are we asking the wrong questions?

  1. Hi Sean – thanks for continuing the conversation. Just reading about Haiti aid post-earthquake saw this highly relevant quote: “But building is only half the battle; the gleaming white structure, erected by the nonprofit Partners in Health in the provincial city of Mirebalais, has not yet secured its first-year operating budget of $12.5 million to $13 million.” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/world/americas/in-aiding-quake-battered-haiti-lofty-hopes-and-hard-truths.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121224

    Same thing with education – building a free school for a community doesn’t mean children get educated. Still need money for teachers (and teacher training), books, supplies, utilities, etc.

    • Hi Susan
      I think this comes back to Harold’s point about the importance of working with government, but then Brian’s follow-up of what if there is no government in any practical sense? I think Haiti is a bit of a special case because there wasn’t a good government before the earthquake, no government after the earthquake and a ton of money and people thrown at this chaotic situation in a short space of time. All I can think is that it comes down to preparation, co-ordination and communication between all the different agencies likely to response to a similar scenario.

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