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close this bookPriorities for Water Resources Allocation (NRI)
close this folderDomestic water use
View the documentPaper 5 Domestic water use: engineering, effectiveness and sustainability
View the documentPaper 6 Domestic and community water management

Paper 6 Domestic and community water management

Ruth Hope

Health Department, The British Council, Manchester

Summary: Domestic water collection and management world-wide is the burden of women; participatory hygiene education for women can improve domestic sanitation and increase hygienic use of domestic water; but for fully effective and efficient use of community water supplies, women must be involved in their management from at least the design stage of the supply.

Domestic water collection and management

In traditional cultures throughout the world, the burden of domestic water collection falls on women and older children. This applies equally to moslem cultures that seclude women: there fully veiled women escorted by a younger male relative often carry domestic water.

Within the home, management of domestic water is again women's responsibility, whether this is managing an African three-pot system or ensuring adequate supplies in Asian family water pots. It is the women who cook, wash pots, launder clothes, bathe small children, care for the sick and water domestic animals. In some communities, the women carry water for all these purposes to the house whereas in others clothes are laundered and bodies bathed at the water source. Animals may have their own watering spot, but many cultures do not perceive the need for this and share common water supplies with their domestic animals. There are places in Africa where a round trip to collect domestic water takes the women on average three to four hours and they must leave home well before dawn to commence this task. In South Asia round trips are shorter, averaging one hour, but certainly in Nepal and other Himalayan countries this can be over extremely arduous climbs.

A consistent finding around the world is that when water supplies are brought closer to homes, there is not an increase in water usage unless it is brought to within 15 metres of the house. Thus, providing a village tube-well or tap stand alone may have no measurable impact on the people's health since the increased volume of water used is an important factor in decreasing both water-washed and water-bome diseases. The benefits of village wells and standpipes have to be measured by the increased quality of the women's lives: more time to rest, more time with their children, more time for themselves. Economists may say more time for production but that is not necessarily an improvement in the quality of their life.

A key point is that since women have the responsibility for collecting and managing domestic water, any surveys of water usage in a community must survey the women. Questionnaires directed at the men (often the easiest respondents to reach) can only provide haphazard guesses of the quantities of water used and the time taken to collect water each day.

Community water supplies

If community water supplies decrease the burden of carrying domestic water for the women, then why all round the world are hand pumps Iying broken down and piped water supply schemes dysfunctional or badly maintained? Further, one study by UNICEF in Nepal has indicated that communities drinking from piped water supplies more than two years old have higher mortality from diarrhoeal diseases than communities drinking from newer piped schemes and communities that have never had piped water. This was attributed to contaminated tanks on badly maintained gravity flow piped systems.

In Nepal it is an everyday problem to see standpipes without faucets in muddy, unhygienic environments. Private hose-pipe connections are often made to public standpipes or 'public' standpipes are constructed in influential people's home compounds. Surplus water from standpipes often flows over tracks and trails making them inconvenient to passers by and even dangerous on hill sides. Exposed distribution mains with amateur joins, and even open break pressure chambers with home-made syphons attached are frequently seen. Hand pumps are often rusted and in pieces and most require 'priming' with a bucket of water before any water can be drawn.

At first it was assumed that it was lack of community participation that was the problem, and so UNICEF has adopted the policy of only undertaking village water supply schemes where the communities contributed the labour and local materials (stones and sand.) Their studies have clearly shown that standpipes fitted with self closing faucets are more likely to be damaged and missing the faucet after two years than standpipes fitted with babcock faucets. However, their schemes have continued to be badly constructed with inadequate trench digging and back filling after pipe laying and poorly maintained tap stands.

It is not difficult to hypothesise reasons for this in the light of personal experience working with communities in Nepal. The political system there is dominated by patronage and corruption and local politicians are able to exert considerable compulsion over their poorer community members. The situation is compounded by the Hindu caste system which gives the higher castes subjugative influence over lower castes. Village water supply construction is considered after requests from the political leaders: often leading to supplies for the richest and loudest demanding rather than for those in most need. The richer villages are inevitably those with good indigenous water supplies. The schemes are then surveyed by district engineers and overseers who supplement their incomes by accepting 'gifts' from the villagers - gifts linked to the subsequent siting of tap stands. The engineers and overseers have little or no contact with the women, the main drawers of water, or the poorer sections of the community who often have the greatest need for piped water. However it is the poor who are coerced into portering pipes and cement to the villages and who undertake the bulk of the trench excavating and back filling. As only marginal beneficiaries of the completed water supply schemes, they have little incentive to undertake their tasks with the required rigour.

The UK/Nepal Eastern region water supplies project (ERWSP): a case study

Teams of community-based health promoters worked alongside the water supply construction teams raising the communities' awareness of the need for hygienic use of water and improved domestic sanitation if the communities were to fully benefit from their new piped water supply schemes. The Health Promoters, two women and one man, attached to each water supply scheme had been trained in non-formal, participatory education techniques and in communication and community mobilisation skills. Although the health programme has not been formally evaluated, there was considerable popular support for the programme and repeated anecdotal reports from subsequent visitors that domestic pit latrines continue to be in evidence and villagers understand how diarrhoeal diseases are spread.

The water supply construction was jointly executed by the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage (DWSS) and an expatriate firm of consulting engineers. In accordance with DWSS policy, all materials were supplied by the project and construction was undertaken by contracted, paid labour. The labourers were often from outside the area served by the water supply schemes. Within the ERWSP, consumer responsibility was imposed late in the project with no participation in the planning and design stages of their schemes, only the political leaders having any input into the siting of standpipes, and no input into the construction of either materials or labour. As some of the schemes were coming up to commissioning, SEADD requested that the health programme staff implement a water consumer training programme as they had the necessary communication skills, community mobilization expertise and the trust of the local people.

The water consumer training programme was about raising the community's awareness of its responsibilities for its own water supply. This in practice involved communicating new information in a manner that was usable by the people; providing a forum for debate and development of ideas and plans, and a structure through which the consumer could implement the ideas and take responsibility. Water consumer training aims to help the consumers prevent damage to their scheme and prolong the life of the scheme for the health and convenience of all consumers.

Before water consumer training, the schemes suffered from the usual problems of stolen faucets, open faucets, unhygienic muddy environments for the tap stands. In one village, with twice daily water supply, there was considerable congestion at the tap stands during periods of water supply. Private hose-pipe connections were seen and some of the standpipes had been built on local politicians house forecourts.

Water consumer training was targeted at the women drawers of water and involved establishing water user groups for each tap stand. After water consumer training, there were considerable consumer constructed improvements at the tap stands on all the schemes except one. Improvements included soak pits, drainage channels, enlarged concrete aprons to the tap stands, and in poorer communities that could not afford to purchase cement, wooden laundry platforms. At the festival season, tap stands were painted, decorated with welcome arches and the surrounding area planted with flowers.

Discussions at the consumer training sessions elicited that consumers were often critical of the design of their schemes which they said brought water from a great distance to supply hamlets that already had good supplies of spring water and yet did not adequately supply hamlets that were much drier. They suggested constructing smaller closed systems from the indigenous springs to the well-supplied hamlets, thus freeing up pipes and imported water for the most needy. Further, by siting a reservoir watchman's standpipe outside the reservoir compound, a large hamlet of 'untouchables' could have been provided with potable water which they are denied by siting the tap stand inside the locked compound.

Tap-stand siting was commonly criticised by the consumers who said that the sites were convenient only to the village chairman and his friends. Inadequate consideration had been given to drainage of tap stands, problems which they would have predicted if they had been consulted. Many women complained that tap stands were at the bottom of hills causing them to have to carry full water pots up hill when they would have preferred tap stands at the top of slopes so that they only carried empty water pots up hill. One tap-stand user committee wanted permission to turn its tap stand around by 180° as the women did not want to bathe in full view of the traffic on the road. They were persuaded that this would not be possible but it is to be regretted that they had not been consulted about whether their tap stand should face the road or not. Consumers had many criticisms of the tap-stand design and useful suggestions for improvements: many of which they undertook themselves after training.

The most worrying questions that arose during discussion was what consumers should do if they exposed pipes crossing their land during ploughing. It seemed that pipes had not always been buried at one metre depth and the consumers not only knew this but knew that it was inadequate. However, they had been powerless to do anything to ensure adequate trench digging because they were just 'little people' and did not know how to go about complaining. The consumers were all too often aware of pilfering of cement and other materials and the poor quality of concrete used in tap-stand construction. Again they were powerless to do anything about this malpractice.

In the village that showed no interest in maintaining or improving the tap stands, almost all the houses had hand-dug wells in their courtyards. Hence they were not interested in using tap stands that provided colder water in the winter months and warmer water in the summer months for bathing. They were also not interested in carrying water from tap stands for domestic use when they could use less energy to obtain water from their own wells even when the water table was as low as 30 metres. They repeatedly stated their preference for water piped to their homes but were denied this as it was not current DWSS policy to provide metered supplies outside the metropolitan areas. This policy has now been changed and the DWSS has ceased supply to all the public standpipes on that scheme. It now supplies water only through metered domestic pipelines paid for by the individual consumer households.

In one village, water consumer training was undertaken in two parts separated by several months. Following training at tap stands in the more rural areas, the villagers made many modifications to their tap stands. Those consumers in the bazaar area were well aware of the voluntary activity at tap stands in the rural areas but did not undertake any improvements at their own poorly drained, congested tap stands until after their own consumer training. Then they went on to make modifications to their own tap stands at a grander level than any modifications elsewhere. It was wondered why they had not undertaken the improvements sooner: preferring to endure several months further inconvenience rather than get on with their plans. It seems that the tap-stand users needed the 'approval' of the training programme before they could be empowered to take responsibility for their tap stand from the DWSS, who they perceived as the owners before consumer training.

Thus even with late involvement of the consumer, the ERWSP has demonstrated the value of water consumer training in terms of improved environmental hygiene and convenience to the consumer. It is suggested that early participation of all the consumers in water supply schemes would result in more effective use of available water, less pilfering of materials, improved construction, more appropriately sited standpipes with consequent increased utilization and maintenance and less vandalism of pipelines.


There was general agreement that the involvement of water consumers in projects such as the ERWSP should be encouraged at the earliest possible stage.

Discussion focused on the difficulties of organising participatory techniques. The key issue was the existence of rival interests in controlling the water resource. In particular, central government ministries wished to retain control of water supply and had imposed policies which were not always for the benefit of the local people. Within the community there were also potential conflicts between the more influential members of the community and the poorest, and men who were usually more vociferous in public gatherings but who were less involved in water use than the women.