Module 3: Effective Water Program Development

It is estimated that 1.1 billion people do not have access to improved sources of water. Contamination of water in the household and during transportation poses significant health risks. Furthermore, it is also estimated that 2.2 million people die of basic hygiene-related diseases every year, the majority being children in developing countries. Many of these deaths could have been prevented if there was increased access to improved water sources.
There are many different water collection and storage systems available. Many of these systems have been tested under controlled conditions in the laboratory and implemented in the field to evaluate their ability to produce clean drinking water and reduce diarrheal and other waterborne diseases. (1) However, just because a system has worked well in the lab or in the field in a given country does not mean that it will work well universally in all situations. In addition, simply providing access to clean water will not create sustainable change unless there is community involvement, locally available and culturally sensitive technology, and educational efforts to inform people about the importance of using and maintaining quality water sources.(2)

As a leading water development organization, explains, digging is the easy part. “While simply drilling a well is easy, delivering water and sanitation solutions that are sustainable in the long haul involves a number of important components.”(3) highlights some of the important characteristics of effective water development programs.

Local Partners

It is critical that programs form local partnerships since doing so will create a solution tailored to the needs of each specific community. Forming local partnerships helps to ensure that the intervention will actually be beneficial and used by the community.  In addition, local partner organizations are important because they are better equipped to navigate the various social, political, and economic issues that impact projects; they can also ensure greater cost-effectiveness and better leveraging of local financial resources.

Community Ownership

“For a project to be truly successful, communities must be viewed and must view themselves as the owners of the project.” (4) Thus, communities should be involved in the project and elect a local water committee. Since women bear a large amount of the burden of collecting water, it is essential that the committee include female members.  Members of the committee should be trained on how to operate and maintain the water and sanitation systems, as well as on how to properly manage finances. “User communities must be granted true decision-making authority. This means that they should be given comprehensive information needed to make informed decisions, without being pressured to follow the preferences of the facilitator. Communities and households should be free to select technology and service levels that suit them… Community management requires ongoing institutional support. It must not be assumed that once a community has been ‘sensitized’, ‘mobilized’ and ‘harmonized’ it can be left alone to manage its own water supply. It should also not be assumed that a sense of ownership will lead automatically to a sense of responsibility and willingness to finance and manage. If community management systems are to be sustainable they require ongoing support from an overseeing institution.” (5) It is also important to note that organizations should not dig a well without consulting a community and determining if they need and/or are ready for a well. As explains, “during the course of the past 20 years, we have found that demand-driven projects are far more sustainable than projects where an outsider makes the decision to provide a project.”

Appropriate Technology

An additional reason why one should engage the community is to ensure that the technology selected for a given project is appropriate. It is important for communities to be able to build and maintain the water system on their own. For this reason, water projects should involve locally-available and relatively simple technology which can be quickly and easily repaired if necessary.

Addressing Sanitation and Hygiene

The importance of educating the community about sanitation and hygiene cannot be stressed enough.  “Without a good understanding of the link between hygiene and disease, the health benefits of safe water and sanitation can be easily lost.” (6) For instance, even if clean water is available in a household, the health benefits of the clean water will be negated if hand washing and other sanitary practices are not followed. Thus, it is important that water development programs have educational components. For example, programs can hold seminars and educational sessions on good health and hygiene, or on preventing common illnesses such as diarrhea. understands the importance of education; therefore, before they install a new well in a village, they “insist on village-wide education on good hygiene practices and the importance of proper sanitation. Intensive training and motivation seminars on these topics are conducted through the project. Experience tells us without good hygiene practices and safe sanitation, the health benefits of clean water are not sustainable. Regardless of whether a person is drinking clean water, without good hygiene habits (such as hand-washing prior to food preparation) water-related diseases continue to take their toll.”(6)

Measuring and Monitoring Success

Lastly, it is critical to measure and monitor the success of a water program. Wells should be visited regularly to monitor usage, production, and condition, as well as to assess the impact of the clean water on the community. If users are not satisfied with the program, or facilities are not functioning effectively, the problems must be identified, and any necessary modifications should be made. In addition, it is important to focus on outcomes and not on outputs. Many organizations will report that they have drilled X number of wells over a certain time period (an output). However, this statistic is meaningless without knowing how these wells have impacted the population, if they are still functioning properly, and if they have reduced waterborne illnesses (an outcome). In this aspect, is also an example of an organization that focuses on its outcomes and not just on its outputs. For example, of the Honduras project sites surveyed in 2006, 100% were operational and 98% of community respondents were more than satisfied with the water sites, and many sites have existed for over 10 years.(7) In contrast, learn about the failures of the PlayPumps water program at

Other Considerations

An important consideration before drilling wells or starting water programs is determining effective methods to prevent overuse, which is one of the most frequent causes of pump failure. One way to address this issue is to make people pay a small usage fee, which covers maintenance and repair while contributing to the project’s sustainability.(8) “Implementers should strive to instill in users a sense of the need to pay for a water service. The emphasis must be shifted from paying for maintenance of a facility to paying for the provision of safe, adequate and accessible water. This concept of paying for water may be difficult to instill in water users in poor rural communities, but has the potential to remove many barriers to sustainable community financing.” (9)


Improving access to clean water is critical to decreasing waterborne illnesses and deaths from diarrheal diseases. However, simply drilling a well is not an effective use of resources. Local partnerships should be formed, and local community members should be consulted in order to determine community needs and culturally-appropriate technology. It is also critical that programs provide education on proper sanitation and hygiene, and that they are monitored in order to assess their impact and effectiveness. Without such information, it is impossible to know if a program is actually helping or having its intended effects.

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(1) Thompson, T., Sobsey, M., Bartram, J. “Providing clean water, keeping water clean: an integrated approach.” International Journal of Environmental Health Research. 13. (2003). Accessed on 30 March 2011.

(2) Ibid.

(3) “Digging is Easy.” Accessed on 25 April 2011.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Harvey, P., and Bob Reed. Rural water supply in Africa: building blocks for handpump sustainability. (Water Engineering and Development Centre Lough, January 2004). Accessed on 28 March 2011. 

(6) “Digging is Easy.” Accessed on 25 April 2011.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Harvey, P., and Bob Reed. Rural water supply in Africa: building blocks for handpump sustainability. (Water Engineering and Development Centre Lough, January 2004). Accessed on 28 March 2011.