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The sustainable management of water points: analysis of determining factors and ideas to promote the autonomy of water committees in humanitarian projects
Julie Patinet

Though there is a lot of literature about projects to implement water points in development contexts, the same is not true for crisis contexts. And yet, there are many humanitarian projects that involve digging or repairing wells, equipping them with pumps and setting up management committees.


Social water management, an approach which is widely implemented in development contexts, includes all the social mechanisms which make it possible to identify, capture, exploit, transfer, and distribute water, and ensure that infrastructure is maintained and that everyone has regular access within the rules that have been established. As water is managed by an authority that has been socially – and often democratically – recognized, social water management is above all an evolving social construction [1].

Humanitarian projects that involve the setting up of committees (or Water User Associations, Association d’Usager de l’Eau (AUE) [2]) to manage the facilities that have been installed or renovated often take inspiration from development projects. The challenge for these projects is to adapt methods that work in stable situations and make sure that those in charge of running the facilities (the committees) are sufficiently autonomous, that is to say, they are able to run and maintain water points in the long term, after the NGOs have gone. As such, the question is to know whether, despite the fact that methods and approaches have been adapted to humanitarian situations, communities will maintain the infrastructure in the long term, even though it has not been possible to go through all the key steps of social water management. Is it possible to “make up for lost ground” or to replace these steps afterwards during the recovery stage?

Of course, different factors that are specific to emergency situations have an impact, such as displacement, which is one of the main consequences of conflicts. Displacement affects the existing social structure, and this can affect the number of members in existing management committees. Those working on the ground can also experience the social consequences of conflict on communities, who are also affected by violence.

As social water management requires a lot of time (several years at least) and a certain stability, is it not too ambitious to want to develop this kind of approach in emergency relief programmes that sometimes last less than a year? Are management committees absolutely essential? And lastly, what lessons have been learned in humanitarian projects to provide access to water?

This article focuses on drinking water, and does not deal with social management of water for agricultural uses (irrigation) or for pastoral uses, even though this distinction is sometimes theoretical and arbitrary, as a water point can have a number of uses. It is based on evaluations and research work carried out in the Central African Republic (CAR) in the Kabo region (in the North) by SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL (SI). The current crisis in the Central African Republic, which has been going on for years, or even decades, has led to a great deal of displacement. This brings greater complexity and further obstacles in relation to providing people and communities with long-term access to water. The recurring crises in the last fifteen years in the Kabo region have prevented committees from becoming properly established. The article also takes into consideration some lessons from Groupe URD’s Observatory of aid practices in Eastern Chad [3].

The article looks specifically at hand pumps, as this was the technical choice that was made in the projects evaluated in CAR and in Chad. Of course, this is not the only option in terms of access to water, technical choices obviously depending on contextual analysis and concertation with the local stakeholders, beginning with the beneficiaries of aid programmes, who are the future users of the facilities.

[1] According to Thierry Ruf, a Social Water Management specialist.

[2] These are water committees that are officially set up as associations, and as such are in a position to sign contracts with the maintenance company.

[3] Groupe URD ran an Observatory of Aid Practices in Chad from 2009 to 2012. It conducted studies with the aim of helping to improve the quality of the humanitarian response in Chad. From the start, the Observatory had a particular focus on the issue of water, which was part of many humanitarian operations. The fact that there had been development projects involving village-based hydraulics systems in eastern Chad for several decades helped to establish the long-term sustainability of the facilities (development of a maintenance system, training people to repair the manual pumps, developing the capacity of the Chadian authorities in charge) and to share the lessons learned.