For the past several months, I have been working with a team of other researchers in partnership with WaterAid
and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs
to find new techniques for measuring the benefits of improved water and sanitation in rural Madagascar
). Studies of the impact of water and sanitation programs tend to focus on health treatment costs avoided and time saved obtaining water, but our field visits and analysis suggest that water and sanitation development projects can also improve food security, education, and local community governance, and may even introduce new forms of conflict resolution.
After our team’s initial field visit to rural communities around Ambositra, a small commercial town several hours south of the capital, we decided to broaden our scope of analysis. We had noticed that livelihoods and community management were dramatically different in villages with clean water nearby than in villages whose residents continued to walk long distances to sources of questionable quality.
By conducting focus group interviews with community organizations, community councils, and other community leaders, we discovered that the new water projects led to the creation of water committees to oversee the maintenance and long-term use of these services. As these committees gained respect and legitimacy within their communities, they encouraged and managed additional community improvement projects. For instance, one committee collected contributions and organized the construction of a community storage facility for surplus rice harvests (which also stored the tax payments for the new water system, which are often made in rice, not currency). In another village, the water committee members coordinated efforts to self-finance and build a new one-room primary school, which subsequently required the government to fund water and sanitation facilities for the school. This brought water services to an entire new section of the village in addition to the school.
The committees’ direct interaction with the users of the tap stands increased the communities’ trust in the committees, a fact reflected in statements gathered through household surveys. Several water committees organized their communities to participate in a regional economic fair, showcasing their vegetable production and arts and crafts, an opportunity that other villages did not seize.
In addition, the committees codified conflict resolution mechanisms in their founding committee rules, formalizing a crucial tool for mediating conflicts between community members over water. These committees are also empowered to resolve water-related conflicts that existed prior to the project. The water committees are evidence of the first institutions developing in these small communities. Although our report includes suggestions for measuring some of the diverse impacts of improved water and sanitation, such as education and livelihoods, further questions remain: How do we measure the impact of water and sanitation projects on governance and natural resource management? Are there ways to quantify community-level social changes?
Food security is another area that changed after the introduction of improved water sources. The close proximity of water to the houses dramatically increased the variety and quantity of vegetables grown. Our interviews revealed a dramatic upsurge in the cultivation of high-value crops that are more sensitive to rainfall variability. The reliable small-scale irrigation made possible by the water project allowed farmers to cultivate crops that had previously been off-limits to them. These new crops diversified production and decreased dependence on other foods for basic consumption, promoting better nutrition and sustainable harvests. In addition, one water committee actively sought out secondary water sources in order to ensure sufficient water flow throughout the dry season, further increasing households’ food security.
There are additional indicators that we did not have time to adequately study and quantify, including increased environmental awareness; the impact on gender dynamics and women’s earning power; the psychological impact of clean water and improved sanitation; and higher earning potential due to higher rates of school attendance and the attainment of more advanced education levels. The team hopes that additional work will be carried out on these and other potential benefits of water and sanitation projects, so that governments, donors, NGOs, and private citizens will see that these projects are not just investments in pipelines and latrines, but in food security, governance, education, economies, and conflict resolution—all of which contribute to human dignity and security.
Alex Fischer is a policy associate at WaterAid America, where he works on the management and development of water resources. He is also involved with several projects focusing on environmental governance in post-conflict settings. He holds a master of international affairs degree from Columbia University.
Photo: A water system in a village near Ambositra has multiple uses, including drinking water, small-scale irrigation, clothes washing, and composting. Courtesy of Alex Fischer.