Safe, sustainable water and sanitation services are among the most cost-effective investments in community development—particularly when combined with improved hygiene behaviors (aka “WASH”).
If you’ve been watching the WASH sector for any time at all, you’ve seen statistics trying to point out just how cost-effective these services are—stats like, “$20 can provide clean water for one person for 20 years.” A few years ago, a lot of us (present company included) were citing statistics like this to get people excited about donating toward water and sanitation systems. Over the past few years, though, we’ve been learning that it takes more—and costs more—to build systems that are truly safe and sustainable.
As of this week, we have some new insight. The real per-person cost for basic water supply from a borehole and hand pump, it turns out, should include at least $20 to $61 for construction plus $3-6 per year to keep it working. That’s $50-$121 per person over 10 years, or $80-$181 for 20. On the sanitation side, a traditional pit latrine should be expected to cost $37-$106 per person over 20 years.
These numbers are from a new set of minimum benchmarks published by WASHCost, a research project of IRC, which has spent the past five years collecting data from Burkina Faso, Ghana, India, and Mozambique (full report here). The main discovery here is that many NGOs don’t plan for the operation and maintenance, capital maintenance, and other types of support needed to keep water flowing and latrines working; either that, or they severely underestimate their costs. Offering “cheap” projects causes donors to be unwilling to give the dollars it really costs to build and maintain sustainable systems, and only harms the people we all claim we’re out to help.
The bottom line? If you give to organizations that install water and sanitation systems, and they claim numbers significantly lower than these (remember—these are minimums), you should ask some hard questions. Are they working to support communities for the long term, helping them build capacity to manage their own systems? Do they really understand what this takes, and what it costs?