WASH that lasts! | RVO.nl

Service menu right

WASH that lasts!

More articles
FDW WASH newsletter photo header

Providing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is more than just placing new taps or toilets. For Michiel Slotema, it is all about how long they last. He is the programme coordinator of the Netherlands government programme Sustainable Water Fund (FDW).

FDW supports public-private partnerships (PPPs) that aim to realise sustainable and scalable WASH models and services worldwide. In this interview, Michiel reflects on the programme and gives his view on how PPPs can contribute to keeping WASH services going.

"Creating access to clean water and improved latrines requires a system, a service working along the entire value chain," says Michiel. Such a system can create the right conditions to transition from free to paid WASH services. Money becomes available to pay skilled workers to keep the water and sanitation facilities going and start making improvements. "But the effort and time it requires to get there should not be underestimated," warns Michiel.

There are many obstacles along the way. "Once you have supported access to a community pump, the next step is a house connection to the water grid (or a mix!). The same goes for toilets. You start with a basic latrine, then move up the sanitation ladder. To do this, you have to develop the entire ecosystem."


Universal access to WASH means more to Michiel than just numbers. "Let's say we can create access to WASH for 200,000 people. But after 2 years, only 20,000 have access because the installations are broken or poorly maintained. In that case, we have not served these communities well." This is where the PPP projects of FDW come in. "We support public-private partnerships that aim to develop self-sustaining ecosystems."

An example of such a partnership is a project in the Philippines where a local water utility gradually extends its piped networks to low-income communities in collaboration with a social enterprise. The gradual introduction of billing systems leads to these communities becoming regular utility customers.

Economics of scale

According to Michiel, the introduction of paid water services never goes according to plan, especially in areas where free water has been the norm for decades. He cites an example from a project in Mali where a private operator and the local authority committed to a 15-year agreement to provide drinking water. "It was initially planned only to introduce foot pumps. Yet, the willingness to pay for these pumps was low. With the introduction of solar pumps, the service level increased, and people were gradually more willing to pay for their drinking water."

According to Michiel, this was a valuable lesson for both partners. "But it was not enough for a viable business case. So, they also introduced piped schemes to create economies of scale and (potentially) breakeven. Had the partnership focused purely on reaching as many people as possible, we would have missed the bigger picture of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem," says Michiel.

He admits that moving from free water to paid services in fragile contexts is a big ask. "Creating an enabling environment with supportive government policies and strong donor coordination is important." He cautions against providing free hand pumps in areas introducing paid services.

Much to learn

Michiel spent several years in Bangladesh at the Netherlands embassy. "Walking through communities, I saw one handpump after another not functioning. Here, I learnt that access to clean water or a toilet is not enough. It needs a systems approach."

So he did not hesitate for a moment when he got the opportunity to move to the Netherlands to work on the FDW programme. "It had sustainability at its core by bringing the private sector into the ODA mould. While PPPs are developing promising models and services, It is not all roses and happy endings. There is much to learn," he adds.

As an example, he mentions the FDW Waste-to-Energy project in Bangladesh. "The business case was simple: collect household faecal and solid waste. Put this in a digester to get 2 revenue streams: natural gas and organic fertiliser. At the current energy prizes, this is a no-brainer. Alas, the 2 private companies could not agree on the profit-sharing, and we agreed to stop the project".

Still puzzled

The Country Director at Practical Action in Bangladesh, Shawkat Begum, is still puzzled over what happened. Her organisation is a leading partner in the FDW project. Begum acknowledges that all conditions for success were there. "The companies assured us that market assessments had proved that demand was there, 2 cities supported us and made land available for the treatment plant, and the business model was there. The partnership could scale up compost and biogas production in more cities."

Shawkat cannot quite put her finger on what made the project stop. "I organised many meetings with all partners, and every time they assured me they believed in the business model. However, the digestor supplier refused to ship their installation from the United Kingdom. The Bangladesh operator refused to deliver their part of the deal and start the site preparations. Did they privately doubt the market assessment for the sales of the biogas? Was it a commitment issue? Or was it mistrust?

Whatever the reasons, their talks were not followed by action," she noticed. Her attempts had failed to moderate 2 private partners on sharing the expected significant profits. "After many deadlines, we had to conclude the partnership was no longer viable, and the project was stopped."

For Michiel, the lessons learnt from this specific PPP project are straightforward. "Trust is the foundation, especially for these special types of partnerships that work on system change.

To be successful, they must draw on each other's expertise. And they must be adaptive to overcome the many obstacles that continuously pop up," he finally remarks. Many FDW projects are ongoing, and he hopes learnings will improve the models underlying the collaborations and their efforts to introduce lasting WASH services.

Is this information useful?

Required fields are marked with a *
May we approach you for a user survey? *