Multi-decadal financial assessment of groundwater services for low-income households in rural Kenya

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Conference Proceeding
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Sustainable financing of groundwater-based drinking water supplies in rural Africa poses one of the biggest obstacles to the global Sustainable Development Goal of safely managed water for all by 2030. Hand-pumped groundwater is the chief mode of supplying safe drinking water to rural populations in Africa, yet around one in three systems is non-functional in part due to a failure of users to pay the costs of ongoing operation and maintenance. Yet there is little empirical evidence about what factors determine rural communities’ capacity to collect revenue from users, and the implications this has for the operational sustainability of services and the water source choices of users. We present findings from a unique study that assesses community-based financing of groundwater services in Kwale (Kenya), the location for one of the first ever large-scale programmes involving handpump-equipped boreholes in rural Africa. The study draws on longitudinal financial records kept by 100 water user groups over three decades, coupled with hydrogeological, community, and household-level data collected from over 500 waterpoints and 3,000 households. We find that among those communities collecting fees on a monthly basis, around one in four households fails to pay in the long-run. Multivariable regression analysis reveals that waterpoints that (i) are situated close to households, (ii) draw on groundwater with a pH above 6.5, (iii) produce palatable water, and (iv) support productive water use activities have significantly higher levels of payment compliance. Payment levels are also strongly related to rainfall patterns, suggestive of complex and dynamic decisions about water source preferences. Those communities charging water users on a pay-as-you-fetch volumetric basis generate the highest levels of revenue, and this translates into significantly shorter breakdown durations. Yet this revenue collection approach is also associated with a higher proportion of households using unsafe water sources, a pattern that occurs across all wealth strata. We conclude that this points to a tension between groundwater service goals of financial sustainability and inclusive access, a conundrum that must be addressed if safe water for all is to become a reality in rural Africa.
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