Lifeline’s Partners in Action series highlights the dedicated individuals and innovative ideas behind the partnerships that make our work possible.
Dr. Daniel W. Smith is an environmental engineer who studies how people and communities interact with and pay for water supply and sanitation improvements. A graduate of Cornell University, he worked for several years on hazardous waste remediation in the United States before winning a Fulbright Scholarship to study the impacts of gravity-powered drinking water treatments plants in Honduras. Since then, he has dedicated his career to expanding global access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene as a manager of nonprofit programs in Latin America and East Africa, by conducting applied research, and working with The World Bank’s Water Global Practice. He has worked on a series of studies related to preventive maintenance for rural water supply with International Lifeline Fund in Uganda since 2018. He lives with his wife, Yasmin, in Menlo Park, California, where he enjoys mountain biking, skiing, Latin American literature, baseball, and running with their Italian greyhound.
Lifeline: Tell us about your work in Uganda. What were you investigating and why? What are some of the big unknowns you are working to answer?
Dan: My study with Lifeline in Uganda investigates rural communities’ demand for more reliable handpumps provided through a professionalized maintenance and repair service. Much more international development money and attention are spent on building new water supplies than on maintenance. This is a big factor in the high rate of failure of water points in low- and middle income countries, which is estimated at 25-40%! But even in lower-income areas, more and more people are gaining at least basic access to drinking water, so figuring out how to maintain all these water points – and how to pay for that maintenance – is becoming a higher priority than ever. This is especially true in Uganda, where Lifeline, among other actors in the water sector, is reckoning with the puzzle of rural water supply maintenance. Despite increasing interest in maintenance globally and in Uganda, no one had measured demand for handpump maintenance in an experimentally valid way. This left a big knowledge gap regarding how much the global water sector should expect rural water users to pay for this type of service, and thus what strategies to finance maintenance might be sustainable.
Our study specifically focused on measuring how much water committees in Apac and Kwania districts were both willing and able to pay for EverFlow, Lifeline’s maintenance and repair service, and how that level of demand compared to the cost to provide the service. We also sought to identify the characteristics of communities and their water points that were associated with higher or lower demand. We did this in a representative sample of communities across the two districts so that our results would be as generalizable as possible, and not limited to only those communities who might be predisposed to want (or reject) a professionalized maintenance service for their handpump.
Lifeline: How did you come to pursue this project with Lifeline?
Dan: With a blend of planning, serendipity, and concerted action between Stanford and Lifeline! In terms of planning, I had chosen the theme of willingness and ability to pay for water supply improvements for my dissertation. I had sketched out a study design for testing it for the increasingly timely topic of rural water supply maintenance. I had held conversations with a few organizations, but none were a good fit for the type of big field experiment I wanted to pursue. Then my advisor mentioned that she’d seen some organization present about preventive maintenance in Uganda at a conference, and it turned out to be Lifeline. I got in touch, and within a few months I met Lifeline staff at Uganda Water & Environment week in Entebbe, Uganda. We hit it off immediately, both personally and in terms of what we wanted to learn about demand for rural water supply maintenance, and resolved to move forward with the project. After that, it took a few years of continuous work to plan, get various approvals for, and then conduct the research. Through it all, I truly enjoyed working with Lifeline staff and the extra team members we put together for the project.
Lifeline: How will the findings move us toward a world where everyone has sufficient access to clean water?
Dan: There were three key findings of the study on demand for rural water maintenance that I think are really important for the water sector in Uganda and globally:
1) EverFlow delivered a service that cut the average time to repair a handpump from 14 days under the baseline community management scenario to 1.5 days and satisfied most customers. If it were implemented district-wide, it would cost less to sustain the current level of water supply coverage than the de facto system of letting handpumps fall into disrepair and doing major rehabilitations or replacing them. Along with similar positive service delivery results from other professionalized rural water maintenance services in East Africa, I think this demonstrates that professionalizing water maintenance and repair is technically feasible even in low-income, rural areas. Future research and policies should advance professionalization.
2) Despite the positive service delivery results, it was clear that most communities were not willing and able to pay for even the operational costs of the more reliable handpumps provided by professionalized service. While it may sound obvious that low-income, rural communities would have low demand for maintenance, it has remained the assumption of the rural water supply sector for the last 30 years that communities would pay for their own O&M. This result clearly shows that a substantial subsidy and/or a change in the institutional incentives for maintaining water supplies are needed to achieve the higher standard of reliability envisioned in SDG 6. Governments and development funders need to allocate more resources and/or change their funding systems in favor of O&M if the sector’s stated goals are to be achieved.
3) Importantly, we also found that communities, local governments, nonprofits, and donors have low incentives to pay for handpump maintenance within the current institutional system. Communities pay <1% of the cost of new handpumps or rehabilitations, and 25% received some type of free support for repairs from local government, nonprofits, or political candidates during the study period. Most households also live within 1 km of more than one water source. Given this set up, it might make more sense for communities to only do minimal maintenance on a handpump and wait for the big repairs to be paid for by somebody else. That wealthier communities were no more likely to pay for professionalized maintenance than poorer ones supported this interpretation. The upshot is that it is not necessarily communities inability to pay but their choices within the current incentive structure that limit demand for EverFlow and similar services. Future programs and investments that seek to institute maintenance need to seriously consider how the real-world incentives among communities and institutions will impact their results.
Lifeline: What was most surprising aspect of this study?
Dan: The most surprising thing was finding that several pieces of received wisdom about what determines communities’ demand for professionalized handpump maintenance and repair service did not materialize in the data. Wealthier communities were not willing to pay more for the service. Nor were communities’ whose handpump had been less reliable in the year prior to the study. And communities’ whose handpump had saltier water were actually more likely to pay to maintain it than communities with fresher water…These were all puzzling findings! What I take away is that doing a large, randomized, and prospective price experiment let us learn about these drivers of demand with more nuance than what we often have to assume in the data-scarce rural water sector. Within communities, water users’ trust in the water committees was a much stronger predictor of demand than wealth or handpump reliability. And communities with saltier water may be those with fewer other water sources, so they could be more willing to pay even for a supply that doesn’t have the best taste.
On a more personal level, it was a huge logistical and human resources effort to conduct a study across two entire districts. Happily, Lifeline’s Uganda office was up to the task. My thesis advisor, Dr. Jenna Davis, and I, along with several Stanford students, worked closely with Lifeline leadership to orchestrate 30+ people, several organizations, lodgings, food, and transportation over 10 weeks of baseline data collection and months of follow up. When we think about research we often think about theory, number crunching, and writing. But I learned that to gather data at the scale of 150+ communities as we did, researchers need a committed implementation partner with strong administrative capacity like Lifeline.
Lifeline: What comes next: how do you hope these findings get translated into larger policy or action?
Dan: I hope that these findings will inform the next generation of rural water supply development policy in Uganda and other countries that are making a concerted effort to crack the puzzle of sustaining O&M. Our findings show that while communities are willing and able to pay some amount for maintenance, achieving the sector goals for high reliability will need more public and development funding allocated to O&M. Uganda should be commended for already having a rural water O&M policy, first published in 2019. But that policy has the funding expectations almost backwards: it calls for communities to pay 85% of the O&M costs with the balance subsidized. Our results suggest that communities would be more likely to pay 15%, assuming no other conditions are changed. The good news is that if Uganda and other countries do see the light and seriously invest in rural water O&M they will reap the benefits of avoiding the public sector and donors having to pay for costly rehabilitations and replacements, saving those funds for building new infrastructure where it is really needed.
Along with my Lifeline colleagues, I’ve presented our results at Uganda Water & Environment Week, at the biggest water conference in the world (Stockholm World Water Week), and in an academic paper that is being reviewed. So we have done a good job of sharing at those level, but I think we need to redouble efforts to connect with the national government decision makers, multilateral finance institutions, and donors on a more practical and conversational level. We should do so in alliance with the several other nonprofits and research organizations that are studying preventive maintenance in Uganda. Having those more personal conversations will be important to learn how these findings, and those of our peers, can be framed to make the case for taking rural water professionalization to a massive scale, which I believe is warranted by our findings.
Lifeline: Can you share an unusual/amusing anecdote that you experienced while working with the rural communities in Apac/Kwania?
Dan: On the second day of our big baseline data collection effort it rained heavily. I was working from the office, waiting for the four field teams to return in their ‘taxis’ (transport vans). Three of the four teams rolled in not too late, but the last was taking so long that I was getting worried. When it finally got in at dusk, the team members were wet and muddy but laughing uproariously. It turns out their van got so badly stuck in the mud in the village they’d visited that it nearly turned over. Their mobile phone pictures showed it spinning out at 45 degrees from the ground! But the team took it in stride, pushed and pulled, and finally got it unstuck. Instead of becoming a liability, the incident turned into a team-building exercise. It was a real testament to the quality of the enumerator (household and water committee surveying) team that they converted a near disaster into a source of unity.