Investment to increase the coverage of water supply infrastructure has been a key component of global goals, government targets, and projects throughout the aid sector. The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era set out coverage targets, including target 7c “to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation” by 2015. While this target was globally delivered in 2010, areas within Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) fell behind [1
]. A global focus for coverage continued into the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) era in 2015 through goal 6, which aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. The SDGs focus on coverage also requires the same, if not greater, emphasis on local sustainability to ensure continued service delivery, particularly for rural water supply. While the performance under the MDGs expressed positive progress in rural water supply usage and access at the global level, MDG indicators may hide a low level of local service, which may hinder progress under new SDGs coverage targets [2
The SDG agenda makes the commitment to ‘leave no one behind’, in which attention and priorities are required for disadvantaged groups and the elimination of inequalities for service delivery [4
]. To fulfil this, SDG target 6.1 states “Achieve access to safe and affordable drinking water”. This ambitious target moves from “halving the proportion without sustainable access” stated in MDG 7c to ‘universal access’ and recognises the importance of reducing inequalities as part of sustainable access. Affordability, a key aspect of equity [5
], was initially included in the MDG target for water but later removed, as described by Bartram et al. [6
]. Its importance was subsequently recognised for global SDG targets set post-2015 [7
]. However, SDG 6.1 still reflects its predecessor (MDG 7c), as focus remains with global coverage of drinking water. Affordability is not reflected by the set indicator (SDG 6.1.1), which states “Proportion of population using safely managed drinking water service”. While the term ‘safely managed’ addresses the quality, availability, and accessibility of an improved source [8
], the affordability of the improved source lacks consideration. This has implications for reducing poverty (SDG 1), particularly in low-income countries due to the synergy between the SDG targets [9
]. Payment for services should not prevent access to clean water, however, there is no commonly agreed approach to defining affordability or its monitoring [4
The efficient operations and maintenance (O&M) of infrastructure investments are key to fulfilling the SDGs. Discussion around the O&M of infrastructure is common in the rural water sector, and efforts into establishing service provision to conduct and finance O&M have been ongoing since the 1980s [11
]. Technologies, national policies, and sector strategies for rural water supply have embraced the ‘village level operations and maintenance’ (VLOM) approach, most notably the development and standardisation of community handpumps [15
]. However, the movement and argument that ‘communities are always capable of managing their facilities on their own’ has not solved the issues associated with rural water supply in SSA, with only two out of three handpumps working at a given time [17
]. It is widely acknowledged that the community based management (CBM) approach to rural water supply is reaching its limits of what can be achieved through informality and voluntarism [12
], particularly when policy dictates for long-term sustainability. Despite this recognition, CBM continues to be the dominant approach to rural water supply management in the sector, which requires professionalism and long term institutional support to mediate the challenges of participation [13
It is well established in CBM that O&M is a continuous challenge for rural water service providers, and sustainability as the success is dependent on multi-dimensional factors, i.e., hydrogeological, socio-cultural, financial, and poor infrastructure [18
]. The infrastructure and management of rural water service delivery are interlinked. Exploring the relationships between systems and influencing factors can improve the understanding of how these relationships contribute to water service delivery and system breakdown [24
]. Rural communities and service providers that struggle to provide the required maintenance and major repairs required for operational sustainability will see a decline in service and unreliable sources that undermine the sustainability of service delivery [3
]. This negative feedback loop highlights the need to continually support the community to ensure sustainability [4
The lack of financial resources for O&M is one of the many issues that impact the long-term functionality of an asset. Tariffs are typically the primary financial mechanism to fund maintenance for the sustainability of rural water supply assets, which translate to user fees or household contributions [4
]. Notably, user contributions may reflect payments upon breakdown, as action may only be taken upon water point breakdown [19
]. Tariffs have generally been specified as no more than 3% of household income to reflect affordability within the human right to water. While this benchmark aims to address affordability, this is not guaranteed [30
]. Furthermore, tariffs may be set to be affordable for users, but insufficient for sustainable service delivery, that may precipitate a high risk of a cycle of service decline, non-payments by users, and further service deterioration [20
Acceleration towards the attainment and localizing the SDGs is increasingly important [32
]. However, the balance between cost recovery and affordability is a complex dilemma when setting tariffs at the local level. Service providers and communities struggle with this balance in which additional financial mechanisms are required to reconcile from a human rights perspective [33
]. This raises the question of the effectiveness of fulfilling SDG 6.1 when the balance of affordability and sustainable maintenance in the rural context are a perpetual challenge.
This study investigates the balance of affordability and O&M costs when tariffs are set by rural water service providers, and how these change over different management contexts. To achieve this, data for service providers and tariff coverage for the O&M of drilled boreholes equipped with Afridev handpumps across Malawi were examined. Variations in decentralised service provisions for these assets and the considerations when establishing tariffs and revenue collection were investigated. A binary logistical regression analysis permitted identification of significant explanatory variables for affordability and O&M cost considerations when setting tariffs at the local level.
Tariffs in the form of household contributions have been the primary financial mechanism for sustainably maintaining rural water supplies, however, balancing affordability and O&M costs at the local level has been challenging. This paper provides insights into the setting of tariffs in Malawi for decentralised rural water supplies, that have implications for monitoring the service provision of assets and ultimately meeting SDG 6.1.
The breakdown of service provision primarily conforms to CBM and Malawian national policy in the form of WPCs. A proportion of water supply assets have no service provider or no tariff set for O&M, reinforcing the case for universal post-construction support. Tariffs are primarily collected per month, per year, and when required for repairs across rural Malawi. Potential financial resources hence vary across the water points life-cycle, resulting in implications for long term sustainability and maintenance practices. Long term sustainability is further challenged as tariffs are unlikely to be sufficient for maintaining and eventual, or premature, rehbailitation or replacement of assets.
The results of the binary logistic regression analysis demonstrate significant explanatory variables associated with the most common considerations identified by the results, affordability and O&M costs, in both univariable and multivariable adjusted models. Notable drivers behind these considerations include the frequency of tariff collection and the number of users. In particular, less frequent tariffs and usage above the design limit of the Afridev (300 users) had lower odds of considering affordability and higher odds of considering O&M costs, than tariffs collected per month and within the design limit. This highlights the potential trade-offs in the financing of services due to over usage that can hinder the achievement of the SDGs. Considerations are also influenced by the type of service provision. Area Mechanics are less likely to consider the O&M costs and more likely to consider affordability compared to WPC’s, while community members are less likely to consider O&M costs compared to WPC’s, supporting wider evidence for post-construction support and training. The results further suggest a recognition by service providers of the increased maintenance challenges. Increased usage, conducting preventative maintenance, acquiring spare parts and the collection of tariffs when repairs are required indicate an increased likelihood of considering O&M costs in tariffs. Overall, the balance of affordability and O&M costs is a noticable challenge throughout the results for the various service providers in the tariffs that are set, that have implications for ensuring sustainable service delivery.
Reflection is required into how affordability is established in Malawi and as an indicator of the SDGs. As MDG 7c disregarded affordability as an indicator, it is crucial for SDG 6.1 to address this indicator by looking outside the established models of rural water supply, such as CBM, and consider the context in which user contributions are established. While there are numerous factors when setting tariffs, the priorities of decentralised service providers may drastically differ across contexts and diverge from the required life-cycle costs of assets. Furthermore, tariffs that are considered affordable in one context may not be considered affordable in another. Successful sustainable services require investment to go beyond solely water access, into the monitoring and supporting of the financial and operational requirements of O&M. This is to ensure payment for services does not prevent access to clean water and breaking the cycle of poverty within the SDG agenda.
Further research should address how the trends in tariffs under decentralised service provision varies socio-geographically and environmentally. Determining the influence local socio-cultural contexts have on service providers is important for establishing affordable financial mechanisms for O&M and reflecting the targets of SDG 6.1.