Water Mission: Building Financial Sustainability

Apr 20, 2017 by Will Maule

This article was written by Mike Staub at Water Mission

How does Water Mission plan for the long-term success of our safe water projects? How do we ensure that the essential life-giving water treatment equipment stays in operation for the next generation? In more technical lingo, what is Water Mission’s sustainability plan?

These are questions that I have the privilege of helping answer as one of Water Mission’s newest employees. As someone who has a respect for engineering and a passion for business, I have the unique opportunity to address how our projects maintain functionality, particularly from the financial perspective.

A man collects water to distribute to another community in Mexico.

A man collects water to distribute to another community in Mexico.

In each community Water Mission serves, a Safe Water Committee (SWC) comprised of community leaders is established. Through training and support, we encourage the SWC to organize a revenue-generating business, collecting a sufficient level of fees for water service to cover essential expenses. Water treatment chemicals for disinfection and filtration as well as labor for maintaining the system are essential to the successful day-to-day operation of these water treatment systems. The money necessary to pay for these expenses comes from water sales to consumers throughout the community. Our faithful donors provide the necessary funds to install the systems. However, the ongoing maintenance and operation must be financed by the community.

A man pays the fee to collect water to distribute to another community in Mexico.

Questions the SWCs must consider include:

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- How do we ensure that revenue is sufficient to cover expenses? This may require a marketing and promotion strategy to ensure that there is sufficient demand for the service.

- What is the appropriate price level for the water? We want it to be high enough to cover expenses but low enough to be affordable for lower-income populations.

- Adding another level of complexity, we have to keep in mind that unhealthy water sources are often free. How can the community evaluate the incentives and compete against alternative water sources?

- How do we plan for repairs and replacement of parts after wear and tear breaks down the equipment over 10-20 years?

In addition to short-term expenses, the SWC must also plan for future, long-term expenses, which often vary depending on factors such as the inflation rate, exchange rate, and equipment lifespan. The sources of revenue to meet these expenses come primarily from water sales, but in my recent trip to Uganda, I saw a few other innovative approaches to bolster revenue generation.

A fishing village in Uganda works to make the safe water system sustainable.

Let’s start with a particular fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria with a population of about 2,000. Upon arrival, our Ugandan staff and I were welcomed into one of the churches and generously provided with lunch, which included delicious fish from their most recent catch. Then, we were introduced to the SWC and the president opened with a recitation of the Parable of Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The SWC president explained how the project had been blessed in recent years with a surplus of revenue, and how they are using the excess — and their talents — to administer loans to the community as well as provide opportunity for savings. The interest from loan repayments generates additional revenue to help cover the project’s ongoing costs.

A woman records payments made for safe water.

A man pays for water at a Water Mission safe water treatment facility.

Additionally, the savings and loans program provides further opportunities for community members to improve their livelihoods as a result of the safe water project. They had already made great progress on their own, and were looking to Water Mission for advice on how to expand their financial services to other members of the community. They were a bit unsure as to how much money should be left in the bank as opposed to being lent out to the community. I, along with the Ugandan staff, was able to provide advice regarding maintaining a healthy financial balance while maximizing the program’s value to the community.

A woman waters her garden which was made possible by the safe water treatment system.A woman waters her garden which was made possible by the safe water treatment system.

A woman smiles as she proudly stands in her shop.

A couple other communities were interested in starting a water delivery service, which would eliminate the hassle and lost time of women and children walking to collect water. This raised questions in regards to pricing and how they would finance the equipment necessary for transportation. Another community wanted to expand the piping network which would provide access to additional members of the community. All of these ideas raise the question: how would these additional expenses compare to the potential for increased revenue?

Business decisions are made every day by our SWCs, and they continue to steward the opportunities and resources that are generated as result of each safe water installation. The communities we serve consistently demonstrate their resilience and innovation, though they sometimes ask for additional “technical assistance” from Water Mission to partner with them in answering their questions.

An operator calculates expenses for the safe water treatment system.

A Water Mission staff member teaches about sustainability.

People collect safe water at a project in Peru.

Managing a water system is a massive responsibility that affects a large number of people. The challenge that each SWC faces is how to ensure that safe water continues to flow tomorrow — and next week, and next year, and for generations to come. I consider it a blessing to work alongside the communities we serve in determining best practices regarding the sustainability and longevity of our projects. To learn more about our practices, click here.

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