Before the novelty of the New Year wears off, we decided to pause and reflect on the past twelve months.
In 2015, we brought clean water to an estimated 147,000 people in 39 villages across rural Asia thanks to alliances with some amazing partners – the Coutts Foundation, CITIC Envirotech, UNICEF Cambodia, Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, Sabana REIT, Sir Stamford Raffles Lodge and the participation of committed local communities.
As we navigate a water landscape marked by increasingly complex challenges, we have found a much greater need for deeper collaboration across sectors and stronger grassroots participation in the communities we work in. Although provisioning of infrastructure has been relatively easy, ensuring that service delivery continues and people benefit in the long term, has continued to be difficult. In sustaining positive outcomes, collective effort is vital but in itself has also proven challenging.
Investment in human capital valuable
In both our Community Water Enterprise and Village Water Management programmes, we work closely with, and help to develop the capacities of, local communities, giving them greater ownership and enabling them to manage the facilities and water service delivery on their own. Although technical workshops are conducted to transfer knowledge and skills, through our monitoring and evaluation activities we have found that local capacities remain weak and continued support and guidance is needed after handover. This is because developing capacity cannot be achieved overnight and takes time. It therefore needs to be to be addressed well after projects are handed over.
To that end, we have implemented water quality testing training sessions and periodic meetings with the water management committees for each location, post-project handover. We are also reviewing our training curriculum on a more regular basis, taking into account feedback from participants and stakeholders as well as the outcomes of previous sessions.
The additional investments we have put into building local capacities extend to internal human capital within our organisation as well. On top of our regular yearly retreats, we also organised intensive 3-days workshops this year bringing teams from the various countries together to share knowledge and experiences, and brainstorm ideas. Despite language and cultural differences, the workshops were valuable in providing a space for colleagues to learn from one another and will be something we continue to experiment with in the coming year.
We were also fortunate to have one of our major partners, CITIC Envirotech, a key player in the water and wastewater treatment business in China, conduct an intensive 1 day technical training session for our staff in China, who in turn also shared their on-the-ground experiences and challenges working in remote, rural areas. Expanding on our partnerships with other stakeholders can hopefully enable more of such inter-organisational learning and lead to greater innovation within and strengthening of, the rural water supply sector in Asia.
Acting on meaningful monitoring data can make a difference
Efforts put in to achieve sustainable outcomes can be undone by a variety of unanticipated factors. It is therefore important that organizations invest resources into monitoring activities, and continue to use meaningful data collected to inform future activities.
Through our monitoring activities, we have collected sufficient data over the past few years that have exposed gaps in our programme delivery and enhanced our understanding of project outcomes. This year we rolled out improved initiatives that addressed these gaps by enhancing previous activities and piloting new approaches.
We found that some villages where Community Water Enterprises had been transferred to the local community sometime ago continue to have a low demand for clean water. Our recent pilot aims to increase the convenience of obtaining clean water for more of our intended beneficiaries through the hire of door-to-door water promoters and the encouragement of entrepreneurs to set up retail distribution points. The results are promising with the reach of the water service delivery increasing by 12 percentage points at the end of the 3-months pilot. We will likely extend the pilot to other projects and will continue to monitor the results.
We also started conducting health and hygiene sessions in each village instead of on a commune level as we found that villagers who were interested in attending these sessions were turned away by the inconvenience of travelling to another village. Initial results have been encouraging but with improvements still insignificant – attendance rates have improved marginally, we will continue to monitor the results.
For both our programmes, a common issue that came up repeatedly was time and resources wasted on manual data entry for surveys. We piloted an e-survey tool designed to reduce the time our teams spend on recording and organizing data. The tool has been field tested and modified a few times, however there continues to be issues with usability.
Water quality monitoring is another challenge. Regular water quality monitoring can be prohibitive both in terms of laboratory testing costs as well as costs involved in sending the samples for testing (due to remoteness of the communities). As such, we developed a simple on-site water test kit, keeping in mind the need for it to be cheap and simple to use. It is a simple kit that tests multiple key water indicators, and while not very accurate is able to flag possible problems with water quality for further lab-testing if required.
Converting awareness into action requires a creative approach
Raising awareness and getting the public in Singapore and the region to partner us in the clean water cause is a challenge, with local rules and regulations hampering our efforts in public fundraising and with many companies in Singapore without a social investment focus in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene). This year, we decided to take a more creative approach, with three campaigns launched to target different audiences by experimenting with various mechanisms and platforms. We experimented with interactive games and recycled sculptures (The Water Machine and SOTA Partnership) for example, and a media-oriented communications project that tells the stories of the people on the Mekong (A River’s Tail). We have received positive responses so far, and generated significant interest through such campaigns.