April 2022

Keeping it REAL for the Future of Rural Water Services Delivery

Providing safe, reliable water supply to rural populations is among the most difficult challenges of international development. Water represents a fundamental human health need as well as a critical factor for maintaining household hygiene, enabling food production, and supporting the industries that allow societies to flourish.

While a formidable undertaking, there has certainly been progress. More than 40 years have now passed since the beginning of United Nations’ International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1980-1990), and between 2015 and 2020, the proportion of rural populations covered by safely managed drinking water services did increase – by an average of 7 percentage points per year, according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP)’s most recent progress report.

Still, as of 2020, less than a third (28%) of the rural population of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) has access to safely managed drinking water services. In Sub-Saharan Africa, barely over one in ten rural households (13%) were served by safely managed supplies in 2020; indeed, less than half of the rural population of Sub-Saharan Africa enjoyed access to even basic services, defined by JMP as drinking water from an improved source with under 30 minutes of collection time, including queuing. Worldwide, of the roughly 800 million people who lacked basic drinking water services in 2020, roughly 80% lived in rural areas, and half of those were in LDCs.

A group of people collecting water from a handpump in Northern Uganda.
APAC, UGANDA – May 14, 2021: A group of people collecting water from a handpump in Northern Uganda.

What policies, programs, and systems can accelerate and sustain the provision of safe water to rural populations? One of the ways that USAID seeks to answer this question is through its new centrally funded research project, Rural Evidence and Learning for Water (REAL-Water). Staffed by a consortium of academic researchers, practitioners, and sector analysts, as well as a global convening organization, REAL-Water will spend the next five years building the evidence base for increasing the performance of rural water supply systems, including protection and management of the water resources on which they depend.

Fifteen years after the end of its first declared water and sanitation decade, the United Nations pronounced the ten years between 2005 and 2015 the “Water for Life” decade. During these two celebrated water-focused periods, the dominant paradigm for rural water has shifted. Coming into the 1980s, central governments were commonly expected to build and operate supply systems (even as sovereign budgets were nowhere near sufficient to meet that responsibility). Over the course of the 1990s and into the Water for Life decade, the notion of community involvement and management gained support, and along with it, an honest recognition of the limited capacities of rural populations to successfully and sustainably run their own water supply systems in the absence of financial and technical support.

Of late, the community management imperative has begun to give way to the concept of service delivery. This directs focus past capital construction of pumps and pipes toward the professional operation and maintenance of water supply systems over time, along with the financial reserves required to support it. For example, the recently concluded USAID-funded Sustainable WASH Services Learning Partnership (via its partners IRC and Whave in Uganda, Fundifix in Kenya, and IRC in Ethiopia) made a convincing case that professionalized scheduled maintenance and repairs can substantially improve performance of rural water systems.


The REAL-Water project focal areas and the relationships between them. Design: Harold Lockwood, Aguaconsult; Vanessa Guenther, Aquaya

Building in part on the Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership, REAL-Water consists of three main research domains. The first, led by Aguaconsult, Ltd., asks how government oversight, professionalized support to community-managed rural water services, and alternative management models can be employed to increase the sustainability, quality, and reach of rural water services.

The second domain, led by Aquaya, focuses on the models and factors for improving routine drinking water quality monitoring and drinking water safety in rural, resource-poor environments.

The Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation (CSEI) at India’s Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) leads research in the third domain on water resources planning, seeking to identify and overcome its most important obstacles at scales relevant to rural water service authorities in low- and middle-income countries. 

To test our research hypotheses in real-world conditions, REAL-Water is fortunate to include one of Africa’s premier academic research institutions –Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) – as well as two consortium partners that build, operate, and maintain rural water systems: Water Mission and Safe Water Network.

Making sure that REAL-Water asks the most important rural water supply questions in the most sensible ways requires effective engagement with both local and global water sector actors. The Skat Foundation’s Rural Water Supply Network, with thousands of members worldwide, will be instrumental in this regard.


Portrait of Ranjiv and Jeff
REAL-Water podcast co-hosts Ranjiv Khush (left) and Jeff Albert (right). Photo: Kiki Photography

In addition, we are pleased to introduce the REAL-Water podcast. Project Director Ranjiv Khush and Deputy Director Jeff Albert will co-host conversations asking the most important questions on rural water supply, featuring practitioners, analysts, government officials, and donors. The podcast will provoke discussions intended to “keep it REAL” by challenging our underlying assumptions, including scrutiny of the potential for research and evidence to drive big changes in policy and practice. The REAL-Water podcast will probe rural water challenges through three lenses: financing, governance, and innovation.

With respect to the first of these lenses, we must be sober about the reality that rural water supply systems are rarely financially viable. As Oxford University’s Rob Hope and colleagues have recently written, the economics of rural water are fundamentally different, because of the dual challenges of scale (low numbers of sparsely located customers) and uneven demand (a function of rural customers shifting their multiple water sourcing behaviors seasonally). The REAL-Water podcast will explore who currently pays for rural water supply services, whether they pay enough, and what service tariff “affordability” means. Under what circumstances are the collected tariffs sufficient for reliable service, where they are not, and how can we make up the difference? What do we know about how to direct public and donor funds in ways that maximize not only accountability, but also efficiency and performance?

The governance lens will probe how government institutions are equipped to deliver basic services. It will explore what kind of management arrangements are optimal in different contexts, from community-based management to public utility service provision, public-private partnerships, and delegated professionalized maintenance.

Finally, the innovation lens will examine what novel technologies and institutional arrangements can lead to better cost recovery, more consistent water quality monitoring and treatment, and ultimately more reliable rural water system performance.

We at REAL-Water are super-excited about this journey and hope you will join us!

Ranjiv Khush and Jeff Albert of the Aquaya introduce the podcast of the USAID-funded REAL Water project, a research effort dedicated to solving one of the great development challenges of our time: delivering safe and reliable water supply services to the hundreds of millions of rural citizens who do not yet enjoy it.

Listen to the REAL-Water Podcast on AnchorSpotifyApple Podcasts, and Amazon Music.

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