Water Currents: Learning from Failures

Many international development projects have unintended negative consequences. Without post-implementation evaluation, these unintended consequences can go unnoticed by almost everyone—except the people who were supposed to benefit from the project. Even with evaluations, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) professionals are often reluctant to share poor findings due to perceived repercussions. However, allowing others to learn from mistakes could help to prevent the same problems from happening again.
Several organizations, including USAID, @FSM_Fail, Improve International, the World Bank, and others, are pushing to change this attitude toward failure. They see learning from failure as a way to improve the success and sustainability of programs and projects in the WASH sector.
This issue features articles that talk about failure, how to identify and avoid future failures, and the role of finance in mitigating failure. It includes case studies from Tanzania, Nigeria, and Nepal, as well as studies that discuss learning from failure in rural water supply and urban sanitation systems. Also highlighted are studies that looked at both success and failure, including the first four (in a series of six) ex-post evaluations that discuss factors that affect the long-term sustainability of USAID WASH projects. A special thanks goes out to @FSM_Fail and Improve International for contributing content and reviewing this issue.

Learning from Failures – Overviews
Blunders, Bloopers and Foul-Ups: Sharing Failures in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene ProgramsEngineering for Change, August 2018. Until a culture of sharing and learning from failures is more widely instilled in the WASH sector, practitioners will continue to make the same mistakes, possibly at the expense of those whom the programs are designed to benefit. This article describes how a “failure event” raised awareness of this topic.
The Nakuru Accord: Failing Better in the WASH SectorUniversity of Leeds WASH Blog, January 2019. In July 2018, an event at the Water Engineering Development Centre Conference in Nakuru, Kenya, “Blunders, Bloopers and Foul-ups: A WASH Game Show,” (mentioned above) inspired a call for WASH professionals to publicly commit to sharing their failures and learning from one another. The Nakuru Accord is that commitment.
Opinion: Want to Improve Development Outcomes? Anticipate the Failures. Here's HowDevex, February 2018. This article discusses “premortems,” a strategy in which a team imagines that a project has failed, and then works backward to determine what can lead to failure in order to address the issues before projects start.
WASH: Why Spend a Penny When There’s No ROI? Oxfam, March 2019. Investing in sustainable WASH solutions for fragile contexts can pose a serious challenge. Finance is available for creditworthy WASH enterprises, but how about those that operate in the red? This Oxfam webinar explores investing in models that provide massive social returns but fall short on financial returns.
Mistake Money, Premortems, and Other Ways to Incentivize Talking about FailureCARE, December 2018. In this podcast, Susan Davis of Improve International discusses how we can incentivize talking about failure so we can make new mistakes rather than continue to repeat the old ones. Some tools she suggests are the Nakuru Accord, premortems, and innovative financing mechanisms—what she calls “Mistake Money.”
The Social Sector Must Recognise and Talk about FailureAlliance, February 2019. With pressure to show returns on philanthropic capital, there’s little room to discuss failure. Mitigating huge organizational and programmatic risks, requires building a culture of admitting failure.
Ten Reasons Why Your WASH Project is Failing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Takudzwa Noel Mushamba, WASH Delegate at Swedish Red Cross, January 2019. In the last half a century, numerous externally funded/supported WASH initiatives have been implemented in sub-Saharan Africa. These projects have resulted in many positive changes, but there have also been major failures in some sectors and parts of the continent. These can often be attributed to one of 10 reasons.

Learning from Failures – Country Studies
Why Do So Many Water Points Fail in Tanzania? An Empirical Analysis of Contributing FactorsWorld Bank, February 2019. Researchers analyzed various factors that impact water point failure and measured the relative contributions of these determinants. They found that water points managed by village committees had a much higher likelihood of failure than those managed by private operators or water authorities.
An Evaluation of the Contributing Factors of Water Scheme Failures in NigeriaWorld Bank, March 2018. Approximately 30 percent of all water schemes in Nigeria are likely to fail in the first year. This paper uses information from the 2015 Nigeria National Water and Sanitation Survey to identify the extent and timing of water scheme failure in the country and the factors affecting it. The results indicate that during the first year of operation, factors that can be controlled in the design, implementation, and operational stages contribute to the failure of 61 percent of the water schemes.
Why Are So Many Water Points in Nigeria Non-Functional?: An Empirical Analysis of Contributing FactorsWorld Bank, March 2018. The paper finds that more than 38 percent of all improved water points in Nigeria are nonfunctional, with nearly 27 percent likely to fail in the first year of construction and nearly 40 percent likely to fail in the long run (after eight to 10 years). The paper considers the reasons behind these failures, looking at whether they can or cannot be controlled.
Digging Deep Behind the Complexities of Sustainable Water Supply in NepalIRC WASH Symposium, March 2019. The research identified some common technical problems around pipes, pumps, deep wells, and electrical systems that have increased operation and maintenance (O&M) costs for rural water supply schemes. The collection of unscientifically calculated tariffs and unclear mechanisms to finance capital maintenance have led to insufficient O&M funds, rendering many schemes dysfunctional.
Development Malpractice in Ghana: How Stuff that Doesn’t Work Can Screw Up Stuff that DoesStanford Social Innovation Review, April 2017. This story about several water interventions in northern Ghana illustrates some basic principles of development: there is a huge opportunity cost to failure; most “training” for end users is useless; and it’s all about follow-up.
Blockages to Service Sustainability of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Schools Case Study of Selected Public Schools in Kampala UgandaOntario International Development Agency International Journal of Sustainable Development, November 2018. Generating evidence on the cause of service failures and low sustainability of school WASH services is essential to improve the quality of education. This study assessed blockages to WASH service sustainability in Kampala’s public primary schools to inform the development of sustainable WASH in schools’ service delivery and management models.

Learning from Failures – Water Supply Systems
Risk Factors Associated with Rural Water Supply Failure: A 30-year Retrospective Study of Handpumps on the South Coast of KenyaScience of the Total Environment, December 2017. This retrospective cohort study applies survival analysis to identify factors that predict failure risks for hand pumps installed on boreholes along the south coast of Kenya from the 1980s. Models suggest water point failure risks are higher and lifespans are shorter when water supplied is more saline, static water level is deeper, and groundwater is pumped from an unconsolidated sand aquifer.
The Need for a Standard Approach to Assessing the Functionality of Rural Community Water SuppliesHydrogeology Journal, March 2018. Communal groundwater supplies are likely to remain the main source of improved water supplies for many rural areas in Africa and South Asia for decades to come. Understanding the poor functionality of existing communal supplies remains, therefore, a priority. A critical first step is to establish a sector-wide definition of borehole supply functionality and a standard method of its assessment.
Dry Pipes: Associations between Utility Performance and Intermittent Piped Water Supply in Low and Middle Income CountriesWater, August 2018. Intermittent piped water supply impacts at least 1 billion people around the globe. Given the environmental and public health implications of poor water supply, there is a strong practical need to understand how and why intermittent supply occurs, and what strategies may be used to move utilities toward the provision of continuous water supply.

Learning from Success and Failures
USAID Ex-Post Evaluations – This series of blogs, briefs, reports, and webinars discuss factors that affect the long-term sustainability of USAID WASH projects in urban and rural settings. The ex-post series aims to help inform a holistic understanding of what contributes to sustainability and guide improvements to future programming. The first four evaluations were completed in Madagascar, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and India. The final two evaluations will be completed in Senegal and Mozambique. 
Why Do Water Quality Monitoring Programs Succeed or Fail? A Qualitative Comparative Analysis of Regulated Testing Systems in Sub-Saharan AfricaInternational Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, July 2018. This study examines the conditions that promote successful water quality monitoring in Africa, with the goal of providing evidence for strengthening regulated water quality testing programs.
How Humans Get in the Way of Clean WaterScientific American, January 2019. Many cheap and effective ways are available to provide safe water to the world’s poorest regions. But projects often fail due to inadequate planning, maintenance, or persuasive power.
Leading Factors of Success and Failure in Asian Development Bank Urban Sanitation ProjectsAsian Development Bank (ADB), June 2018. This paper contributes to the stock of knowledge on the factors affecting the success or failure of ADB urban sanitation projects. It identifies factors of success and failure from 63 completed and evaluated projects implemented between 2003 to 2016.

Water Currents
Publication Date: 
25 Apr 2019
Implementing Partners: 
Produced By: 
USAID Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment (E3) Water Office