Access to clean water and sanitation in the Global South is often hampered by the failure of governments to develop the necessary infrastructure. Even when governments do invest in infrastructure, it often deteriorates because users cannot or will not pay water tariffs.
Community-based water management (CBWM) attempts to solve the problem by mobilising community members to pay for and operate water infrastructure. In the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) has introduced this approach in more than 400 rural communities totalling 100,000 households, through its Water and Sanitation Extension Programme (WASEP).
So far, the approach appears to have worked well in rural areas with small and presumably tightly knit communities. AKAH is now scaling up WASEP to more urban areas in the region that have much larger and more transient populations and different social dynamics.
To determine if scaling up is feasible, the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) in London has launched a study of WASEP across Gilgit-Baltistan, including two large recent urban water schemes in Jutial and Danyore.
The study brings together researchers in economics, anthropology, geography, the environmental sciences and engineering from AKU-ISMC and Karakoram International University (KIU) in Gilgit, as well as engineers and development practitioners from AKAH. AKU-ISMC Associate Professor Jeff Tan, an economist who has published on water and infrastructure privatisation, is the project’s principal investigator. Co-investigators are AKU-ISMC Professor Stephen Lyon and Professor Attaullah Shah of KIU.
Evidence for the study will be drawn from interviews with 1,200 households in more than 60 WASEP and non-WASEP control sites across Gilgit-Baltistan, along with focus group discussions, water quality testing and engineering audits.
The study focuses on the factors that influence the willingness of community members to make monetary and in-kind contributions to construct infrastructure, and to make monthly tariff payments. It will examine whether successful social mobilisation is related to the size of a community, wider institutional support, religious affiliation, education levels and social structures. It will look into sources of conflict such as the passage of pipes over privately owned land and whether issues related to social status or sectarianism undermine social mobilisation within a community.
It will also investigate how local terrain affects project management, and the extent to which women benefit from and contribute to social mobilisation and improved health and hygiene outcomes.
“Sustainable water systems are at the heart of thriving communities,” Tan said. “This study will generate valuable lessons on the social, economic, cultural and technical factors that govern the management of scarce water resources and enable local communities to improve their livelihoods.”
The research team hopes that the lessons learnt will be of interest not only to AKAH but to the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan and actors elsewhere in the developing world where access to water is a problem. The two-year project is funded by the British Academy’s Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being programme.