On my first trip to Honduras in the early 1990s, I visited the municipality of La Virtud in southern Lempira and learned a very good lesson:  implementing a water project that will last is not easy. The water project I was visiting suffered the same fate as an estimated 50% of water systems in poor countries: it had stopped working after a few years and no one had repaired it.

The failure of the La Virtud water project meant that the women and girls it served had returned to the drudgery of carrying water from distant, contaminated sources; some girls had to drop out of school because they were carrying water; many people – mostly children who are more vulnerable – were getting sick from the water; and some families reported that their children had died. But I think perhaps the worst part of this failure was the palpable feeling that the people of La Virtud had completely lost hope that their quest for clean, convenient water supplies might not ever end.

The first failed water project I ever saw in Honduras, circa 1990.

There are many reasons that water projects fail, and none of them are that organizations who implement projects are not well-intentioned. The main reason projects fail is because communities have not or cannot assume responsibility for maintenance and repairs. At Water 1st, we believe the underlying reason for this failure is that organizations that implement water projects are not investing in their own learning. While there is little information out there on how many organizations visit their projects after the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, expert opinion is that less than 5% of projects are visited post-construction and less than 1% receive any long-term monitoring.

Investing in your own learning is much more complicated than placing GPS coordinates of your project sites on a map. It means that organizations are conducting purposeful inquiries into the long-term functioning of their projects to improve the execution of future projects, take corrective actions to improve existing projects, and build a knowledge base of experience.

Given the huge project failure rate and the lack of long-term monitoring that is the status quo for the water sector, we asked ourselves if there was anything we could at Water 1st do to create incentive for all organizations to make long-term monitoring and evaluation a priority. Our answer was the creation of the Water and Sanitation Accountability Forum.

The Accountability Forum is an organization that provides independent audits of long-term functionality in water and sanitation projects. We already know how powerful independent information about charities can be for donors and the organizations they support. In less than 10 years, the majority of nonprofit organizations in the United States have revised how much funding they devote to overhead expenses (or they way they record their overhead expenses) based on financial ratings and information provided by organizations like Guidestar and Charity Navigator.

Funding for COCEPRADIL is highly recommended by the Accountability Forum’s independent evaluators because of their success at implementing successful projects that last.

The first Water and Sanitation Accountability Forum was held in December 2011 to evaluate Water 1st’s Honduran partner organization, COCEPRADIL, that has been implementing water and sanitation programs for over 20 years. We felt the best way to demonstrate our belief in this idea was to subject ourselves to an independent audit.

Although long-term functionality of water and sanitation projects has been a concern for decades, there is no universally-accepted definition of what it means. (In fact, I was at another water sector meeting on sustainability over a year ago, and when participants were casually asked to define the length of time that a water project should operate for their organization to feel a project was successful, the answers ranged from 2-3 years to forever.)  Thus, the first step in the creation of the Forum was for us to work with peer organizations to develop a set of standards to evaluate long-term water and sanitation project outcomes.

These shy girls of San Andrecito have never known what life is like without clean, convenient water because of the water system their parents built and maintained for the past 20 years!

Over one week in December 2011, two independent evaluators and ten peer organizations evaluated our Honduras partner, COCEPRADIL, based on 22 criteria of likelihood of long-term service provision. The results were outstanding. The independent evaluators concluded that COCEPRADIL has shown exceptional work in an extremely challenging sector. As one Forum participant expressed, they are “la joya en la corona” (the jewel in the crown) and provide a positive example of program implementation. Based on the criteria used in the Accountability Forum, they met all basic expectations for sustainability in 21 of 22 categories and met exceptional expectations in 11. Extreme threats to sustainability were not identified in any category.

Part of the independent evaluation involved field visits to randomly selected water projects. Two-hundred community names were placed in a cowboy hat and coincidentally, all projects selected had been built quite a long time ago – from 17-21 years old. Incredibly (and certainly notable in a field where up to 50% of projects fail within 2-5 years after implementation) all systems evaluated were still functioning and being used. Local water boards are in place and in all communities we visited, households were paying monthly tariffs and boards had positive bank accounts that had increased over the past two years. The communities’ sense of system ownership is very high: we were told by one water board “we are all engineers and plumbers here,” and they were very confident in their ability to find spare parts and fix breakdowns. COCEPRADIL staff attribute their success to extensive training with communities upfront, during and post-implementation.

Because of training provided by our Honduran partner, COCEPRADIL, the water committee (above) of San Antonio has successfully maintained their water system for 20 years, including collecting fees from every household to pay for system repairs.

The pilot Forum exceeded our expectations both in terms of interest and participation from other organizations, as well as the ground work that was laid for future Forums, through developing a protocol to translate evaluation results to a simple metric for donors who are seeking information on organizations working in the water and sanitation sector. We hope to focus our 2012 work on strengthening these protocols as well as developing a model for long-term sustainability of the Forum.

About $10 billion is spent annually on water and sanitation projects. If half of these projects are failing, the potential of the Accountability Forum is enormous in terms of steering donations to the best programs, and also incentivizing organizations to improve their performance.

At Water 1st, we can imagine a world where everyone holds themselves accountable to project implementation, and water and sanitation projects provide permanent solutions. Most importantly, we can imagine a world where no one has to suffer the loss of trust and hope that accompany a failed project.