Freshwater Action Network
– grassroots influencing on water and sanitation

Is community water system management a good idea?

Community water system management can be defined as a situation where a significant amount of the decision-making regarding how a water system is managed is handled by the system’s customers themselves. Is community water system management a good idea? In principle, yes, due to the simple fact that no impersonal government agency will ever be as concerned about service quality, system sustainability, and water source protection as the people who depend on that water for daily living and production activity.

In practice, however, the issue gets more complicated, because there is no way to guarantee that a community will rise to the challenge of managing its local water system efficiently, fairly, and transparently. No law can force a community to do things right, because you can’t put an entire community in jail. When a community is given the opportunity to manage its own water utility system, the results can range anywhere from efficient, accountable management that provides quality service at affordable rates, to unreliable service, ignored customer complaints, and even misappropriated funds.

What is the key factor that makes the difference between well managed and poorly managed community water systems? Community involvement. A community that is concerned about how its water system is managed will get involved, attend meetings, demand accountability, and elect representatives who share their concern. A community that is indifferent and apathetic will not get involved, thus by default allowing the system to be managed by people who likely will not hold the common good as a high priority.

So, how do we get the community involved?

Links to related articles

FYI, Marc recently discussed his experiences working with the Costa Rican Community Water Districts in a webinar.  You can listen to a recording a recording of the webinar here: (Requires download of Blackboard Collaborate software; discussion starts at 1h18min).

We've also just posted up some related articles which could help to inform the discussion: 

  • Article about the challenges of community water management in Costa Rica: 
  • Article about the development of a legal framework to govern their activities:
  • Read some of Marc's thoughts on motivating communities to get involved in water management. (PDF, 66Kb):




I am a bit confused about

I am a bit confused about where the government fits into the picture? If the community is heavily involved in the management of their water system, I am wondering if this makes it easier for the Government ignore their responsibilities to provide a good water service?

The government is responsible

The government is responsible for ensuring provision not for provision directly - ensuring provision means government is responsible for developing of adequate laws, policies, institutions, administrative procedures and practices, and mechanisms of redress - if community associations can get legal status then they can be a legal part of the provision system.

Mary's reply is correct in

Mary's reply is correct in the case of Costa Rica.  The responsible government entity, AyA, has the power to delegate water system management to other entities, as long as they are non-profit.  In Costa Rica, this means municipal governments, one other utility agency created under specific legislation, and the 1600 Community Water Districts (CWDs) like the one that serves my community.
These Management Associations are chartered under Costa Rica's Associations Act.  This figure gives us corporate status, a very important pre-requisite to ensure the proper degree of autonomy.  This autonomy has helped shield our CWDs from undue government meddling.

In the case of Costa Rica,

In the case of Costa Rica, the state-run Costa Rican Water & Sewer Institute (AyA) was created fifty years ago with the mandate to provide service throughout the entire country.  After the first fifteen years or so, once the capital city and other major population centers were covered, AyA started tending to more rural areas and ran into major RoI barriers.  It became clear that the government did not have the resources nor the capacity to comply with its nation-wide coverage mandate.  So, it began to encourge the creation of CAARs (Rural Water District Management Committees) where such bodies didn't already exist.
With that background information, the direct answer to your question is that government here in Costa Rica wasn't going to fulfill its responsibility, anyway, so 1600 rural communities had little choice but to fill the void.  I would roughly estimate that 20% have risen to the challenge and are now providing quality service.  Another 20% are providing moderate-quality service.  The other 60% have yet to rise to the challenge, and are still providing service of unreliable quality.  A majority of the CWDs in this latter category have fewer than a hundred customers, which means the size of the system themselves becomes their main obstacle, because many years will have to pass before these systems reach the point (through population growth) where revenues can justify full-time personnel.  In the meantime, they have to rely on occasional labor, which of course means a high turnover rate and low skill level.

good vs bad communities?

Hi Marc,

Thanks for initiating this discussion on a really interesting topic.  Regarding your comment that "there is no way to guarantee that a community will rise to the challenge of managing its local water system efficiently, fairly, and transparently":

I have listened to your talk (GTF webinar) and to me it sounds like your community has been one of the more successful ones - where people are getting involved in creating a fairer, better water system.  Obviously this has something to do with the effort you and others have put into encouraging people to get involved, but I'm also wondering whether you think there was something special about your community to begin with (before the community water district)?  I'm not sure how clear my question is, but I guess I'm interested in whether you (or anyone) has any ideas about whether there are some key sociological factors that make a 'good' (caring) community vs a 'bad' one?  Or is it more down to individuals (e.g., one bad apple spoiling the bunch)?

The difference is between

The difference is between motivated and unmotivated (apathetic) communities.  Concepción got tired of poor water service back in the mid-1950s, and petitioned the municipal government to offer the community the opportunity to manage the water system.  So, the will was there to begin with, and fortunately, with few exceptions, the CWD leaders elected since then have kept that same motivation and forward-looking vision. -Marc


Thanks for sharing

Thanks for sharing.

Really interesting!

Thank you for the interesting

Thank you for the interesting link!  The video tells the sad and all-too-frequent story of systems that are built with external funds and then not maintained by the community.  This brings us right back to my assertion that ways to establish a sense of community ownership must be explored.  Community management of water systems is wonderful when it works, but it is simply unrealistic to wish for system sustainability without ensuring that the community feels that it holds a major share of the responsibility for guaranteeing that sustainability.