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Social principles

A sufficient supply of water and an adequate means of sanitation are basic human needs to which everyone should have access

Water is a fundamental social resource since it is basic to the support of human life and health. It is also a fundamental economic resource on which the livelihoods of farming populations (and some other occupational groups) depend, and whose shortage or excess in volatile, drought- or flood-prone environments has profound implications for human well-being. Survival, poverty reduction, quality of life and equity considerations therefore need to be given over-riding importance in the conceptualisation and planning of activities relating to water.

The lack of safe water and sanitation in many poorer parts of the developing world is a cause of continuing concern. It is therefore important to prioritise the extension of basic water and sanitation services to the unserved and underserved poor, especially those most at risk from water-related diseases in both rural and urban areas. The same principle should apply when considering investments in water supply infrastructures related to farming and family well-being.

Sanitation is often neglected, although it is as, or more, important for health impact than access to clean water. Care should therefore be taken to give sanitation, in the form of community or household facilities, equal emphasis with water supplies in service provision.

Definitions of access to water (i.e. distance to the supply) and adequate coverage (i.e. per capita availability) need to take account of the nature of the installations and their use, as well as willingness and ability to pay; this applies equally to drinking water facilities as to small-scale irrigation works. The ability of households to access water in sufficient quantity for their needs is an important determinant of their capacity to adopt hygienic behaviour and co-operate in measures for the control of water-related disease.

The management of water as a collective good may be an integral part of community life and deeply embedded in social interactions and livelihood strategies. Understanding of attitudes and practice regarding water use, human waste disposal and environmental sanitation by households and communities, both for productive use

(e.g. farming, livestock) and domesticuse (e.g. drinking, washing, cooking, personal hygiene and cleanliness), is critical to formulation of all activities intended to provide such beneficiaries with sustainable services.

Drinking water supply schemes should also pay attention to the quality of water/water safety at the point of supply (recognising that it may become contaminated between supply and use due to poor environmental sanitation by households and users). Reference can be made to WHO water quality standards.

Users have an important role to play and their involvement should be fostered via a participatory approach

The involvement of users in water management is now recognised as a central principle of the development of water and waste disposal services; this involvement should extend beyond the provision of free community labour in the construction of schemes, to decision-making about siting, collection of tariffs, and operation and maintenance. In low-income areas, this involvement is likely to be through community-based organisations.

The exact extent of community involvement in the management of an irrigation works, water supply or sewerage system will vary with context, technological nature of the installed systems, and the resources available at community level. Both the potential and the limitations of community involvement need to be recognised. Long-term sustainability of facilities in low-income communities, given their typically dispersed nature, cannot be guaranteed without a concerted effort to inculcate a sense of community responsibility and ownership.

Implementing a community-based approach may involve training field and agency staff in participatory techniques and adopting a flexible approach to project implementation.

Local knowledge, cultural values, indigenous practices, lifestyles and habits relating to water management and its use need to be respected and, where appropriate, supported. (See also Part III) The central role played by women in the provision, management and husbandry of water, primarily in the domestic and household context, has gained widespread recognition in recent years. Gender issues needs special consideration in relation to water management and use.


Gender implications should be examined and taken into account at all stages of the planning and implementation process


In rural and seasonally water-short environments, much of women’s time and energy is typically spent in water-hauling to the detriment of their own and their children’s well-being. Water resources management similarly impacts upon many women in their farming, small livestock management and micro-entrepreneurial roles. Thus, gender implications need to be taken into account at all stages of the planning and implementation of water-related activities, with consideration given to the different social, economic and cultural roles assigned to men and women in a given setting. Not only do gender implications of proposed interventions have to be considered, but ways need to be identified whereby women users and beneficiaries of services can themselves help define those implications and take part in the community consultation process so that their specific voice be heard.

Given existing power structures within families and communities in many parts of the world, a targeted effort will probably be needed to enable women to take a meaningful role in the consultation and decision-making process relating to water and waste disposal. In many traditional cultures, women’s only perceived role vis à vis water resources management is haulage and storage of domestic supplies. Thus, issues such as siting and ownership of installations; knowledge of operations and maintenance procedures and relevant skills; and membership of Water Committees or similar bodies are normally confined to men. Absence of women from decision-making vis a vis water resources management and service delivery is both inequitable, and severely hinders the possibility of realising public health, food production and quality of life programme objectives.

Because of their domestic roles, women are also logical key candidates for educational activity concerning water use and hygiene behaviour. However, men will also need to be included since their attitude towards – for example – hygienic disposal of human waste, and their willingness to pay for services or installations, may be decisive within the household and community. (See also Part III) Recognition of freshwater as a finite resource has led to the emergence of the principle that water is an economic good to which a price should be attached; and the application of this principle becomes increasingly critical as water becomes scarcer. However, this principle does not over-ride the social imperative of providing a basic supply of safe water for every human being.

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