Strengthening WASH systems in Guatemala: An interview with Helvetas’ Director of Programs

Strengthening WASH systems in Guatemala: An interview with Helvetas’ Director of Programs

Strengthening WASH systems in Guatemala: An interview with Helvetas’ Director of Programs 2451 1350 Agenda for Change

The Municipal Council of San Miguel Ixtahuacán receiving a printed copy of the urban water regulations (European Union/HELVETAS Guatemala).

Background: HELVETAS has been working in Guatemala since 1972 across three focus areas: water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), agricultural value chains, and women’s empowerment. Since 2013, they have introduced work approaches for systemic change into the delivery of WASH services in the Western Highlands region, focusing on more equitable water management and more direct participation and influence of the end-users over local WASH governance. HELVETAS and other NGOs (Water For People, CARE, etc.) are part of a national water and sanitation advocacy network called RASGUA (Red de Agua Potable y Saneamiento de Guatemala). Below is a summary of an interview with the HELVETAS Guatemala Program Director (read the full interview here).

Alec Shannon (AS), Content Strategist, Agenda for Change: When and why did HELVETAS Guatemala move to a systems approach?

Jan van Montfort (JVM), Director of Programs, HELVETAS Guatemala: Before 2013, we would go and construct water systems in a limited number of communities, but of course this model was not sustainable, and the impact was limited. We eventually concluded it is, and should be, a core government task to invest in water systems and provide basic services. We recognized that by creating parallel systems, our work was allowing the government to avoid its full responsibility to ensure the constitutional human right to water for all Guatemalan citizens. We refocused our efforts on empowering local organizations to manage their water services and gave them tools and training to advocate for basic service delivery for all, in an inclusive manner and with integrity.

AS: What parts of the water system are you working to strengthen?

JVM: First, we started by helping communities to create governance structures to oversee their water services, through both training and capacity building. We felt that communities should be able to request that government takes on the responsibility for structural repairs, required upgrades, or extensions to their water supply systems, which the communities cannot afford. We did some advocacy training for community members so that they could critically follow what the government is doing and try to put their own needs more clearly on the agenda, using the participation spaces that have been created through various development councils.

AS: Tell me more about your process.

JVM: First, we helped these communities to form bylaws. Originally, we hired consultants and they wrote these bylaws, but no one took it very seriously. So, we started developing them in a participatory way, working directly with the water users and empowering them to internally negotiate their own rules and regulations. This took much more time, but produced water bylaws that the communities really own and enforce.

We also started building the capacity of the municipal WASH service providers and associations (“mancomunidades”) to enforce their bylaws with input from water users. This methodology is fully owned and replicated in 13 municipalities now, and the fees that are collected allow the mayors to invest in maintaining their community water systems. In addition, we empowered communities to influence the municipal WASH policies and budgets, by demanding transparency, participation, and accountability.

AS: How does this work support government plans?

JVM: According to Guatemala’s Municipal Code, the municipal government must take charge of the water and sanitation services.  In small towns, this involves operating, administrating, and maintaining infrastructure for the water services. In rural communities, this involves creating an enabling environment for the community to manage their own services.

To assist with this, HELVETAS developed a model called OMAS (“municipal WASH office”), which works to strengthen the WASH system at the municipal level through training and capacity building. It’s become a well-accepted model; in fact, CARE[1] and several others have helped to scale it nationwide (see Annex, Case Study 4). The OMAS model involves a training component so that municipalities can eventually assume responsibility for the provision of WASH services in their towns and rural areas.

AS: What would help you the most to strengthen the system at this point?

JVM: We have found that the water fees collected by service providers do not cover major repairs; most water supply systems have very high leakage and are structurally lacking protection of the water source. This is something we are working on now with CARE, Water For People[2], and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration – to make it so communities can take out loans to repair the infrastructure, and pay them back from their fees.

Furthermore, we have seen that many municipal authorities and politicians are favoring investments in infrastructure and engage in corrupt practices when giving out contracts. This leads to a drain of resources and community frustration. Therefore, we have started to train independent journalists and community leaders to detect, report, and denounce cases of corruption in the WASH sector.

[1] CARE is an Agenda for Change member.
[2] Water For People is also a member.

Related blog: CARE’s new WASH Systems Change Award goes to CARE Guatemala

Jan van Montfort is Director of Programs for HELVETAS Guatemala. He has been active in development cooperation for 30 years as a capacity builder, organization adviser, programme director, and strategic consultant in 28 different countries. He holds both an MSc in civil engineering and an MBA in strategic business management. He has taken on the assignment of directing the programme of Helvetas in Guatemala, out of interest in the team, projects, and partners, and is dedicated to ensuring that program interventions are innovative and contribute to systemic change.

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