Rural water, sanitation, and hygiene


A safe and sustainable water supply, basic sanitation and good hygiene are fundamental for a healthy, productive and dignified life. And yet many of the world's poor rural people lack access to an improved water supply (900 million) and improved sanitation facilities (2 billion) (Joint Monitoring Programme for Water and Sanitation, 2006).1 Progress towards the United Nations Millennium Development Goal 7 for water and sanitation is particularly poor in sub-Saharan Africa.

Poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene results in tremendous human and economic costs and rein forces gender and other societal inequalities, most notably for women and girls.

Chronic diarrhoeal diseases debilitate victims and, coupled with malnutrition, induce a negative spiral into poverty. The productive activities of poor rural people, such as schooling and farming, are severely restricted by ill health from water- and excreta-related disease, as well as by the time and energy spent fetching water.

Rapidly increasing populations, more migration from rural to urban areas and the feminization of the rural economy are significantly changing the rural context. This ‘new rurality' is also affected by external shocks – such as the effects of climate change and globally interdependent markets. Such changes augment the vulnerability of many poor rural people and demand innovative approaches to the provision of rural water, sanitation and hygiene (RWSH).

RWSH provision supports rural livelihoods by promoting food security, health and productive activities and is thus an important part of IFAD's work in rural development. Ideally cofinanced, RWSH provision is present in half of IFAD's ongoing portfolio and provides a social platform from which IFAD's productive investments can be reinforced and built on.

Main challenges

Awareness and capacity levels of poor people

  • Migration of the young, able and skilled from rural to urban areas creates seasonal labour bottlenecks and can mean that the non-migrants are those with relatively low capacity levels.
  • The feminization of rural areas has resulted in productive activities being left to women, in addition to domestic and care responsibilities. Nevertheless, social restrictions limit women's participation in projects.
  • Poor rural people do not have the resources, know-how or support to cope with the effects of climate change – more and longer droughts; higher frequency of heavy rainfall and flood events in low-lying coastal areas; and highly variable rainfall, both spatially and temporally.
  • Poor awareness of hygiene in many rural areas, evidenced by the common practice of open defecation, leads to soil contamination and surface and groundwater pollution.

Access to appropriate technology

  • Urban approaches and scales have often been used in rural areas, rendering interventions unsuitable to low-density, mobile populations. Poor rural people lack access to appropriate, lost-cost and locally produced technology for water, sanitation and hygiene needs.
  • The financial, operational and institutional resources required have often proved too great for sustained provision of even the most basic improved water and sanitation systems to the poorest groups in a community. ‘Lesser' technologies are not considered serious alternatives to improved facilities.
  • Competition for water resources
  • Competition for water is likely to intensify amid increasing populations, continuing unsustainable abstraction and pollution of water, and unpredictable water supplies

Access to support for community-managed services

  • Many community-managed water supply systems have fallen into disrepair for technical, financial and managerial reasons.
  • RWSH provision has focused on communities and has largely ignored the surrounding supportive infrastructure and institutions (non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the local private sector, etc.), which are commonly weak but potentially important for support, and to promote innovation and stimulate market-oriented solutions to fill the gaps in sector resources and capacities.
  • There is a lack of reliable, comprehensive data on water resources at end-user, national and international levels, limiting decision-making for integrated management of water resources.
  • Governance at the national level is a common challenge, owing to poor ownership of development strategies, lack of supportive policies and legislation or low capacity for reform and for assuming new responsibilities.

Effective design of RWSH interventions

  • Many RWSH interventions fail to appreciate prevailing social, cultural and religious norms and preferences that affect their acceptance and understanding by beneficiaries.
  • Such factors can also prevent vulnerable groups from participating in projects, or restrict their participation, rendering them voiceless and unlikely to benefit.
  • Due to a lack of attention to multiple water needs, there is a common disparity in water use between what was planned and what actually happens.
  • Multiple uses of single-use water systems limit the longevity of facilities, create health hazards, and foster unrest and conflict over reduced or polluted supplies.
  • The financial sustainability of community water systems remains a major challenge: rural communities, particularly dispersed ones, cannot cover even the cost of operation, let alone capital costs.
  • A persisting emphasis on hardware as opposed to software means that physical capital cannot be supported and sustained by social and human capital.
  • There is a disparity in the perception of the benefits of RWSH interventions by poor rural people and by development professionals that severely hampers the creation of demand in order to bring about behavioural change.
  • Hygiene promotion campaigns have tended to be short term and not sufficiently supported by local government or coordinated with the health and education sectors for them to have any meaningful long-term impact.
  • The water and sanitation sector has ignored menstrual hygiene to the detriment of female health and productive potential at school and at work.

IFAD approaches

Intersectoral management is a relatively new, holistic approach that offers a promising framework for better understanding and pro-poor mobilization of potential development synergies. In IFAD's approach to water, this theme is not central, but is considered a holistic element in strengthening poor rural people's livelihoods and resilience. IFAD investment approaches to water-related interface management take into account the country-specific structures of the rural political economy. In so doing, they support the development of pro-poor, community-based natural resource management (NRM) institutions, which in turn improve farmer-led agriculture, natural resource technologies, and the sharing of knowledge of these achievements.

With regard to RWSH, IFAD is well positioned to contribute to water security for poor rural people through tools and approaches based on a balancing of benefits, costs and risks in meeting rural livelihood needs.

Institutional approaches

  • Foster higher participation by women and disadvantaged groups in water projects and water user groups, particularly women heads of households (e.g. as was done in the Gambia, Ghana and the United Republic of Tanzania).
  • Invest significant project resources in building the capacity: (i) of poor rural women and men for awareness of seasonal migration patterns in order to avoid labour shortages; and (ii) of local and national governments to better manage their new roles and responsibilities in decentralized water and sanitation sectors.
  • Facilitate greater involvement and build the capacity of organizations that support communities (NGOs and the local private sector) in order to promote the sustainability of RWSH interventions through long-term support.
  • Continue to develop Profiles of IFAD projects to identify the knowledge gained and valued by local participants and to enable comparisons among projects (e.g. Ghana and Namibia).
  • Forge partnerships with other strategic stakeholders in the water and sanitation sector to enrich and scale up RWSH provision, modelled on the success of the IFAD/Belgian Survival Fund Joint Partnership.

Technical approaches

  • Ensure that RWSH technologies are context specific (including suitability to local cultures and religions), affordable, accessible, locally produced and in keeping with support systems external to communities (availability of credit, reliable supply chains and in-country knowledge of technologies).
  • Review standards of technological interventions to ensure that they are not prohibitive and to generate innovative and sustainable local technologies.
  • Develop technologies with self-motivated private entrepreneurs, who, given support, can use them to manage small-scale enterprises and to contribute to economic development in their area.
  • Develop and advocate ecological latrines to recycle human excreta, which contain the essential nutrients to produce cheap and readily available organic fertilizer for soil amelioration and crop growth (e.g. Mauritania and the Niger).
  • Promote biogas systems that: convert organic waste (animal/human excreta and kitchen/garden waste) and water into a source of energy; provide for waste treatment; and produce liquid fertilizer for soil enhancement, making an important contribution to natural resources and the environment, and reducing health risks (e.g. China).

Investment approaches

  • Use the IFAD sustainable livelihoods approach to place poor rural people at the forefront of each project, with a thorough understanding of the interrelated factors (social, cultural, economic, political and legal) that influence their lives and motivate their choices (e.g. Bangladesh, India, the Sudan and Yemen).
  • Design financially and technically adapted domestic and productive water supply systems to accommodate the multiple water needs of poor rural people (e.g. as found in IFAD projects across all regions).
  • Encourage ‘self supply' as a complementary approach to community water supply by facilitating context-specific improvements to existing household or small-group water supply systems – through user investment in water sources, lifting,  treatment and storage.
  • Invest in technologies, institutional and technical labour capacity, and lobbying against the mentality that is averse to sharing data publicly, in order to improve data collection of surface- and groundwater sources and thus  enhance sound water resource management.
  • Ensure the promotion of good hygiene, which is central to RWSH provision. Behavioural change can be motivated through one of the proven successful approaches: community-led total sanitation, participatory hygiene and sanitation transformation (e.g. Kenya, Burundi), community health clubs, and social marketing.
  • Address menstrual hygiene in interventions in the interests of health, dignity, the ability to undertake productive activities and gender equality.

IFAD case study

Biogas systems in Guangxi, China (2002-2008)

The six-year West Guangxi Poverty-Alleviation Project aimed to reduce poverty among rural people living in ten of the poorest counties in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. In keeping with government energy plans, the promotion of biogas systems was a key project component seeking to improve and sustain the livelihoods of poor rural people, while rebuilding and conserving natural resources.


Technical training for productive activities and awareness-building on food security complemented the introduction of biogas. Women were the most significant part of the target group and hence of participatory activities.


  • Households provided unskilled labour to build the units, which channel waste from domestic toilets and animal shelters into sealed tanks. Participants received food-for-work rations, while the project supplied materials and skilled labour.
  • The poorest households, with only one pig, built small units that produce enough gas for lighting in the evening.
  • Households with two or more pigs built larger units that produce gas for cooking as well.
  • Some 22,600 units were installed, aiding 30,000 households in 3,100 villages.


  • Every year, an estimated 56,600 tons of firewood is saved in the project area, equivalent to the recovery of 7,470 hectares of forest. On-site access to affordable gas is available in houses for ten months a year for cooking, lighting, etc. The remaining two months during the winter, when temperatures are too low for biogas generation, are set aside for maintenance. There are fewer respiratory diseases and eye infections from the clean flame of biogas than from wood smoke, and cleaner domestic environments free of human and animal excrement.
  • Women spend significantly less time fetching firewood and tending cooking fires, saving an estimated 60 working days each year, which can be used for domestic and productive activities such as pig-rearing and cultivating crops. In addition, beneficiaries have on-site access to a low-cost, nutrient-rich fertilizer that creates rich biosystems and improved soil fertility. The success of the project has been a catalyst for other initiatives in the region and in other countries.

1/ ‘Improved' water supply refers to a household connection, standpipe, and borehole, protected dug well, protected spring or rainwater collection. ‘Improved' sanitation facilities refer to a simple latrine, ventilated improved pit latrine or pour-flush latrine and connection to a septic system or public sewer.

Topic sheet author: Jeanette Cooke

Peer reviewed by:  Richard Carter (Cranfield University)


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