How Women Entrepreneurs Can Make Rural Water Schemes Sustainable

Rural water supply systems in Sri Lanka provide easy access to safe water. Photo credit: ADB.

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In Sri Lanka, the rural water sector has benefited from the active role of women in management and operations.


Rural water supply schemes provide access to safe drinking water in many rural villages in developing countries. Less costly and easy to establish, these vary from simple community-dug wells to a small-scale water network with standpipes and metered pipe connections to households.

However, the long-term sustainability of rural water supply schemes can be challenging. During implementation, donor agencies and the government lead project activities. After implementation, community-based organizations and local authorities—which usually have financial, managerial, and technical capacity constraints—take over their operation and management.

Two approaches have been found to improve the sustainability of rural water supply schemes. One is involving women in management and operations. The other is running rural water facilities as a business.

A working paper from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) looks at how combining these approaches may help ensure post-implementation sustainability.

An analysis of 11 rural water supply schemes in the districts of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka found that women with inherent entrepreneurial skills helped improve the sustainability of water facilities. However, they identified themselves more as leaders rather than entrepreneurs. Developing women’s entrepreneurial and management skills will enable them to further bring about positive changes to the water sector.

Challenges in Rural Water

There are around 4,000 rural water supply systems in Sri Lanka that are managed by community-based organizations and local authorities, with the Rural Water and Sanitation Section of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board giving technical support. The government aims to provide access to safe drinking water to all citizens and to increase access to pipe-borne water to 60% of the population by the end of 2020. It will require the implementation of about 1,185 new rural water facilities. Achieving this target will be challenging due to institutional capacity constraints, delays in channeling funds, and gaps in responsibilities, among others. The biggest sustainability risks are at the post-implementation stage. Sri Lankan rural water supply schemes have been less sustainable because of water shortage from the intakes, revenues less than operational costs, and improper water supply scheme operations.

A simplified treatment and distribution system, a good water source, and timely maintenance of the distribution facilities are among the factors that increase the technical sustainability of rural water supply schemes. Meanwhile, financial sustainability is hinged on having total operating costs fully financed by revenues collected from rural water users. Some of the institutional challenges, on the other hand, are lack of transparency in the selection of community-based members who will manage the water supply scheme and its financial transactions, providing a service that is not user-friendly, and exclusive decision-making.

Women and Entrepreneurship

Combining the two approaches—participation of women and operating rural water supply schemes as a business—can help improve the post-implementation sustainability of rural water supply schemes.

A study published by the World Bank[1] emphasized the significant role of women in water management. It noted that the most substantial improvements in the governance, transparency, and sustainability of water supplies are achieved when men and women are involved in equal measure as opposed to when women are involved only marginally or not at all.

Rural women have a key role in ensuring food and nutrition security, generating income, and improving rural livelihoods and overall well-being in their households and communities. As primary providers, managers, and users of water in many rural households, they have a major stake in water issues.  Water is often considered “women’s business” in many recipient communities of rural water supply schemes.

Providing safe and affordable water to rural areas requires water operations to be managed as a business. The fundamental concept is for water to be treated as an economic commodity and for sustainability, it needs to be charged from its consumers. Thus, entrepreneurship skills are essential to improve financial stability, operational efficiency, and sustainability of water utilities. However, water managers should work to achieve not just a profitable operation but also provide good service to the community.

Local rural water supply systems have become a good platform for rural women to practice their inherent entrepreneurial skills, and this benefits the water supply schemes as well. Rural water supply systems provide women with easy access to safe water, improve their livelihood, and reduce poverty. Women in rural areas get more opportunities to develop their productivity, practice business skills, and earn additional income for their families. In some instances, this positive push helps women develop their capacity and become successful rural entrepreneurs.

Case Studies

A closer look at 11 rural water supply schemes from the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts of the North-Central Province showed that more women than men participated in the management of successful rural water supply projects. Ten of the rural water supply systems were implemented under the ADB-financed Secondary Towns and Rural Community-based Water Supply and Sanitation Project, between 2006 and 2011. The remainder was implemented under the World Bank financed Second Community Water Supply and Sanitation Project in 2003.[2]

Around 60% of women administered and operated the water facilities. Their active participation offered two major benefits. First, it gave women a sense of achievement, for some, a livelihood, and for all, an improved capacity to do valuable work since they gained technical and managerial knowledge. Second, their broader understanding of water usage helped in designing efficient water schemes. Women also significantly contributed to labor in constructing the infrastructure while their leadership role in the community-based organizations helped solve social issues.

However, women entrepreneurs in rural water operations faced these challenges:

  1. Lack of formal education of women at top management of community-based organizations.
  2. Limited time or too many family commitments that prevent younger women from thriving in the entrepreneurial activities.
  3. Women considering themselves only as leaders, not as rural entrepreneurs.
  4. Absence of a catalyst, in the form of a mentor or an expert on female entrepreneurship, who can provide guidance and support.
  5. Reluctance to try new endeavors due to fear of failure.
  6. Absence of special training in the post-implementation stage.

Other common entrepreneurial concerns faced by women involved in water supply operations were lack of knowledge in managing the water facilities as a business; lack of investment in diversifying existing water business; gaps and overlaps in institutional policies and regulations on water facility management; late payment of revenues by the customers; inability to impose disconnection in a village environment; and emerging business competition in the village where private individuals began to sell reverse osmosis-treated water.[3]


Better management of local rural water supply schemes through the integration of women as entrepreneurs can be achieved through the following initiatives:

  • Revising policies so that rural water supply systems will be considered and operated as small businesses and to involve women as both leaders and entrepreneurs.
  • Highlighting entrepreneurial thoughts as one of the main components of rural water supply schemes from the inception stage of the project. Local entrepreneurial development institutes can identify, develop, and assist project beneficiaries, and monitor the entrepreneurial and/or intrapreneurial[4] components.
  • Developing the entrepreneurial skills of women already involved in operations of water facilities through customized training programs that include value chain of water supply schemes, basics of microbusiness management, and operations at pre- and post-implementation stages.
  • Providing external resources to transform rural water supply schemes into potential enterprises in the form of a short-term consultancy or funding through international and local financial institutions.

Most rural areas of developing countries face significant challenges in providing safe and affordable water to consumers through rural water supply schemes. Getting women with entrepreneurial and managerial skills involved in water supply operations can help improve the sustainability of these facilities.

[1] D. Narayan. 1995. Contribution of People’s Participation: Evidence from 121 Rural Water Supply Projects. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

[2] World Bank. 2017. Project Performance Assessment Report: Sri Lanka—Second Community Water Supply and Sanitation Project. Washington, DC: World Bank.

[3] Reverse osmosis is a water treatment system, which uses high pressure to allow water molecules to pass through a semipermeable membrane, while leaving other molecules and compounds behind the membrane for disposal.

ADB. Sector Assessment: Water Supply and Other Municipal Infrastructure and Services (accessible from the list of linked documents in the Appendix of the Country Assistance Program Evaluation of Sri Lanka). Manila.

[4] This refers to entrepreneurial elements within an organization.


Asian Development Bank. Secondary Towns and Rural Community-based Water Supply and Sanitation Project.

N. Donald Sinclair. 2020. Integrating Women and Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Rural Water Supply Schemes in Sri Lanka. ADB South Asia Working Paper Series. Manila: Asian Development Bank.

Nirojan Donald Sinclair
Senior Project Officer (Infrastructure), South Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

Donald Sinclair works at ADB’s Sri Lanka Resident Mission where he manages projects and activities for the urban and water sector and for transport. He is a civil engineer and obtained his MBA from the University of Colombo. He also has postgraduate diplomas in Development Studies and Project Management. Prior to joining ADB, he worked for the United Nations Office for Project Services and was involved in post-tsunami (2004) and post-conflict (2009) humanitarian and development projects in Sri Lanka.

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