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CLOSE THIS BOOKSurface Water Drainage for Low-Income Communities (UNEP - WHO, 1991, 98 p.)
4. Community participation
VIEW THE DOCUMENT4.1 The need for participation
VIEW THE DOCUMENT4.2 Community institutions
VIEW THE DOCUMENT4.3 Creating awareness
VIEW THE DOCUMENT4.4 A programme of action
VIEW THE DOCUMENT4.5 Participation in maintenance
VIEW THE DOCUMENT4.6 Selected reading

Surface Water Drainage for Low-Income Communities (UNEP - WHO, 1991, 98 p.)

4. Community participation

4.1 The need for participation

Participation in planning

A drainage system, like any other item of infrastructure, is part of the built environment of a community, and residents may find it inappropriate and unacceptable if they have not participated in the key planning decisions. Traditionally, the planning and design of urban surface water drainage systems have been carried out by governmental or municipal agencies, without the involvement of the local residents and with limited, if any, consultation with them. However, the technical and planning staff of such agencies do not normally live in low-income communities and can easily be mistaken about local needs, customs and aspirations unless the community is given a chance to state its views.

Open drains take up a certain amount of land, a scarce commodity in many low-income urban communities and one that residents may be unwilling to sacrifice unless they are convinced that it is for their benefit. Houses may have to be relocated and rebuilt to make way for new drains, and residents must be dissuaded from erecting new structures that would obstruct the drainage system. The position is complicated by the problems of land tenure which beset many urban slums and shanty towns. For example, the conventional procedures used by a municipality for compulsory purchase of land are clearly inapplicable in a community of squatters with no legal title to the land on which they have built. The land requirement of a drainage system can make it a burning issue and can give rise to great bitterness unless the community has participated in planning the system.

A drainage system is very vulnerable to abuse, even by a single member of the community. A resident can effectively block a drainage line by dumping a moderate amount of rubbish in it, and thus render useless the whole system upstream. Deliberate blockage and other forms of sabotage are not unknown, but apathy and neglect can have equally serious consequences in the long term. Community participation in planning is the most effective means of generating the interest and involvement of local residents, and is essential for the success of a drainage project.

Residents can also contribute much to the design of a drainage system because of their detailed knowledge of the area. For example, the shortage of accurate hydrological data for urban areas can easily lead to unnecessarily expensive drainage systems being designed, unless witnesses' recollections of past floods are taken into account. Many other types of information can be collected by residents on a voluntary basis, avoiding the need for expensive surveys.

Participation in construction

Community participation in construction is not essential, but has several advantages. Voluntary labour can permit significant savings in cost, an important consideration for most municipalities in developing countries, which have only very limited funds to invest in infrastructure. It can also help to develop a sense of ownership and a climate of cooperation which will facilitate the responsible use and satisfactory maintenance of the system. Community participation in construction, whether paid or unpaid, will ensure that residents acquire a knowledge of the drainage system and many skills which will help them to participate in maintaining it. Lastly, construction by the community may be the only possible solution when municipal authorities are not able, for whatever reasons, to provide a drainage system for the neighbourhood.

Participation in maintenance

There is no need to argue the case for community participation in drainage maintenance. Too often, low-income communities are expected to maintain their drainage systems with minimal assistance, either as a result of wishful thinking on the part of municipal authorities or by default, because the municipality simply does not have the resources or capacity to maintain the system it has installed. Rather, what the community needs is support to enable it to carry out its part of the work more effectively. This includes not only technical and material support, particularly in the form of training and the provision of specialized equipment where necessary, but also support for the development of community institutions and procedures to organize the task.

4.2 Community institutions

Community participation is not a spontaneous, automatic process. It requires an initiative to launch it, and management to organize it. In practice, communities can participate only through community institutions. On the other hand, these institutions do not need to be created out of nothing. A low-income urban community is not the unorganized mass it may seem to outsiders. Usually, a variety of institutions are already in existence, some of them with a high degree of organization and considerable power to influence people's attitudes and behaviour. They are of many different kinds, such as the following:

· residents' associations and amenity groups,
· women's organizations,
· political parties,
· labour unions,
· religious bodies,
· cultural associations,
· ethnic or “home-boy” associations,
· rotating credit associations,
· burial societies,
· schools, parent-teacher associations,
· health posts, health committees, community health workers.

Some of them may be formally recognized and affiliated to regional or national bodies. Others may have developed informally in response to specific local needs. Their activities and influence often range much wider than the purposes for which they were originally established. They are often far more active and influential in low-income communities than the corresponding institutions in wealthier neighbourhoods. In addition, some individuals may be recognized informally as leaders in the community owing to their education, wealth, age or experience.

The initiative to start discussion of the possibility of drainage improvements will often come from an individual who already plays a prominent role in one of these organizations, such as the school-teacher, religious leader or party secretary. When the initiative comes from an outside body such as the municipality, these institutions are valuable “entry points” through which a first approach to the community can be made. Indeed, many residents may feel slighted if the approach is not made through the existing community institutions.

The drainage committee

It will normally be necessary to establish a drainage committee to organize the community's contribution to a drainage project. This is most likely to succeed if it is not a completely new structure, but is built on to existing community institutions whose authority is generally accepted. The drainage committee will enjoy the established authority of the community's leaders if it is answerable to them.

The committee should be representative of the community. Its task will be easier if it includes women and members from the principal ethnic and religious groups in the community, and from various parts of the neighbourhood. On the other hand, it should not be too large as this can make it harder to reach consensus decisions and to ensure that all the members play an active role. It is preferable to have fewer than 10 members. The active participation of the committee members can be encouraged by allocating specific roles among them, such as Chairperson, Secretary and Treasurer, with other members responsible for technical aspects, liaison with the municipality, public relations, organization of voluntary labour, relocation of affected houses, and so on. Some of these may have deputies if the number of members is sufficient.

In many cases, the members of the committee will be willing to work on a voluntary basis, but there are circumstances in which some remuneration for the work done on a drainage committee can be justified. This is especially the case when the work of the drainage committee permits significant cost savings to the municipality.

One of the first steps for the committee is to approach the local municipality to seek its help, either directly or through local leaders. Even if the municipal authority cannot afford to provide material resources, it may be able to offer other kinds of assistance, such as technical guidance, advice regarding possible sources of funds, and liaison with other relevant bodies, including other communities which have successfully undertaken drainage improvements. In addition, the municipality can help to avoid conflict with the police. While community meetings and participation are encouraged in most countries, there are some cases where a group of people meeting regularly in a low-income high-density housing area could be suspected of subversive activity.

If the municipal authority is willing to help, every effort should be made to ensure close collaboration between it and the committee. The drainage committee, for its part, should brief municipal officials on its decisions and send them minutes of meetings or, better, invite representatives of relevant departments to attend. It could also offer to assist with data collection and other tasks. The municipality, on the other hand, should consult the committee about planning and design decisions, allowing it time to consult the community before replying. It can arrange regular briefings for committee members on the progress of the project.

Some resources that would be useful for the orientation of a drainage committee are described in Annex 4.

4.3 Creating awareness

A prerequisite for a community's active and willing participation in a drainage scheme is an awareness of the need for it, of its feasibility, and of the benefits it can bestow. In many low-income communities there is no lack of awareness of the problem, drainage often figures first on the list of felt needs for community infrastructure. However, the drainage committee (or anyone wishing to set one up) will need to develop public awareness that the community itself can and should do something to improve the situation. A further requirement is to generate a climate of responsibility for the drainage system once it has been built.

A range of methods can be used to give publicity to the drainage committee and its objectives, including public meetings, posters and door-to-door canvassing. Schoolchildren are a particularly valuable resource. They are usually more ready to accept new ideas, they have time and energy which can be mobilized for various activities, and they can influence their families at home.

However, people's attitudes and behaviour are not easily influenced by a one-way flow of information and exhortations to participate. A far more effective strategy is to stimulate discussion in such a way that residents come to see for themselves the advantages of contributing towards a drainage scheme and the importance of a responsible attitude towards it.

Four principal incentives can help motivate people to participate in a drainage project:

- comfort and safety,
- financial gain,
- status,
- group pressure.

A low-income community in Recife, Brazil, a few years after construction of a drainage system. Many of the residents have already built new houses.

Photo: S. Cairncross

Comfort and safety

An effective argument for drainage is the prospect of no longer having to walk through pools of stagnant water and sewage, or of having no more collapsing houses and landslides. These improvements make it worthwhile for residents to undertake improvements to their houses, and open the way for other aspects of infrastructure such as water supply and sanitation. Improved drainage makes access easier for vehicles; even if few residents own a motor car, many will be keen to ensure easy access for emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire engines. The prospect of reduced mosquito nuisance is a further inducement, once people have been shown that mosquitos breed in stagnant water. The health benefits of drainage have been described in section 1, and should be explained to the community.

Financial gain

Drainage improvements can increase property values, making houses more profitable to sell or to let. If convincing facts and figures can be provided to demonstrate that a drainage project is affordable to the community and gives economic returns, the prospect of financial gain can be effective motivation.


Whether or not residents wish to sell or let their houses, better drainage can give their neighbourhood the appeal of wealthier districts and confer status on the community and its members. Additional status may attach to those most actively involved in the project.

Group pressure

Group pressure can be one of the most powerful incentives for participating in a community effort, once a consensus has been achieved. Every community exerts considerable internal pressure on its members to comply with its norms and decisions; those who deviate may be shunned, ridiculed or humiliated, but for most the example of the majority is sufficient to persuade them to join in. However, this can be effective only when the majority has already been motivated to participate by reaching a consensus through discussion.

Two effective means to encourage discussion, while helping to focus it, are pictures and questions. Pictorial material may be in the form of cartoons, felt boards on which adhesive figures can be placed and moved around, or slides, films or videos showing drainage problems and areas where drainage has been improved. Residents can be asked to comment on this material, rearrange it or tell imaginary stories about it. Other visual aids can be improvised from local materials: for example, a glass jar containing mosquito larvae, or two models of the local topography, one with small drainage channels cut into it, to be watered with a watering can to simulate rain.

Carefully chosen questions can also serve to start up a discussion. The following are some examples:

- “Why does flooding occur in neighbourhoods like ours, but never in the centre of town?”
- “Why are there so many mosquitos in our area?”
- “If a drainage scheme were built here, how would that affect the value of our houses?”

Fig. 29. Community participation in planning is essential for success

Community members may say “yes” to all questions and requests. But if the project is imposed on them, deep down they will resent it and refuse to cooperate. If the project is to succeed, it must be planned with the community.

The process takes time, and can lead in unexpected directions. There are no short cuts, however. A low-income community that is simply told what it should do may appear to react positively during meetings and surveys, but may withhold its cooperation when the time comes for action. It is advisable not to rush any decisions, but to give the community time to discuss the problem and reach a consensus.

4.4 A programme of action

Once the drainage committee has been formed and the community has agreed to support its efforts, it is time to plan a programme for the implementation of the drainage project. This planning is not the same as the technical design of the scheme. It is not necessary to have the completed design in order to make the main planning decisions, although it is an advantage to have some idea of the principal technical options. The committee may find it helpful to start with steps (a)-(f) in section 2.9 to give them some idea of the likely scope of the project.

In order to develop the programme of action, the implementation of the project should be divided into separate phases and activities, such as the following.

Planning and design

- Collection of data
- Outlining technical solutions
- Selection of the best alternative
- Detailed design
- Cost calculations
- Fund-raising


- Acquisition of land
- Relocation of buildings
- Preparation of storage facilities, casting yard, etc.
- Purchase of materials and equipment
- Skilled construction work and supervision
- Unskilled construction work
- Provision of water for construction
- Storing, guarding and accounting for materials and equipment
- Providing food for voluntary workers


- Routine drain cleaning
- Reporting of defects and blockages
- Twice-yearly inspection
- Repair
- Payment for maintenance
- Passing of by-laws regarding the use of drains
- Enforcement of by-laws.

For each activity, a decision is needed as to which individuals are to carry it out, when they will do so, how they will be organized and to whom they will be responsible. This means that during the planning stage, decisions must be taken about what the community will do in the future. The more decisions that can be taken during this planning stage, the better it is for the future of the project.

It is not necessary or even advisable for the drainage committee to take these decisions alone. Some of them will be determined in practice by what the municipality can offer, but many of the activities will have to be performed by the community or by those whom it hires for the purpose, and the final decision about these is best left to a meeting of the community or its representatives. Nevertheless, the committee should first consider the alternatives available to it, so that it can advise such a meeting of the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative.

It is easier for the community to discuss a proposed programme of action if there is some estimate of the timing of each activity. Municipal staff may be able to advise on the time likely to be required for each task.

The programme should be presented to one or more meetings of the community for discussion, possible modification and final approval. Public meetings are especially useful in the early stages, as they help to ensure that:

- residents have a clear idea of what is being decided, and do not rely on rumours and second-hand accounts, which may be incorrect;

- the community feels it has some control over the decision-making and can therefore identify with the conclusions;

- maximum use is made of local knowledge, to reach the most cost-effective solution.

Each meeting should begin with a presentation of the options under consideration. It is preferable to seek comments and suggestions from the participants first, before the committee's recommended solution to each problem is presented. In this way, the meeting can take the form of a “brainstorming” session, which is a very creative process. Ideas are suggested by the participants and written up on a blackboard. The secret of successful brainstorming is to observe four basic rules:

(1) Do not criticize suggestions.
(2) Do not alter or edit the ideas, but take them just as they come.
(3) Encourage even far-fetched ideas, as they may trigger more practical ones.
(4) The more ideas the better; do not stop as soon as there is a pause in the discussion.

Once a list of suggestions has been compiled in this way, the meeting can be asked to comment on them, and the drainage committee asked to give more detailed consideration to the best ones.

On this basis, a more detailed programme can be developed and presented to another meeting. The whole process may take one to two months, and should culminate in the drawing up of written agreements between the parties concerned, setting out responsibilities for design, for construction, and for use and maintenance. If engineering consultants or contractors are to be engaged, specialist help should be sought in drafting suitable contracts and terms of reference. The agreements and contracts should include provision for further consultation with the community, particularly during the design stage. Annex 3 lists some of the points to check in drawing up terms of reference for a feasibility study of a community drainage system.

Before construction can begin, there should be a reasonable degree of certainty that sufficient funds will be available. Where necessary, fund-raising within the community, and efforts to obtain funds from external sources, can start while the programme of action is still being developed.

There are many tasks the community can perform in the construction of a drainage system (see section 2.8), but their participation must be carefully planned. Most importantly, the plans must specify which people will be responsible for each task and who will supervise them. Certain tasks may be organized by street or block, residents of a given street may work on the drainage of their own street, or may work on a particular day, on a rota system. Some light tasks could be the responsibility of schoolchildren, or of the elderly.

Plans should be made in advance for dealing with people who fail to participate. Some community members may prefer to contribute cash or materials rather than their labour to the projects. The drainage committee should consider what forms of pressure it will bring to bear on those who contribute nothing. Sanctions will be much easier to apply if they have been agreed upon beforehand by the community.

The drainage committee will wish to call another meeting when the drainage system is completed. This can take the form of a celebration, but it is also appropriate to consider the maintenance of the new system, either under the same drainage committee or a reconstituted one.

4.5 Participation in maintenance

As mentioned in section 3.4, the maintenance of a drainage system requires specific institutional arrangements, preferably with a municipal department assuming the ultimate responsibility for this task.

Whether or not a municipal department assumes the responsibility for maintenance, a neighbourhood drainage committee can at least monitor the functioning of the system and report defects and deficiencies to the officials responsible. In many cases, the community can also carry out much of the routine maintenance work. There must then be good coordination and a clear division of responsibilities. Residents must know to whom they should report any problems such as damage or blockages. It is certainly advisable that the community should appoint a drainage committee to plan and supervise the maintenance work. This committee should liaise with the municipality to ensure the prompt collection of solids removed from the drains and the unhindered discharge of stormwater into the primary drainage system linking their neighbourhood with the receiving water body.

A surface water drain in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Although the area is crowded, the drain is kept reasonably clear as it passes through the front yards of the houses.

Photo: R. Reed

One possibility is for each household to take responsibility for the section of drain passing through or in front of its plot. However, if this is to work successfully, it has two prerequisites: (1) the arrangement must be accepted by the community at large; and (2) some additional procedure is needed to monitor and bring pressure to bear on those who neglect their responsibility (Fig. 30). The process is illustrated by the example of one self-help upgrading scheme in Bandung, Indonesia, where houseowners agreed to be responsible for the daily cleaning of the drains in front of their houses. A neighbourhood coordinator inspected the drains twice a week and recorded his findings. The response to the friendly inspections was very good, and the inspector assisted in the manufacture of simple scoops and scrapers to facilitate the cleaning of the small culverts under the house entrances. Soon, it became a daily routine performed by every self-respecting householder.

The other approach is for a specific group of residents to clean the whole system. This has the advantage that they can be supplied with any special equipment needed, such as shovels and handcarts or wheelbarrows. The composition of the group could change regularly on a rotating basis so that everyone takes a turn, under the supervision of the standing drainage committee. Alternatively, they could be a fixed section of the community, such as the members of a youth organization. Whether the membership of the group is fixed or rotating, they must have some incentive to carry out the work, or be subject to some sanction if they fail to do so.

Fig. 30. Everybody must cooperate in drainage maintenance

Poor drainage maintenance does not always give rise to problems immediately. The accumulation of sediment or rubbish in the drains and the deterioration of the system can occur progressively over a period of time, unnoticed until a major effort is needed to restore the system to good working order. In addition to organizing routine maintenance, the drainage committee would be well advised to establish one day each year when the community is mobilized to give the whole system a thorough cleaning and overhaul. It would be most convenient to fix this day near the end of the dry season, when there is little water in the drains so that cleaning and repair can be carried out easily.

Clearly, community participation in maintenance needs proper planning and organization. However, if the municipality neglects its responsibility for maintaining the primary drainage system, water from the neighbourhood and adjoining areas may back up and cause flooding, causing residents to lose heart. A community has the best chance of achieving successful maintenance when it works in partnership with the municipality.

4.6 Selected reading

APPLETON, B. & CAIRNCROSS, S. Minimum evaluation procedure (MEP) for water supply and sanitation projects. Unpublished WHO document, May 1985 (International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, CWS Series, No. 6). Available on request from: Division of Environmental Health, World Health Organization, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland.

CHAUHAN, S. K. Who puts the water in the taps? Community participation in Third World drinking water, sanitation and health. London, International Institute for Environment and Development, 1983.

MUIR, J. Rural health in northern Pakistan. Waterlines, 5 (2): 10-14 (1986).

WHYTE, A. Community participation in water supply and sanitation, concepts, strategies and methods. The Hague, International Reference Centre for Community Water Supply and Sanitation, 1981 (Technical Paper No. 17).

WHYTE, A. Guidelines for planning community participation activities in water supply and sanitation projects. Geneva, World Health Organization, 1986 (Offset Publication No. 96).

VAN WIJK-SIJBESMA, C. Participation of women in water supply and sanitation, roles and realities. The Hague, International Reference Centre for Community Water Supply and Sanitation, 1985 (Technical Paper No. 22).