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The world is urbanizing rapidly and has an increasing need for urban basic services. One half of the world population is already living in urban areas.  Urbanization is an inevitable phenomenon which is proved not to be reversed. It has brought in more benefits for the economic development of the countries rather than drawbacks.

Urban economies are considered to be engaged in gross domestic products. Urban sector contribution to GDP is higher than rural sector contributions. Urbanization is largely characterized by migrants to cities and towns from the rural areas, increased population densities, growth of informal sector activities and increased demand for urban basic services such as drinking water, sanitation facilities, electricity supply, better transportation and so on. In cities that are unable to respond effectively to the needs and demands of the basic urban infrastructure services especially in developing countries, urbanization has brought out rather harmful effects and it has become a constraint to the social and economic development of the countries.

The user is the key actor of the infrastructure

Over the last three decades, the governments have carried out large-scale long term Infrastructure Development Projects with the support of bi-lateral and multi-lateral aid agencies. These projects are designed by a team of local and international experts who concern about the best engineering solutions, effective procurement procedures and feasible project financing. Project funding and implementing agencies expect good responses from the infrastructure service users.

The user is the key actor of the infrastructure service provision and management project because infrastructure services are meant for their use as well as the cost of the project has to be recovered from the fee paid by users. If the user is not satisfied with the service delivery system the projects end up without achieving their objectives.

In the implementation of large-scale infrastructure service provision projects (Water and Sewerage), we need to consider the requirements of the entire population living within the project area. It is often a mixed population by gender, income categories, ethnicity, livelihood means, age groups and so on and so forth. In urban infrastructure provision, all people in the urban areas are considered equally. In order to make infrastructure service provision and management projects a success, community needs and demands are required to be analyzed meticulously.

Sri Lankan Context

Sri Lanka has witnessed a number of international conventions to protect the rights of citizens. Therefore, people are entitled to the rights of housing, land, exiting livelihood and needs of children and women particularly and disabled people. In view of people’s requirements, at the beginning of the project preparation stage, the important focus has been given to the stakeholder consultation, livelihood entitlements, community grievances and special needs of children, women and the disabled.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka (the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka) is an island country in South Asia. It lies in the Indian Ocean, southwest of the Bay of Bengal, and southeast of the Arabian Sea.

Population 22 million people

The water and sanitation sector is a part of the urban Basic services. The urban service in Sri Lanka has performed well compared the same with countries in South Asia. Improved water supply and sanitation for the population has been a priority of Sri Lanka Governments and it is progressing to achieving the sustainable development goal targets, mainly to provide safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities to all by 2020. Moreover, it is aimed to increase pipe-borne water supply coverage from the present 46%  to 60%.

The objective of this paper is to highlight the importance of community (service user) participation in large-scale urban infrastructure projects (Water and Sewerage) with a special reference to Urban Water and Sewerage Projects, taking the concepts such as social capital and mobilization component to apply it to the local context.

From the temple’s water tap monkey is drinking water in Sri Lanka. Photo: Wewalage Jude Vishw

Social Capital

The notion of social capital has been around for decades. Social capital is, simply, the economic rate of return of social relationships. It is a form of economic and cultural capital in which social networks are vital and they function for a common good [1, 2].

This suggests that attention is focused on the creation of social networks in a society founded upon trust and goodwill. It should be noted that the developed countries are specifically giving priority to females to excel in their careers and be promoted in the field they engage in. The suitable females have been encouraged to serve as Chief Justice, Attorney General, and in the Procurement services etc. Following the trend, the developing countries have allowed space for women in their respective fields which is a push factor for social capital to strive and thrive. This positive change will help to maintain transparency, good governance and so on and so forth.

Urban Infrastructure Management

In a participatory urban basic infrastructure service delivery and management system are influenced by people who, as users, purchase services such as water or sewer connections. Through their contribution to the government projects by constructing individual private facilities and/or the provision of informal local services, people are also involved in implementation as producers. Proper use of infrastructure services by people substantially improves their effectiveness and at the same time reduces maintenance requirements[3].

Infrastructures users contribute in many ways to the provision and operation and maintenance of infrastructure systems. The benefits of participation derive not only from cost reduction and resource mobilization during the project implementation but also from more effective targeting of project measures to the real needs of the people[2]. Participation enhances user ownership to facilities that help to ensure fuller and more efficient use, better maintenance and more reliable operation. Participation is essential to demand-oriented infrastructure service delivery.

The main partners in participatory infrastructure management are:

  • Community Based Organizations (CBOs)
  • Non-Governmental Organization (NGOs)
  • Private Sector Partners
  • Local Government Authorities

People participation is important for each function of the project cycle: Goal setting, policy formulation, long-term planning, medium team investment planning and programming, implementation of plans, operation and maintenance functions, monitoring and evaluation of system performance. People as service users may make important contributions to all stages of the project cycles.

Furthermore, participation is not limited to development projects. Participatory approaches depend on voluntary relationships or partnerships between two or more groups which include the private sector infrastructure suppliers as well as infrastructure users. The impact of participatory infrastructure development extends beyond service improvement to include enhancing people’s capacity to manage local affairs and interact more effectively with authorities and other partners. Participation is a part of the community empowerment process.

The lead agency for water and sanitation services (urban basic services) is the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWS&DB). The NWS&DB was established in 1974 and it took over several schemes managed by local authorities. With the establishment of provincial councils in 1987, the provision of water supply and sanitation services was decentralized to Municipal Councils.

  Figure 1

The achievement of national targets on the management of wastewater and sanitation would be a huge challenge to the NWS&DB alone. Challenges in water supply schemes include increasing demand, variations by region water availability, rural-urban disparities in quality of services, competition between water users[4].

The number of water connections as of March 2017 is 2,121,892 with 337 no. of schemes island-wide. There are 19,892 NWSDB sewerage connections island-wide for improved wastewater management and enhanced public health and hygiene[5].

The Sewerage Division in the NWSDB is fully equipped with modern sewage disposal mechanisms and has expanded its services islandwide. According to the 5S Concept, the planning & implementation and operation & maintenance of many sewerage schemes have been running to a standard level by the NWSDB.

Moreover, the sewerage network in the CMC area is more than 100 years old. People in the western region used to have private facilities with on-site sewer treatment with septic tanks and soak pits. Urban local authorities also promote the same system in the absence of a centrally operated sewer network

Initiatives have been already taken by the Government to provide pipe-borne sewer connections to households in the south part of the Greater Colombo area including Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte Municipal Council area, Maharagama and Dehiwala and Jaela, Ekala, Rathmalana and Moratuwa ( AFD project).

Management of wastewater and human excreta is largely done on-site at the household level except in a few Municipal Council Areas. It is the government policy to provide a pipe-borne sewer system to residents in all urban areas. About 80,000 sewerage connections are managed by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC).

The approach to get users’ participation in project design, implementation, operation and management of urban pipe-borne sewer systems including wastewater disposal is to recognize the user as a legitimate partner of the project development and management process rather than project beneficiary or the recipient of services only. The user as a project partner would claim ownership of the project and willingly share benefits of the project as well as risks.

Having realized the importance of user participation in large scale urban infrastructure service network implementation and management, it is high time for the NWS&DB to get potential users of current and proposed wastewater management and disposal projects involved in the total cycle of the project management process.

The user should have a clear understanding of the project and utilize infrastructure services effectively, the urban basic services. Therefore, user participation in the service provision project cycle is vital for the success of the project. Project Teams will develop strategies for participation based on the scope of the project. Another advantage of the participation process is that the community groups would take the responsibility for managing and financing ‘internal’ activities such as the construction of household-level wastewater disposal units and purchasing of sewer connections from the main lines.

The required strategies to promote community involvement in urban sanitation projects are indicated below,

  • Community consultation and consensus building for scheme implementation
  • Sanitation solutions not imposed but locally agreed; whether small or large system
  • Motivate to provide unskilled labour from community in pipe laying & other civil works.
  • Women’s involvement in decision-making process
  • Develop the capacity to safeguard people’s rights of maintaining agreed service levels.
  • Better local level institutional  arrangement and mechanism
  • Institutionalize urban communities to actively contribute towards O&M activities
  • Promote health and sanitation educational & awareness programmes
  • Regular maintenance by authorities or communities
Colombo Sri Lanka skyline cityscape photo. Sunset in Colombo with views over the biggest city in Sri Lanka island. Urban views of buildings and the Laccadive. Photo mbrand85

Community Mobilization and Stakeholder Partnership

Many communities are composed of different short of characteristics that offer contradictory views over wastewater collection systems. Hence, the community should be motivated to act upon with respect to the maintenance and operation of individual connections and know-how to make use of the facilities provided, how to act in an emergency situation, and whom to approach etc. 

After approaching the communities, the next important step is mobilization. The conveying of purpose is one main task of the Key Stakeholders of the project. The objective of the programme should be clearly communicated to the people in a simple manner. This component will also support the strengthening of empowerment of the urban communities in the design and implementation of the project. This will include dialogues among social groups, civil society, and different stakeholders. These entities will support the design and implementation of sewerage projects at their level possible.

When the communities are approached, specific factors, such as level of income, education, land availability, type of settlement, population density and current method of wastewater and sewage disposal will have to be considered and prioritized the units.

The following steps can be taken for implementing or extension of pumping of sewer catered to the urban population living in township areas.

i. User Survey on socio-economic status and willingness

ii. Data collection and data analysis

iii. Evaluation

Lastly, implementation of the following activities will ensure improvement of sanitation service delivery and management through user participation in urban infrastructure management.

Project Implementation Process

Project StagesKey Activities  
1. Planning Stage  Define and demarcate the project area for extension of pumping of coordination with other agencies such as Local Government/ Provincial Council/NGOs etc. Develop strategies to include low income and poor people (vulnerable groups of the population) for improved sanitation facilities selection of Partner Organization to facilitate in community mobilization Conduct socio-economic feasibility  studiesLands for structuresPreparation of job descriptions and training of officers Design of budget estimates, establishment costs; Design of a project appraisal unit to assess the physical, technical performance in each stage
2. Implementation StageOrganize community for implementation and provide unskilled labour for implementation of sewerage system ensure community contribution through awareness and mobilizationIntroduction of a tariff to pay for the scheme, and to ensure citizens are willing to pay and will connect their effluent to the sewerage system carry out water and sanitation sector development activities
3. O&M StageCo-ordination with CBO/NGO/Community for implementation of wastewater collection and treatment systems use CBO/ Community Groups for small civil construction activities related to O&M activities CBOs/ Community Groups to be vigilant about damages, overflowing etc. Continue to provide technical and operational support for the implementation of wastewater collection and treatment systems
4. Monitoring and EvaluationThe NWSDB, along with stakeholder partnership, will be in charge of monitoring the progress of the project.


[1] In ‘Making democracy work’ by Putnam, R. D., with R. Leonardi and R. Y. Nanetti (1993) brings out the articulation of social capital theory. This is how Putnam introduces the idea.

[2]“Social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”

[3]Participation and partnership in urban infrastructure management by Peter Schubeler     UNDP/UNCHS/World Bank – 1996

[2]Participation and partnership in urban infrastructure management by Peter Schubeler     UNDP/UNCHS/World Bank – 199

[3]Asian Development – Bank – Sri Lanka Gender Equality Diagnostics of Selected Sectors, July 2016 – Manila.

[4] MIS – NWSDB March 2017

Lucubrate Magazine October 2021

The illustration on the top of the article: Dirty ditch in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, by Matyas Rehak

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Delgollage Senevirathne
Delgollage Senevirathne

He is a specialist in the water and sanitation sector. He has a proven track record of providing exemplary service levels to several local, international NGOs and INGOs. He is flexible with a practical approach to tasks.

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