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Heated Debates on Water and Sanitation

03/03/2007 00:00

According to the recent Human Development Report[1] the world faces a water crisis rooted in inequality and flawed water management policies.  More than 1 billion people are denied the right to clean water and 2.6 billion lack access to adequate sanitation.

 

Every year, according to the World Health Organization, 1.8 million children die as a result of diarrhea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation.  All experts agree that access to water can make or break human development. While the human right to water and sanitation remains to be recognized in many countries, water debates are gaining momentum in international arenas, particularly since the adoption of the Millennium Declaration in September 2000[2].  These debates are both consensual (everybody agrees on the magnitude of the water crisis) and controversial (options and solutions are deliberately politicized).  Among many topics under discussion, the basic principles and directions to be adopted by national policy-makers in the definition of water management strategies come on top of the agenda.  In this area, two inter-related debates have been going on for more than 10 years.  The first one is about privatization of service provision, the second one about the price of water for the consumers.  But the nearly impossible challenge is to provide sanitation for all.

 

 

Regulating public-private partnerships

 

In 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, several NGOs criticized a general move towards the privatization of water provision, particularly in developing countries.  Some argued that water being a human right should be provided free of charge to low-income groups.  Private companies responded that natural water was free but that the service had to be paid.  The discussion on privatization has become highly ideological and seems to repeat itself in hundreds of articles, workshops and conferences.

 

Most independent specialists nonetheless agree on a number of key points:

 

-         what really matters is the regulatory framework under which the service provider operates, i.e. the conditions negotiated between the local authority and the provider in terms of quality, quantity, spatial coverage, prices, network expansion, etc.;

-         there are examples of both efficient and inefficient public utilities as there are examples of both accountable and irresponsible private utilities;

-         separating the client/regulator from the service provider is recommended to avoid conflict of interest and to ensure control and transparency;

-         public-private partnerships based on public ownership of the network and private management of water distribution, under clear arrangements and rules, have been tested successfully in many different contexts;

-         full privatization (as in the U.K. since 1989) is rare and not advisable because water is a common good requiring  large scale investment and public scrutiny;

-         except in a few documented cases (Buenos Aires, Cochabamba, Manila) “concessions” have worked in several countries as a good format for public-private partnership.  In this model private providers (domestic or foreign) manage the network (under a long-term contract) and are responsible for investment and risk.  In some cases, public investment is also mobilized;

-         water demand management, i.e. water saving, is as important as water production as in many countries between 25 and 50 percent of the drinking water is unaccounted for (lost or wasted).

 

It is clear that water provision is a profitable business at many levels, from the multinational company to the street vendor.  Water being essential for life, everybody is ready to pay for it.  Most consumers don’t care about the status of their service provider: they want good quality and sufficient quantity at reasonable prices.  In fact this can be achieved in any city of the world provided the following (internationally agreed) principles are respected: 

 

-         transparent and effective governance;

-         participation of beneficiaries in decision-making;

-         partnerships and decentralization;

-         solidarity and affirmative action;

-         environmental sustainability;

-         affordable prices and sustainable financing.

 

Interestingly, there is no correlation between geographic areas facing water stress and proportion of people facing inadequate water supply. For instance in tropical Indonesia (where fresh water is abundant) many people don’t have access to safe drinking water. Water scarcity for livelihoods is truly a man-made phenomenon.

 

Making water accessible

 

The real challenge is not to privatize water supply but to make clean water physically accessible and financially affordable to the poor.  In the vast majority of developing countries, this is not the case.  In fact the poor generally pay more (up to 20 times more) than the wealthy for the same quantity of water because of wrong governmental policies and misdirected public investment.  It should be the opposite: pricing policies and targeted subsidies can and should make water available and affordable to all.  And water should be accessible: in African cities, women without piped water at home frequently spend more than one hour daily to collect drinking water.

 

The experience of several South Africa cities demonstrates that “lifeline tariffs” can be adopted and benefit the poor.  Such tariffs provide the first 25 litres (per person per day) free, then the price per litre increases with the quantity consumed (this is called block tariff).  Of course this approach assumes that the poor are connected and metered.  When they are not, public standpipes have to be subsidized and properly managed.  This applies to most slum areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where individual water connections remain unaffordable and where the poor often spend more than 10 per cent of their income on water.

 

To keep the prices affordable to the poor, public money (fiscal transfers) should be used to extend water networks in informal areas and cross-subsidies through progressive pricing, reflecting social solidarity, should be systematically put in place.  These two principles are essential to ensure that the human right to drinking water is enforced. 

 

In many developing cities, poor people live with less than 10 litres a day of unsafe water.  In Europe the average consumption is around 200 litres a person a day.  In the USA it is about 500 litres, with peaks of 1000 litres in the Southern states.  According to the Worldwatch Institute, American gardens, lawns and golf courses require 45 billion litres per day, more than the total human consumption of the entire African continent. These disparities are striking.  They confirm that providing 20 litres a day of clean water to each human being constitutes a very feasible target.

 

While it is fair to recognize that some (uneven) progress has been made in a number of countries during the last 20 years, a lot remains to be done to ensure universal access to water.

 

 

Sanitation: the impossible challenge?

 

Much more difficult than water supply (in terms of both technical responses and cost-recovery) is the provision of adequate sanitation in overcrowded settlements.  This can be done only within the broader framework of city-wide upgrading and inclusive urban development strategies. Many obstacles can make this task a “mission impossible”.

 

Half of the developing world’s population does not have access to basic toilets.  More than 80 percent of the population of African cities lacks toilets that are connected to sewers.  In Nairobi for instance, hundreds of thousands of people defecate into plastic bags that they throw away every morning.  This is known as “flying toilets”.

 

Water is life, sanitation is dignity.  Lack of sanitation is humiliating, particularly for women and girls. Unfortunately sanitation lags far behind water in public provision[3].  Partly because sewerage networks are too expensive, sanitation is often left to individual initiatives.  Pit latrines and septic tanks may be adequate in rural areas but they are difficult to implement in dense shanty towns.  Public toilet blocks, as those adopted in some Indian cities, offer a good alternative but maintenance needs to be ensured. 

 

Public subsidies are usually indispensable, and they should be targeted to the poorest sections of society.  This requires a political will which is clearly lacking in many developing countries.  Because the sanitation deficit remains a kind of social taboo, because its impact is not immediately visible, election campaigns rarely focus on “sanitation for all”.  Inauguration of toilet blocks is less attractive to politicians than the opening of airports, highways or shopping centres. This is what UNDP calls “the national policy barrier”1.  On the other hand many NGOs and CBOs are promoting and implementing sanitation programmes at the grassroot level.  One of the best uses of international funds would be to support these programmes, particularly when they are community-driven, large-scale and well coordinated with local authorities.

 

It is estimated that universal access to water and sanitation would require an additional $20 billion per year while the overall cost of current inadequate supply amounts to more than $100 billion in social expenditures and economic losses.  There is therefore a strong case for investing more in the water sector.

 

The benefits of improved access to water and sanitation cannot be questioned.  In spite of heated discussions, the technical, financial and institutional options are known and the solutions are within reach. Fundamentally there is only one serious debate: Do we want to reduce poverty and inequality?  Do we want to promote and support human development?  By “we” I mean political leaders and activists, opinion makers, intellectual and moral authorities, all over the world. 

 

Water is life, sanitation is dignity, inaction is crime.

 

This article was published in the WIDS magazine of Warwick University, U.K. in March 2007.

 


[1] United Nations Development Programme, HDR 2006, Beyond scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis

[2] In this Declaration, Heads of State unanimously committed themselves “to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”.

[3] UN-HABITAT, Water and sanitation in the World’s Cities 2003, Earthscan, London, 2003.

 

  

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