21 March 2012

Water & Sanitation: Glass Half Full and a Busted Flush

The latest edition of the IDS Bulletin is on Water and Sanitation and was edited by the leaders of the water team at IDS: Alan Nicol, Lyla Mehta and Jeremy Allouche.

The key arguments I picked up include:

(a) water and sanitation are political (much more than food, which is comfortable with being commodified) and the dominant politics has been at the global or “high” level, crowding out the more local or “low politics” where the tradeoffs between public and private, and quality, access, scarcity and use are played out and where simplistic notions of community prevail

(b) related to this, there has been a failure to blend expert and lay knowledge on water and sanitation

(c) the water and sanitation field has been fractured along various vested interests, but now greater coherence is being achieved, in part, through international meetings

(d) for water and sanitation, the MDGs have been helpful (raising the profile) and a hindrance (incentivising meeting the needs of those who are the easiest to reach but are not necessarily the neediest)

(e) sanitation remains somewhat of an “orphan sector”, lagging behind in the numbers.

There are many more messages, but these are the ones that resonated with me. Some reflections:
  • The progress on access to clean water, if the numbers are credible, is impressive (although one of the authors says the world is only “slightly better off”). It’s all relative I guess: the number of people who have access to improved water in 1990 was 4 billion and in 2008 it was 6 billion. Even when you look at deficits, the gap between population and access has dropped from 1.2 billion to 0.89 billion, a reduction of 25% in absolute numbers. All I can say is that reductions like this in hunger would be a major success. Definitely a glass half full.
  • The failure to blend expert and lay knowledge is a challenge for all sectors and is hardwired into the way experts are trained. I think this is the pressure point to change the way knowledge is constructed.
  • On thresholds and targets, I have just finished a draft paper with Tony Lake of UNICEF reviewing evidence that suggest focussing on the poorest and most excluded might be more expensive, but the impact of doing so more than justifies the costs. I will make that paper available once it is finalised.
  • On fractured water and sanitation communities, until very recently this was a good characterisation of the nutrition community—it took a food price crisis and the leadership of a handful of people to turn that around—I wonder what might be the trigger in the WASH community to fix this busted flush?
  • Sanitation as everyone’s business (pardon the pun) but nobody’s responsibility –this also sounds very familiar from the nutrition world and we are doing research trying to understand how incentives can be better aligned across ministries and vertically between national and local levels to generate a more collective sense of responsibility to the sector.
Congratulations to the editors—an interesting and timely report.


Anonymous said...

Sanitation involves more of behavior change than money.....read my blog in India's contest...


Shantanu Gupta

Michael Lipton said...

Dear Lawrence,

The astonishing thing is that drinking-water/sanitation issues (and MDGs) are treated completely separately from irrigation. Lack of irrigation (in a context of agro-rural neglect and extraction) largely explains why sub-Saharan Africa's dollar poverty stuck at over 50% 1980-2005 while everywhere else improved sharply.
Paul Polak has pointed out the huge capital waste (and policy mess) caused by separate systems for drinking-water/sanitation and farm-water/irrigation. Worse, the "sanitization" of the water debate - sanitization sanctified by, as you hint, absurd numerical claims on beneficiaries - makes people forget how vital irrigation is for any hope for Africa.

Seven facts.

1. In "the short Africa" (SSA minus islands, (N) Sudan, S Africa) less than 1% of cropland is irrigated (S/E/SE Asia c. 25%? in 1965 pre-green-revolution, 35%+ now).
2. That's the main reason (among several) why the short Africa gets <2kg of main plant nutrients (N,P,K) per hectare of cropland: S/E/SE Asia 150-200kg/ha.
3. There will be no rapid yield growth in food staples - and thus no good outcome to Africa's crisis of land exhaustion and workforce explosion - without massive spread of water control, mostly via irrigation, major and minor.
4. Already, of so-called "commercial water offtake" in the short Africa over 80% is by farmers [presumably <10% of it by the guys called commercial farmers, as if there were another kind]. Strong, and strengthening, mining-construction interests fiercely resist agriculture's current, let alone expanded, water use. (No distinction is made in these macro-debates between using water and using it UP: drainage and recharge are neglected.)
5. There are horrendous, needless water wastes (mainly excess losses in transmission and field evapotranspiration) and negative externalities in S Asia and Africa - especially but not only involving irrigation water (e.g. too little drip, too much centre-pivot).
6. These wastes - and, in part, inadequate irrigation - are attributed to missing or suppressed markets and dysfunctional (in Asia corrupt) water institutions; these do matter, but much more fundamental is the absence of a science-led blue revolution [the last one, 2000-2200 years ago, led to controlled irrigation simultaneously in South, East and West Asia, and (some say) Mexico].
7. Global warming will sharply raise evapotranspiration rates in the hot seasonal peaks, and make rainfall amount and timing more uncertain. This further increases the urgency of spreading irrigation, but also of greatly increasing the efficiency of water use.

By the way, dearer, scarcer energy also means that - while Africa must have more fertilizer - we all need to use it much less wastefully (plot-tailored nutrient-mixes, split timed dressings, etc.).

Lyla Mehta said...

Dear Lawrence and Michael,

Thanks for the blog and excellent points.

Lawrence, the comparisons with the nutrition issue are interesting.. Would be good to a do a systematic comparison around progress, barriers, institutional arrangements and whether the materiality of the resource matters or not.. On whether the glass is half full or empty, the water MDG doesn’t consider issues such as equity, sustainability, regional variation etc. While there are a host of cultural politics around food, in the case of water and sanitation having a standpoint around doesn’t mean that it will be used. It has to be maintained and sustainable over time, there are geo-hydrological issues that make water supply uncertain and there are a host of local preferences around water and sanitation. Issues of inequity in provision are also not considered by the MDGs so meeting the water MDG doesn’t mean very much in reality.. .. The communities are slightly less fractured now and there’s more mainstreaming of sanitation (there was even a panel on menstrual hygiene in Marseille) but overall this is a highly naturalised crisis.. ! There’s no sense of outrage about 4,000 people (mainly kids) dying from water borne diseases daily and that women walk hours for water.. Everybody is just used to the figures and stats.. We’d be very interested in your paper on equity..

Michael, we agree with your points too. We work on both water supply and water management/ irrigation issues.. Here too the communities are fractured but from the point of view of local people, big and small water issues are highly linked .. Still, there are generalised differences in managing irrigation and water supply. In Africa, for example, the latter tends to come from (though not exclusively) groundwater (except where there are large river offtakes) and the former from rivers and other surface water bodies. One of the challenges of irrigation water development is precisely the poor institutional environment for irrigation development and the high costs associated with this. However, there – as Lawrence points out – might be a ‘crisis point’ at which the benefits outweigh costs and massive irrigation will kick in. We might be seeing the first ‘green shoots’ of this in the huge commercialisation (land grabbing some call it...) taking place in Ethiopia and elsewhere. There is certainly a large awakening in many SSA countries to the fact that agriculture is now increasingly profitable – particularly in horticulture for urban areas – and this will drive irrigation risk taking. But without appropriate institutional structures and regulation, the result could be more serious water management issues down the line.

And also there are cautionary tales from Asia about the limits to the ‘blue revolution’ and how that may not necessarily avert hunger and poverty. There are narratives floating around but the need to increase storage / irrigation in Africa which usually means large dams but there are other alternatives that are often not considered..

But hope all of you can make it tomorrow to the IDS seminar on water and sanitation – see below.. We can carry on the debate then!

Susan Koppelman said...

Thank you Lawrence. I see that it is very appropriate that you listed politics first. In my experience working to achieve water development in Palestine, politics is clearly the number one determinant of access to water and sanitation. While the question of how to protect water from private interests is an important question today in Palestine with prepaid water meters on the rise, of course the number one factor affecting access to water and sanitation for Palestinians is the Israeli occupation and direct Israeli violations of Palestinians human right to water, including the demolition of water infrastructure, the obstruction of water development in at least 61% of the West Bank, and the prevention of drilling wells in the Western Aquifer. Here is a link to a report that I wrote for LifeSource in partnership with Blue Planet: www.blueplanetproject.net/documents/RTW/RTW-Palestine-1.pdf

Unknown said...

It's also essential to have a water damage cleanup drive to be to make sure that the water the public is using is clean and safe to consume. I really think government should also pay some attention to our water system.

Louisse Campbell said...

This is a great project indeed! And I think it would be better if they should’ve included legionella control services to the said sanitation. To make sure that water use will be clean and to prevent from diseases that may occur from it.

Kayla Virtue said...

You have to also put up filter through the water passages around your property. As far as I'm concerned, the government will give a fine for those who are not able to comply with sanitation requirements.

Cameron Salmond said...

Water sanitation should always be a priority. If the government or concerned institutions or organizations will continue to ignore this issue, people's health are at risk. There are always solutions for problems like this.

Ray Lee said...

Access to clean water is very important. Because we all know that safe drinking water is very essential to us humans and other lifeforms even though water doesn't provide calories or organic nutrients.

Claude Steele said...

Water is very important most especially sanitation of it. Also, a balance humidity when inside the building is also important.

aguavert said...

First rated blog. I'd like to say-

Our Drinking Water

We all know the make up of water is H2O

What's in water that kills is what we don't know!

We have an abundance of surface water in our state

And we know it's being polluted at a very fast rate.

Our ground water supply is what most of us use

Many contaminants we must learn not to abuse

Keeping them from wellheads would be very good news.

Before you dump waste oil or chemicals on to our soils

Think where it will wind up and what will be the spoils.

Water is our most precious of all our natural resources.

Please join us in protecting our drinking water sources.

Best Wishes-
Samantha C.