Water: time for solutions that focus on sanitation and not just access

Health, Water

Leslie Morris-Iveson reports on the World Water Forum, which took place in Marseille last week, and the news that the MDG on access to water has been reached early. But is it time to celebrate?

It’s important to have a strategy on how you will spend your time before you get to the World Water Forum – a massive global event held every three years, where experts get together to ‘tackle the challenges’ of the world’s water crisis. I was one of around 25,000 delegates, and finding the space to voice your opinions proved to be challenging.

The forum itself is full of energy and a spirit of finding concrete commitments (this year’s theme is ‘Time for Solutions’) – but also full of inconsistencies. You can listen to a speech calling for investment in natural infrastructure, just a few feet away from giant displays promoting massive dam development in the Three Gorges in China. And you can discuss bottom-up pro-poor financing mechanisms for water and sanitation and the need to increase
financing (apparently $200 billion needs to be invested for universal water coverage, and $330 billion for universal sanitation coverage) after walking past a reception in the diplomatic exhibition space where the champagne flows like, well…water (this is France, after all).  

Oxfam was there mainly to participate in the thematic process – under the elaborate system of priorities and targets – sharing our practical WASH experiences in development and emergency contexts. Under the “Cooperation and Peace through Water” target, we presented our experiences in involving local communities in water resource management in Darfur.  

It was also interesting to hear the latest policy messages around addressing the challenges of water crisis.  One theme that was repeated throughout the week was the centrality of water:  the fact that water is the only resource that underpins all other development aspects. This is something that you often hear in water policy circles, but with Rio + 20 fast approaching the message was made even clearer: for sustainable development objectives to be met, water and the nexus between energy and food linkages need to be

Another recurring theme was the latest UNICEF/WHO Joint Monitoring Programme  report, that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target for access to water has been reached and that 89% of the world has access to drinking water. There seemed to be equal measures of back-patting for reaching the target three years early and skepticism about the claim. A French NGO, Solidarites, launched their petition for the UN to revise their figures and a fair number of other
NGOs also voiced their distrust in the process.

What’s clear is that the news needs to be put in perspective. Such an announcement can mask the reality that even if there is a much higher number of ‘improved’ water facilities now compared to 12 years ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are working, or if they are, that they actually deliver water that you can drink without fear of contracting a life-threatening disease.   In the MDG classification system a piped water source or tubewell
is ‘improved’, for instance, but an open dug well is not. As a result, the critical issues of water quality and sustainability are largely neglected.  

Indeed many WASH practitioners know that the biggest challenges are in looking beyond the infrastructure: it’s fine if you can turn on a tap, but what if the water is undrinkable? The fact that diarrheal disease is the second leading contributor to the global disease burden illustrates this: unsafe water is related to poor sanitation and hygiene. A project that simply builds handpumps will most likely end in failure in time as pumps eventually break.  Operation and maintenance, supply chains for spare parts and ensuring reasonable ownership
policies are in place are only some of the key ingredients needed to ensure success (just read Brian McSorley’s recent blog on the challenges of finding a sustainable handpump in Turkana, Kenya).  

There are also huge equity issues that remain – 800 million people worldwide still lack access to safe drinking water.  These people are among the poorest of the poor, often living in slums and remote rural areas. They are often neglected by water service providers, either because their governments lack the political will to ensure their citizens have access to basic services, or because service providers don’t see the poor as economically viable consumers. The added investment needed to reach settlements – which are often built on untenured land, in places which are also
technically hard to reach – will be huge.   

It is positive news that the access to water MDG has been reached, but it is more encouraging that health arguments will now promote water quality in the context of sanitation in the post-2015 world, as well as the fact that equity will be a new focus. In other words, we will set more meaningful targets, which should lead to better focus and investment, and keep raising awareness of the WASH agenda internationally.

With all the talk of the need for ‘concrete solutions’ at the World Water Forum, let’s hope that the post-2015 agenda will focus on quality solutions that take into account the enormous barriers that remain.

Author: Leslie Morris Iveson
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.