This year at World Water Week has always given lots of food for thought on how to manage water for productive and domestic use, as well as finding a balance with protecting the environment and managing a finite and dwindling source. Oxfam GB’s Jola Miziniak and Tom Wildman reflect on their key takeaways from the week’s events.
Jola Miziniak on accountability
An ever-challenging concept, and even more challenging perspective in practice where people, industry, livestock, agriculture all compete for the same source. The question always is “who responsibility is it?”.
Our perspective at Oxfam GB is always how do we ensure safe, clean and affordable water is provided to the poorest? And how do we ensure we preserve the environment, protect against corruption and those most vulnerable and promote good governance and management? Is it always the responsibility of government? No. It’s a collective responsibility from both formal and informal providers, as well as individual users.
It was heartening to hear this from the SIWI Water Governance Facility who looked at hydro-diplomacy and the need for multi-stakeholder partnerships on how to evoke interest and engagement from informal pathways that strengthen formal processes. GIZ also promoted greater engagement with youth in understanding the value of water and sanitation, therefore protecting the environment and public services.
To do this requires commitments from everyone as ways to measure success and bring about good practices. Durban municipality has set up a WhatsApp group and social media channels to allow people to report breakdowns and issues of water supply and provide direct (non-automated) updates. These are also measured as one of their KPI’s.
There needs to be a way in the growing world of technology to not put more distance between people and providers. We need to establish better links and communicating methods which allow people to be heard and answered, placing accountability on everyone’s shoulders. But not everyone has access to technology or a direct line to providers, especially the poorest, so we need to ensure measurements are set against social impacts that look at reaching everyone, without exception. At this and every forum we ensure these questions keep being asked!
Tom Wildman on innovative finance
In their session on ‘innovative finance’ the World Bank Water Group highlighted that over the years, their sessions have gone from being quite small to over-subscribed. NGOs, governments, impact investors and development banks are all attempting to attract private investors into the provision of water and sanitation products and services, but as the speakers pointed out, we need to address two foundational issues before zooming in to focus on finance.
- Service providers need to be technically and financially viable. Nothing innovative or new here, but from small-scale systems up to large utilities, the biggest obstacle to sustainability is poor technical design, low quality components and a lack of understanding on just how much it costs to operate and run the services.
- Institutional and governance arrangements are critical. Providers that are not transparent in their governance structures will never attract investments.
So, how do we now address it? And for Oxfam, how do we address it in low-income and fragile contexts?
In low income and fragile contexts, it is even harder to attract investors into the water and sanitation sector because there is no return on investment. In some places an investor would lose money during an operation. Most investor financing currently goes towards a small number of creditworthy water and sanitation service providers in more stable developing countries. The belief is that if service quality increases, people will pay more for the service, which increases the potential for profit and the creditworthiness of the business. However, no one funds those risky organizations deemed not to be creditworthy, so it’s difficult for these providers to move into a positive cycle.
How are we going to find investments for building the foundations for sustainable and inclusive water services in eastern DRC, the arid lands of east Africa, and the poor, landslide-prone areas of Nepal? This is where we’re focusing our efforts. Our vision is not to design individual projects or even multi-year programs. We want to serve a long-term function in these places, building an inclusive and accountable system from the ground up and adapting our role within it. After a week in Stockholm we’re certain that that’s exactly the space we need to be working in.