Today is World Water Day; this year operating under the heading “Clean Water for a Healthy World”. Every year since 1995, March 22 has been dedicated to “focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources“.

The 2010 events campaign focuses specifically on raising awareness of the importance of water quality for health and human well-being, and the importance of sound water management for preventing pollution.

While that means that this year the World Water Day has no specific focus on the developing world, a global view onto water problems always naturally draws attention to the specific the problems of the developing world, where not only most of the people lacking access to safe drinking water live, where desertification and pollution are worst, and where water-borne diseases are most prevalent – just to give a few examples – but also the technical and financial means for dealing with the causes and consequences of the “water crisis” /1/ are slimmest.

In 2003, the United Nations Economic and Social Council codified a Human Right to Water in its General Comment No. 15, based on the interpretation of the pre-existing International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which stated:

The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements.

Yet, this right remains unclaimable in many poor countries, both as a result of the failure of the international community to support the necessary steps financially, and because of a competing paradigm of “full cost recovery”. This is reason enough to have a cursory look today at the transnational governance and provision systems of water and sanitation for the poor.

Lack of awareness is not the problem…

However important and noble such efforts as the World Water Day at informing the public consciousness (in rich countries) are, awareness is not the real problem – we know what’s wrong, but (like climate change) we aren’t going about effectively fixing it.

Even those members of the public who never have heard these (or similar – they vary according to sources) alarming figures before are unlikely to be shocked to learn that “there are still nearly 900 million people across the world who don’t have access to a safe water supply” (The Guardian, today) and “2.7 billion people, including 980 million children, currently lack access to proper sanitation facilities” (The Hindu, today). People of the 21st century are accustomed to knowing about such superlatives of inequality. Appalling as they are, these figures represent only two of the many inequalities and deprivations which in an international perspective look irreconcilable with our age’s advanced level of technological development.

Development policy-makers and international organisations are acutely aware of the water and sanitation situation in the developing world. They know that unsafe drinking water and unhygienic sanitation are crucial disease vectors. Improving water and sanitation access is included in Goal 7 of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (the population without access should be halved by 2015).

At first sight, it appears that the problem is being tackled. Bilateral aid (ODA) in the water and sanitation sector rose by 19 percent from 2002 to 2007 to US $4.7 billion, now amounting to a share of 7% of total aid originating from OECD countries (source: OECD). As recently as March 1st, the European Commission’s development department announced its decision to allocate significantly more aid to water.

…but lack of effective action is. (a back-of-the-envelope calculation)

Many sources suspect that the $4.7 billion figure too low for achieving the MDGs, and a swift back-of-the-envelope calculation confirms that suspicion. A continuation of the current rate of funding would mean a mere $6.52 given to each person currently without access, spread over the next five years /2/. Given that installing a household tap connection costs between $44 and $88 (system costs such as treatment plants, etc., not included), and even the simplest of pit latrines (not connected to sewerage) comes to around $140 (these figures are from India), $6.52 is hardly adequate. In fact, this is unlikely to even meet the running costs of any existing water tap or toilet.

However,  to further complicate things, most of the aid included in the $4.7 billion statistic isn’t even directed at addressing the lack of basic services. While the quantity of aid for water and sanitation as such is patently insufficient for reaching the Millennium Development Goals, qualitatively this aid is also unsuitable for addressing the most fundamental problems.

Funding for the water and sanitation sector rarely concentrates on those most in need. Across countries, the level of aid to water supply and sanitation per capita does not correlate with the percentage currently unserved. Furthermore, within countries, the OECD notes: “Projects for “large systems” are predominant and accounted for more than half of DAC members’ total contributions to the water supply and sanitation sector in 2006-2007,” while less than 20 percent is intended for basic drinking water supply and basic sanitation. Large system projects usually reach poor areas last (if at all), serving instead more affluent neighbourhoods first, whose residents are able to pay for the infrastructure, or industrial and business zones which require large-scale water supply and wastewater treatment facilities (assuming the wastewater is treated at all). In sum: the aid is going the wrong places.

Moreover, aid figures tend to create the impression that this is a one-way flow of finance. What goes unnoticed is that most of the money comes in the form of loans which must be paid back with interest. The OECD defines Official Development Assistance (ODA), the standard measure, as “Flows of official financing administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as the main objective, and which are concessional in character with a grant element of at least 25 percent (using a fixed 10 percent rate of discount).” At least 85 percent then is recoverable, in the normal case. Given that many if not most such loans have to be repaid in hard currency, which appreciates over time, they are often a loss-making calculation for the receiving country.

Furthermore, even the official (OECD) figure for the percentage of un-tied aid is a paltry 42 percent; that is, only 42 percent of aid comes without contractual strings attached (such as obligations to buy overpriced services or inputs from specific companies in specific countries). Japan, for instance, is the producer of the world’s largest de-salinisation and wastewater treatment plants; unsurprisingly, Japan is by far the greatest water and sanitation (watsan) donor, committing a full 32 percent of all watsan-related ODA, more than double that of next-placed Germany (Siemens, etc.) and third-place France (Veolia, Suez). (See JETRO: Rapid growth of the global water treatment business – Japan’s public and private sectors join hands to develop national strategy)

“Full cost recovery”: human rights becoming obligations to debt

Underlying these practices is the universal assumption that for the “donor” there must be a payoff. However, outside the state sector, too, this is the operative logic. Given the failure of multinationals and the hypocrisy of many ODA-driven initiatives in the water and sanitation sectors, many people and organisations committed to improving the lot of those without water and sanitation have been abandoning the state-led approach in favour of alternative models focused solely on unserved populations. But, without the state as a funding source, any non-public programme of widening access must be able to cover its costs. Thus, partly out of necessity and partly because of the still strong paradigm that “the market” is the best means of managing and allocating resources/commodities, many modern water and sanitation programmes draw on private sector logics and financing arrangements, a survival from the 1980s and 90s. These decades were the age of privatisation of water utilities in the developing world.

In the 1980s and 90s, under the auspices of financial austerity and liberalisation programmes formulated and monitored at the transnational level, multinationals were invited to acquire municipal utilities networks from the distressed governments of developing countries, only to raise (often more than double, even triple) rates for the poor while lowering tariffs for industry in an effort to recover investment costs and increase turnover. Most of these municipal networks have since been returned to public ownership or authority again after running into resistance, but thanks to harsh court settlements and depreciated infrastructure, they are often in an even worse position than before – see Ann-Christin Sjölander Holland’s book for a stark analysis of these developments.

The idea arose in the noughties to pair microcredit with water and sanitation, and was even explored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While not per se advocating a privatisation of the networks (municipalities are now seen as useful partners), these initiatives view the problem not as one of strengthening the (global) public commitment to improving the watsan situation of the poor, but as one of inducing private investors to enter the field and create a market. The poor are merely unserved consumers in need of firms willing to harvest the fortune the “bottom of the pyramid” – the BOP, as, for some reason, it is currently fashionably to call the poor.

Countless such initiatives are operating in India, West Africa, and South-East Asia (three exemplary references: 1, 2, 3). One particularly large programme using public funding from USAID has reached several million clients in Indonesia; but without any evidence to the contrary, it is extremely doubtful that any of these initiatives have actually moved beyond the pilot stage to a point where profit-driven private investors would be interested in serving the poor with standard household water and sanitation solutions /3/. With two thirds of Indians, for instance, living on less than $2 a day, it also seems optimistic at best to believe that they could (or would) spend 20 percent of their yearly income on constructing a toilet, not even considering the running costs; the model is based on the false premise that the poor will be able to buy their way out of poverty.

But, barring adequate funding from non-commercial sources, and with commercial sources unwilling and unable to serve the poor (see the Bolivian water riots of 2000), the would-be philanthropists of water and sanitation are left with little choice but to turn to debt financing and invoke the principles of the market. Full cost recovery necessitates the poor taking on debt for what, internationally, has rightly been codified as their human right. At the nexus of ineffective transnational institutions, interest-driven donor states, and NGOs operating under corporate principles, the Human Right to Water therefore becomes an obligation to debt.

However, what the coercive politics of liberalisation and corporate pressures were jointly not able to achieve in the 1990s – to turn water and sanitation supply to the poor into a profitable business via large-scale investments – the “small is beautiful” interventions of the philanthrocapitalists are even likely to attain. The risks, however, are greater, as this time it is not multinational corporations that are racking up debt, but the poor themselves.

The logics of the private sector pervade parts of the NGO community so deeply that, for their work to remain coherent, even the beneficiaries of NGOs’ work must be conceived of in corporate terms, as this caption for a picture on the IRC’s World Water Day website beautifully illustrates:

This woman from the Sironko District of Uganda is a true citizen of the 21st century – a multi-tasking manager with daily performance targets. She wakes early to fetch water, store it, distribute it and manage sanitation facilities in the home. She goes to bed long after dark, when the cooking, cleaning, laundering and other chores are done. She probably has more work than her mother, being also responsible today for domestic animals. The 21st century woman participates in community development work, and uses her ‘spare’ time for income generating activities. She lives a high-pressure executive lifestyle, lacking only the income, the status, the holidays, the help in the home, a lifestyle consultant, a retirement date and a pension.

In avoiding the dual pitfalls of interest-driven ODA finance and corporate exploitation, NGOs have turned to banking on their beneficiaries. But this involves a construal of the poor as rational, businesslike actors, which outsources incalculable risks to the poor themselves.

Abandoning full cost recovery

Outside of the dichotomous logics of donor finance and full cost recovery via debt, a third way should be sought towards extending water and sanitation to those in the most dire need.  It should be seen that it is neither equitable nor possible to make the poor themselves pay the full price of the interventions. A human rights based approach must reject the paradigm of full cost recovery in favour of a redistributive model, where richer societies do provide the non-self-serving assistance which, objectively, they can afford to commit.

What the NGOs have been claiming for a long time is right: that people know what works best. But this does not mean these people need to pay the costs. If universal water and sanitation access is to be achieved, the beneficiaries themselves need be be involved in decision-making up to as high levels as possible. Some states in India, for instance like Karnataka, are already successfully moving toward such a governance structure through the Gram Panchayat system. The city of Porto Alegre in Brazil since 1989 has put in place an intensely democratic system of public deliberation and participatory budgeting for its municipal water and sewage supplier (reference 1, 2, 3) – Porto Alegre now has the highest Human Development Index score in Brazil. Whether and how such participatory democratic structures can be extended beyond the local level should be explored, keeping in mind that water is as much a global common good as it is a local common good.

But beyond the functional benefits of participation and “people power” over water, the human right to water also implies a fundamental entitlement for communities to take decisions over “their” water. It would be hard to put this argument better than Anil Kumar Vaddiraju:

The particular point that we want to make in the context of water rights is that individuals not only have a fundamental right to water but have the responsibility, if not duty, to participate in its governance matters as well. Water rights can be realised better if individuals increasingly come to participate in the community collective management of these resources. This is all the more so with small village level communities where drinking water management is as much a political as it is a ‘management’ matter. The point we wish to make is that water governance requires an active role of the citizens. This active role means not only participating in the drinking water supply by way of paying user charges, but the role of decision makers vis-a-vis the resources, allocation and further provision of water supply facilities to all the members.

World Water Day may be a good day to see the multi-layered governance systems of water and sanitation in a fresh light and to explore new pathways.



/1/ A commonly used term to describe the current situation, which is deceptive insofar as it implies both that the situation is new and that it is temporary.

/2/ USD 4.7 billion each year from 2010 until 2015 (the MDG due-date) sum up to USD 23.5 billion. Assuming this to be equally spread over the population currently without access, 2700 million + 900 million, the figure amounts to USD 6.52 Dollars per head for toilet or water over 5 years.

/3/ I am not including such substandard solutions as simple point-of-use filters or pay-per-use toilets here, which presently indeed are provided by the private sector, but are hardly worthy alternatives to clean tap water and in-house sanitation.