Liquid Dynamics: Accessing Water and Sanitation in an Uncertain Age
More than most other resources and services, water and sanitation are essential for all aspects of life, livelihoods and wellbeing. Yet a vast number of people in the world still lack access to water and continue to be victims of poor sanitation.
Over the last three decades a number of models and solutions have been put forward as silver bullets, ranging from purely technical engineering approaches to new business models involving the private sector. These models and policies have largely failed.
The global community seems to be faced with a ‘knowledge gap', and the governance of water and sanitation is confronted by numerous uncertainties and unknowns.
On 2-3 November 2009, the STEPS Centre, based at IDS, organised a symposium on water and sanitation that sought to stimulate new ways of thinking about water and sanitation dynamics to pave the way for alternative pathways to address persistent problems.
The symposium brought together a diverse group of experts working on water and sanitation issues as well as climate change. The workshop's focus was on ‘liquid dynamics', which brings out the complexity and dynamic interactions that exist between the social, technological, and ecological/hydrological dimensions of water and sanitation systems, but which has often been neglected in the current global approaches to water and sanitation issues.
The symposium highlighted two key issues:
The growing disconnect between global rhetoric and the everyday realities of poor people
While the global community has been promoting universalised positions and standardised definitions, local struggles over access to water and sanitation and the associated cultural, religious and political meanings in different contexts have largely been disregarded. As became evident during the recent World Water Forum in Istanbul, water and sanitation debates continue to be framed in rather technocratic terms, disconnected from the everyday needs of poor and marginalised women and men.
Thus, much of the current debate, policies and interventions fail to address water and sanitation problems in ways that are sustainable and meet the needs of poorer and marginalised people.With respect to sanitation, the recent emergence of the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach offers a radical alternative to top-down conventional sanitation programmes. Still, CLTS faces challenges of its own in terms of generating sustainable long-term behaviour change.
There is a need to create space to reframe particular problems so that the potential for alternative pathways can emerge. Moreover, concepts such as governance, participation, and sustainability are increasingly neglecting the political dimension of the management of water and sanitation; underscoring the need for a substantive democratisation of governance and management and putting power relations upfront.
The difficulty of translating ‘scientific knowledge' and research into policy
New risks and uncertainties are too often seen as detached from our past. The same errors are duplicated, and approaches to water and climate change are rooted in the same deterministic language that also characterised past policies. The implication of climate change for water resources management is driving a number of fears, and the scientific community needs to better highlight the uncertainties linked to this process. In this regard, policymakers need to be careful in making local decisions on the basis of regional scenarios. The need to recognise the complexity of these processes is vital in reflecting on the potential pathways towards sustainability.
The symposium generated much discussion and enthusiasm, and brought together often widely different perspectives. It is our hope that this new community of people will continue to engage in discussions, exchanges ideas and provide the basis for future collaborative projects that focus on liquid dynamics.
Jeremy Allouche is a Research Fellow at IDS and Synne Movik is engaged in the STEPS Centre water and sanitation domain work as an independent consultant.
Photo: Sven Torfinn / Panos.
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