Addressing the water crisis: further (collective) failure is not an option
Access to water and sanitation for all is central to achieving global justice for poor women and men. Yet despite successive global declarations and efforts the global aid architecture is still straining to solve the problem of how to provide water and sanitation to the planet's population.
According to the latest global assessment (the UN Water Glaas Report), in 2008 over 2.6 billion people still lived without access to improved sanitation facilities and nearly 900 million people received drinking-water from unimproved sources. At the core of this appalling situation is the failure of global collective action. But is this now changing?
In the past 21 years a string of initiatives have sought to tackle this problem, but most have performed well below expectation. The latest effort is Sanitation and Water for All which brings together key countries and agencies under the stated goal of achieving 'universal and sustainable access to sanitation and drinking water, with an immediate focus on achieving the Millennium Development Goals in the most off-track countries'. How this new approach has learnt from the past will be central to its future success.
Sanitation and water for all
The 1980s became the UN 'water decade' after agreement at the first major global water meeting held under UN auspices - Mar del Plata in 1977. This meeting launched the era of collective action but by the end of the decade, progress remained far off track. The ambitious motto of 'sanitation and water for all' rang in the ears of international agencies at a UN meeting to review progress and draw lessons held in New Delhi in 1990. This meeting acknowledged failures and adopted a less ambitious slogan - 'Some for all rather than more for some'. The down-grading of ambition focused on low-cost, community-led initiatives and was endorsed by 115 countries. Four key principles were enunciated: integrated management of water and waste to safeguard human health and the environment; institutional reforms including greater women's participation; community management; and matching financing capacities and needs with better use of existing assets and sustainable technologies.
These were to become the watchwords for action in the 1990s, but soon suffered under a quasi 'counter-revolution' at the hastily-arranged Dublin Meeting in January 1992. With strong World Bank support Dublin prompted a focus on water as an economic resource and was established to bring a water 'collective' perspective to the upcoming Earth Summit in Rio. Dublin became the 'official' view of the world's water community - or so the world was told - and the New Delhi principles fell into obscurity. Four new Dublin principles held sway, only two of which substantially drew on New Delhi (a focus on women and participation). The most important - and widely quoted - principle - was that: 'Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good'. The principle's rubric stated that ‘Past failure to recognise the economic value of water has led to wasteful and environmentally damaging uses of the resource. Managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use, and of encouraging conservation and protection of water resources.'
This may have been an important view, but the ensuing over-emphasis in policy and practice caused much of the 1990s to become a waste ground of failed cost recovery efforts and attempts at stimulating private sector entry into service provision as part of the obsession with demand-led, financial sustainability. The Asian Financial crisis in the late 1990s put paid to the involvement of major global water companies due to shareholder concerns about financial exposure and local private sector operators soon found that political and social contestations over water at a local level often trumped any financially doable model of service delivery. The very fact the resource was so important, yet poorly supplied, demanded structural interventions that went beyond the small-scale and local private sector level.
Not surprisingly government had to pick up the initiative again and the State was soon brought 'back in' by the same institutions that had downplayed its role in Dublin. Under the new watchword 'governance' there has been a resurgence in state action, particularly in delivering against the Millennium Development Goals. Indeed the Sanitation and Water for all Initiative places as its principle aim the 'political prioritisation for sustainable sanitation and drinking water'. In countries where state action has always taken precedence over more liberal, private-sector models including aid icons like Ethiopia, there are now-vaunted success stories (though not without contention over the role and performance of state institutions).
Learning for the future
So what can we learn from the past that is useful for future initiatives? Looking back on the intervening 21 years since The New Delhi Agreement and learning for the future is the objective of the STEPS Water and Sanitation Symposium, 'Some for all? Politics and Pathways in Water and Sanitation since New Delhi 1990', held at IDS on 22 March (World Water Day).
In another 21 years the world will be fast approaching 'peak population' of nine billion people. If we don't tackle this collective problem once and for all billions will continue to suffer and this collective action failure will be a stain on humanity in the twenty-first century.
Alan Nicol, Lyla Mehta and Jeremy Allouche are Research Fellows at the Institute of Development Studies.
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