A few weeks ago, Duncan posted his reflections on Oxfam’s discussions on water. As pleased as I am about Oxfam’s interest, it begs the question, why haven’t more development NGOs dived into water already?
We can all relate to water – and any traveller can tell you about bad water and poor sanitation, and water shortages cause problems even in developed countries. Having the runs may make for a few embarrassing holiday anecdotes, but it’s no joke that diarrhoea is the biggest child killer in sub-Saharan Africa. Preventable diarrhoea associated with dirty water and poor sanitation kills more children than AIDS, malaria and TB combined.
And it’s not just kids – water is fundamentally a gender issue. Women and girls bear the biggest burden of WASH poverty – walking long distances in rural areas, queuing in line for hours in urban slums. Poor water, sanitation and hygiene undermines maternal and child health and nutrition. In education, 443 million school days are lost to water related diseases. Girls are more likely to stay in schools with separate female toilets.
These failings in human development impose a cost on the economy, through lost lives, school days, work days and burden on health systems. The UN estimates that every $1 invested in water generates $8 in wider economic benefits.
Without water we have nothing.
And that’s just water for drinking and health – water is also an economic resource – vital for food (70% of globally available freshwater is used for agriculture) – and livelihoods. It is a critical ingredient for industry – almost every manufacturing process needs water. Finally, it’s intertwined with energy – and not just through hydropower. Thermal power stations need water for cooling and for the steam needed to turn turbines.
But water can also be a destroyer – witness the floods in Pakistan and drought in the Horn of Africa. The impacts of climate change will be felt through and on water – too much, too little and the wrong type (e.g. salty rather than fresh).
All of this is not to say that having safe water is the silver bullet – but countries will make increasingly limited progress on health, education and economic development without commensurate investment in water and sanitation.
So if it’s so important – why is water so often ignored? As with many things, it’s about sex and money.
First, sexiness. Shit doesn’t sell. Water and sanitation engineers are seen as techy and boring – most people have limited personal experience of them and they are undervalued in comparison to teachers or doctors. (Declaration of interest: I’m an engineer by training! Although I’d prefer to think of myself as an engineer in the classical sense – a solver of problems, but that’s for another post…)
Value. There is no money to be made in providing water – there are limited rent seeking opportunities. It’s not worth a lot of money and most people don’t pay enough for their water. Even in the UK only about a third of the population have a water meter.
But it’s also about visibility. We in the North don’t think about water in the way that millions elsewhere do. We turn the tap, it flows. We don’t even think of it as something we pay for. Our water supply is so assured that we don’t even notice, so it’s hard to get people to think of it as an issue. You don’t see people dying of thirst, instead the tragedy of WASH poverty kills invisibly, mainly through diseases like cholera, where you literally shit yourself to death.
Finally, it’s complex – water is linked to so many agendas that there’s often no focus and competition between water ‘sectors’, rather than making a case as a whole.
The good news is that low cost, sustainable solutions exist, so it’s not a lack of technology – what’s missing is the recognition by politicians of the centrality of water and the capacity of governments to deliver sustainable basic services.
To tackle the first issue, we need to make water visible. Fortunately, the wind is in our favour. Water is “cool” at the moment. Business and the media have begun to pick up on water – but as an economic resource, and largely driven by attention to climate change. There is a risk that the human dimension is again forgotten here, but we have an opportunity to use the oxygen of this attention to drive home the centrality of water to human development.
Secondly, we need to work with governments to build a sustainable sector. The potential for change is huge if done right – the Liberian
government, working with Liberian community representatives and through the Sanitation and Water for All partnership (SWA) have developed a credible national plan to deliver exactly this through the able leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The hope is that donors and NGOs will work to this common plan to make the most of their resources and drive a step change in eliminating WASH poverty.
What could Oxfam do? It has the opportunity to contribute to both of these goals – to raise voices about the injustice of a solvable problem that, together with poor sanitation, is the biggest killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa; and more importantly to deliver – working with a range of sector specialists, like WaterAid, to create a step change in progress.
Duncan’s reflection looks at Oxfam’s potential programming and work around water (in addition to their existing work) – but rather than ‘do WASH’, Oxfam should do what it does best – speak up for the voice of the poor in global scarcity. You’re already halfway there with the GROW campaign – food, energy and water are linked by the same dynamic, a focus on scarcity rather than solutions to secure access for the poor.
Oxfam could also work with others to drive change that takes the energy that exists around scarcity issues and uses it to drive real change for the poorest around the world. Oxfam’s breadth means they are well-placed to act as common ground and to help others cross boundaries: between professions (humanitarian/development); across sectors (water/health/education/livelihoods); within sectors (WASH/Water Resources).
What all of this can do is to deliver what really matters – whole solutions that work on the ground to make people’s lives better.
So what are you waiting for? C’mon in, the water’s warm…