What should Oxfam be doing on water?

Just spent an intense couple of days at Oxfam Reflects, a biannual event where a mix of staff, partners and a sprinkling of professors and

A typical water engineer.....
A typical water engineer...

other wonks shut themselves away to talk through a thematic issue that is confusing the organization and needs a bit of kicking around.

This one was on water – trying to cover both Oxfam’s traditional specialism in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), especially in emergencies (think Indiana Jones engineers getting clean water flowing within 48 hours of an earthquake) and broader concerns about long term access to water, whether for personal use or agriculture.

I won’t bore you with a conference report, but after battling through a blizzard of unfamiliar acronyms and concepts, here are some random (and very superficial) highlights and impressions.

First the problem analysis: (Relatively) good news on water, terrible news on sanitation. The number of people without access to clean water is down to 900million, but we’re now up to 2.6 billion people (one in three) who lack access to decent sanitation. Probably no accident that with sanitation as the most off-target MDG, the health targets are next worse.

Stand back, and water is one of the pinch points in a resource constrained world – it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to find enough to grow the crops to feed the world, and a global water crunch is well advanced, with climate change as an accelerator.

Then the obvious point that (even poor) people in rich countries are far more water secure than those in poor ones, but as always, any sense of history is weirdly absent – how have now-developed countries achieved water security? Surely there’s a case for some examination of the roles of state, private sector, civil society, war/other shocks, technology etc in water take-offs? References welcome.

One new and alarming fact on North v South – the extraordinary differences in rainfall variability, which is far higher in poor countries than in most rich ones and takes a large chunk out of the economy, according to work by David Grey (one of the profs). Potential for a bit of geographical determinism there, I fear.

What is Oxfam already doing? Much more than I realized, and not just on emergencies. True, most WASH spending is humanitarian (about ¾), but we still spent £16m on non-humanitarian WASH last year. In terms of numbers of people, I was a bit baffled by the numbers, but we seem to be reaching upwards of 6 million on humanitarian, and 2 million with some degree of long term support. Blimey, that’s a lot of people. There was also an unusual degree of self-congratulation on innovation in longer-term WASH work (I’ll cover that in a separate post). Another post is in the pipeline on some fascinating work in Tajikistan, where Oxfam has functioned as a convenor, brokering discussions between all the players, rather than a lobbyist, with some spectacular results.

tapstandIt wasn’t all positive though (self-doubt is our product?). There was the usual lament about the divide between emergency work, long term development and advocacy, and the difficulty of bridging it (Indiana Jones hasn’t always got a lot of time for participatory processes…..). But has any organization overcome that and if so, how? Are there not genuine reasons for such a divide (such as the kinds of people you need)? When I asked this, the examples people gave of organizations that move across all three were all national civil society organizations (rather than international players) – interesting.

Worth comparing the received wisdom on access to water with those on health and education: there seems to be much more of a need to prove competence on the ground before trying to engage government or private sector. In fact it is debatable whether the distinction between programming and advocacy makes sense in water – influence happens as much through conversations between engineers (theirs and ours) as through traditional campaigning. There is also a much greater acceptance of a role for private sector and market mechanisms. That’s particularly true of domestic companies, as foreign investment has largely failed to materialize (or been a disaster, as in Cochabamba). It would also be interesting to cross fertilize between thinking on water security and food security.

And finally, what could be Oxfam’s niche? A lot of agreement in the room on seven areas: work in urban areas, not just rural; develop approaches based on recognizing that water insecurity is more often long term and/or cyclical than one off (e.g. floods in South Asia, droughts and floods in East Africa); design programmes that foster innovation; think about multiple use systems (eg the same well providing drinking water for people and cattle); focus on advocacy both at national and global level; water resource management in agriculture and finally, concentrate on addign gender equality and women’s rights to an often gender-blind debate.

I found the complexity mind-boggling – grow more food; generate more energy; use less water; emit less GHGs. How is it going to happen? There were a few discourses in the room: technology as a get out of jail free card; trust in markets – prices will sort it out; avoid generalizations and do it one place at a time – context specificity as all; or just try harder to become more benign and omniscient planners. The first two ignore equity, the third just ducks the question and we all know about planners. What’s the alternative? Concentrate on social mobilisation to redistribute power, so that all four solutions are more likely to benefit poor people?

Don’t panic, no decisions were made (hey, this was an NGO meeting…….), and Oxfam won’t suddenly start building thousands of wells, or

water use in the Arab Emirates
water use in the Arab Emirates

go large on water campaigning. Change in a big organization happens more subtly (and slowly) than that. This will all be chewed over at length before being swallowed/spat out. Still, it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Finally, my top recommendation.  A global campaign against water-guzzling golf courses in Kenya, the Philippines, pretty much anywhere (except Scotland, no shortage of rain there). Just think of the punning potential – teed off about golf? Join the club…….

And here’s a bit of traditional WASH work in action – getting clean water into last year’s cholera outbreak in Haiti

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12 Responses to “What should Oxfam be doing on water?”
  1. Having worked for several years for WaterAid, many of these issues are very familiar to me, at least in development (rather than humanitarian) scenarios.

    There’s often a tendency in the WASH sector to assume that a lack of water is the problem and that a combination of money and engineering are the solution. But in almost all the cases I’ve come across, the biggest obstacles to access to clean and safe water are political. In Tanzania at least, new funding for water supply goes mostly to communities that already have access, rather than to those with greater need or demand (see http://ow.ly/6jvO6 for details). Why? Because those who already have access tend also to be those with better political connections.

    And even the sustainability crisis (only 54% of rural waterpoints in Tanzania are functional) is largely political. New funding is politically sexy, whereas supporting local government water engineers to keep waterpoints working doesn’t gather headlines.

    Adding money or engineers to a situation like this will change little – those who lack water will continue to go without. Only a political solution can solve a political problem: getting citizens active, putting pressure on governments to focus new funds on the underserved and to keep existing waterpoints working.

    Duncan: Sounds about right, Ben, in which case organizations with a track record in advocacy, campaigns and supporting civil society mobilization have plenty of reason to get involved, right?

  2. Kate Norgrove

    And what did you decide to do on sanitation, Duncan? Your first bit on the problem correctly identifies the 2.6 bn without sanitation – and yet the decisions described at the end don’t mention sanitation at all… Oxfam could play an important role in advocating on sanitation – think of the links to your health campaigning, for example.

    Duncan: ‘Decide’ Kate? Come, come….. My bad on this – I was using ‘water’ as shorthand for WASH, i.e. including sanitation. Richard Carter was there from WaterAid, so you can rest assured the topic was properly covered.

  3. Henry Northover

    Interesting take Duncan. Wrong “top” recommendation.

    Look at Google maps and find the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. V green and lush. Look south and there’s the iconic Kibera slum.

    The causes behind water poverty are rarely physical scarcity or low volume. It’s primarily about distribution. And that leads you to the politics (hi Ben!).

    One other thing I find curious. As you point out, sanitation is the big unaddressed challenge. It’s where the world is most off (MDG) track. But that’s where most speculative wonkery ends. Why?

    Diarrhea, of which 90% is reckoned to be caused by WASH poverty, is now the biggest killer of children in Africa and second biggest worldwide.

    It’s time for action and advocacy. We need agencies like Oxfam to start campaigning and advocating on WASH. Interested orgs can start by joining End Water Poverty endwaterpoverty.org

    Duncan: I know, I know, but wouldn’t it be a fun campaign?

  4. Anna Marriott

    And what about cost recovery? It seems too many in the WASH sector are complacent about the idea that people should pay for their water supply when the evidence is very clear that the benefits in terms of improved public health of at least providing a minimum amount of water per household free of charge will massively outweigh the costs of providing it.

    Duncan: Thanks Anna, I think there’s a different attitude to cost recovery on water than on health and education, and a growing degree of attention to the issue of financial sustainability, which seems a particularly serious problem. That means finding an equitable way to finance watsan, which may well include cost recovery. The tiered approach you suggest is interesting (wasn’t that what the Human Development Report discussed back in 2006?) and would provide that kind of balance.

  5. Glad that the event got you thinking hard on WASH Duncan! (And if any fuller documents come out that can be publicly shared I’m sure there are plenty of us WASH wonks interested).

    Was there much talk on the issue of long-term behaviour change by users themselves? While I agree with Ben that the main challenges are political, some water points aren’t used because there are people who prefer the convenience of a traditional (but “unimproved”) well next to their house, for example. Or was this challenge taken as given and the debate focused on the wider environment needed to promote these changes?

    Duncan: Thanks Stephen, there was definitely plenty of mention of the needs to address attitudes, beliefs and behaviours on hygiene and other issues.

  6. Sue Yardley

    You make an interesting comment about bridging the divide between humanitarian and development work. We’re also grappling with that here at Tearfund as we do both too.

    Internally, we’ve tried to bring the two together and better plan for sustainable, demand-led work in the early recovery stage (but we’ve a lot to learn still). But there’s also the complication of what other NGOs are up to. In eastern DRC we tried to do CLTS (demand-led sanitation work) in one area but couldn’t as another NGO was still giving away sanplats nearby, so it wasn’t going to work.

    We’re also about to start some research with WEDC (Loughborough Uni) into how the transition from relief to development can be improved with – so we’ll keep you posted on this!

    Duncan: thanks Sue, I’ve been hearing this lament about the humanitarian-long term development divide for decades. If we are still struggling, that suggests there are objective reasons for it that we need to understand better, rather than just beat ourselves up in some kind of recurring NGO ritual. You raise one interesting reason (lack of agreement between aid actors). Any others?

  7. Your collective thoughts and head-scratching on water and sanitation are very welcome. You are joining an increasing amount of development practitioners and campaigners who see how much lack of progress on water and sanitation is holding back development across the board. They also join in with the increasing amount of people who are campaigning on this issue in the End Water Poverty movement (and Oxfam is one of the 190 member organisations) which joins up national water and sanitation campaigns into a global movement.

    The complexity of the issue does seem to put people off, but this has never proved a reason not to campaign on an issue (debt, trade, agriculture…) . I would add to Ben’s comments that the issue is one of political will, and so the global and national campaigning is an essential part of meeting the other 6 suggestions in your list.

    International advocacy is needed to combat the inequalities in global aid which is not going to the countries that need it most, to provide some solutions for decision makers who also feel baffled by the myriad of issues and solutions, to increase effectiveness of the existing national campaigns for water, sanitation and hygiene. As you say, the links between health, nutrition, water and sanitation are clear – as well as the detrimental effect on education of illness and needing to fetch water instead of going to school.

    International advocacy can challenge the current lack of priority for water and sanitation spending by donors and governments, and the ways water and sanitation funds are not spent in ways which means the needs of the poorest. Equity and sustainability are the key.

    End Water Poverty has shown that there are active civil society organisations in the global north and south. Over 350,000 people worldwide joined the ‘World Walks for Waters’ actions in March this year, and more and more citizens are speaking out. Also, the Sanitation and Water for All partnership between governments, civil society and other partners is a new opportunity for global leadership and political change. We are frustrated on lack of progress on sanitation and water, and encourage Oxfam’s advocacy: from Head-scratching to High Level Meetings!

  8. You want complexity? Any discussion on the vexing, and growing, debates about ‘water footprints’? I am aware of a lot of very good technical work being done on this, but the policy and campaigning implications do my head in, for many of the reasons explored in comments above.

  9. Duncan, I know you’re open to challenges to the conventional wisdom. On the “disaster” of foreign investment in water delivery, you need to look beyond Cochabamba. Katrina Kosec (Stanford Ph.D., now at IFPRI) found that in Africa, private participation “decreases diarrhea among under- five children by between
    2.2 and 2.6 percentage points, or 14-16%. … Importantly, PSP
    appears to bene fit the health of children from the poorest households the most.” She’s also studied this in Latin America, although I don’t know what her findings were there (she has a JID article on that).

    Duncan: thanks Deborah, I’ll check this out. The water wonks present seemed much more positive about local private sector providers than international ones.

  10. Sure water is short allover the world but many parts of the world suffer due to heavy rain pouring to flood the states and countries. Solution would be best if flooded water is transferred to drought areas and store for needy times. Why we waste flood water letting it go settle in sea. There is way where there is will

  11. Tim Braunholtz-Speight

    There’s nothing new under the sun (or the rain…) The Global Anti-Golf Movement started in East/South East Asia in the 1990s, focussing on the politics of the use of land, water etc for expensive golf clubs in places where many people lacked these resources. Now seems to be based in Italy: check it out… http://www.antigolf.org/english.html

    Duncan: brilliant – and check out the video!

  12. Working on the ground in rural Tanzania on household water treatment and sanitation, the biggest problem we find is the plethora of NGO’s working in this area all coming with conflicting messages. It is suprising the number of NGO’s who appear and start promoting boiling of drinking water still, even though the W.H.O. does not recommend this method and they are not aware of alternatives. All this achieves is the undermining of the good messages that are out there. Could an organisation as large as Oxfam play a role in coordinating the messages NGO’s are sharing so we stop undermining each other and sing from the same hymn sheet, thereby reinforcing education in this area?

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