Ravi Narayanan
describes the hurdles in the way of achieving the Millennium Development Goals on water and sanitation and outlines strategies to overcome them

As the new millennium opened, 1.1 billion people had no access to safe water, and 2.4 billion lacked access to improved sanitation – making up one sixth and two fifths of the world’s population respectively. The international community has pledged to halve both these proportions by 2015*.

If these targets are to be met in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean – taking population increase into account – the number of people served by water supply must increase by 1.6 billion (32 per cent) and those served by sanitation by 2.2 billion (59 per cent). The Global Water Partnership estimates that an additional $30 billion needs to be spent each year – $17 billion of it on sanitation.

Policy-makers need to overcome a series of hurdles if they are to bridge the resource gap and make sure that the international targets become reality.

The first is the lack of financial resources allocated to the sector – whether from external aid and investment or from national budgets. Realistically, significant foreign direct investment (FDI) will not be available to this group of countries for reasons of risk and the lack of business opportunities likely to bring acceptable returns on investment. Even in countries which can attract FDI, many of the poorest people do not benefit from investment in the water and sanitation sector.

Maximizing impacts
The remaining financial avenues are governments’ own budgetary allocations, official development assistance (ODA), and finance raised by local communities and/or supplemented by local financial institutions. These resources are limited and their impact needs to be maximized. Our own research and field experience lead us to suggest the following:

  • If official development assistance from OECD nations – and from other groupings of rich countries such as the European Union – is focused on countries on the basis of poverty rather than of political expediency, considerably more resources will be available to the really poor nations with the largest numbers of people lacking safe water and sanitation. In practice, the least developed countries received less aid for water and sanitation than the low/middle-income countries during the 1990s.

  • The amount of aid allocated to low-cost water and sanitation programmes is abysmally low. The OECD’s Development Assistance Committee reported in 2000 that only 1.7 per cent of all sector-allocable aid is earmarked for this purpose. There needs to be both a general increase in ODA and a rise in the priority given to aid for water and sanitation for poor people. Equally, allocations for these services from developing countries’ national budgets need to be increased very significantly.

  • Funds made available through debt relief can, and should, be used to develop national water strategies which prioritize water and sanitation within overall poverty reduction strategies.

  • There must be coordination between major donors, especially over support for national water strategies. Unconnected one-off projects, negotiated between individual donor countries and selected local government departments, are unlikely to be sustainable or effective in the long term. Therefore the development of national water strategies by developing countries, and the importance they give to them in their national development plans, are crucially important.

  • Local consumer financing schemes through micro-credit unions and groups can be an important source of finance both in rural and urban areas. They are ideally suited for rapidly developing low-cost, decentralized services. In both Bangladesh and India micro-credit is widely used, particularly to provide households with their own sanitation facilities.

Appropriate technologies
The second hurdle is the lack of attention paid to using technologies that poor communities can afford and, even more crucially, maintain.

Choosing appropriate and affordable technology and standards of service is crucial both for getting the best value (the widest coverage for the least cost), and for operation and maintenance capabilities, which are directly related to achieving sustainability and protecting investment in these services. Indeed, the sustainability of services ought to be a prime consideration in any investment in water and sanitation programmes. We have found, for example, that poor communities in Niassa province in Mozambique would prefer to step down the technology ladder and use protected wells rather than boreholes and hand pumps, because they cannot afford the cost of the spares required to maintain the pumps.

Choice and accountability
The third hurdle arises when poor people and communities are not consulted about the solutions most appropriate to their needs and are left with no choice, and when no accountability is demanded of governments and donors.

It is important to ensure wide and informed participation of people – including customers – in understanding the application of funds and the consequent benefits. Transparency in the decision-making process, and the availability of information, are crucial in maintaining public overview, minimizing corruption, avoiding wastage and building credibility in the system of governance (an essential prerequisite for optimum financial functioning, including the readiness to pay for services). Civil society organizations have a well-proven capability in championing the interests of poor people and developing their ability to ensure that public funds are used for their benefit. Using aid to widen this capacity will reduce ‘leakages’ in the system and improve standards of governance.
Policy-makers need to overcome a series of hurdles if they are to bridge the resource gap
If scarce resources are to be used optimally, grants or concessional finance must be provided to build the technical skills, organizational abilities, planning coordination and monitoring capabilities of local governments – especially at district level and below, where projects are actually implemented.

Combined strategies
Safe water and sanitation services invariably improve wherever these hurdles are overcome. Ways of overcoming them vary from country to country, depending on the economic circumstances, hydro-geological conditions and systems of administration and government. But there are enough examples around the world which can be used as a basis for scaling up solutions so as to move decisively towards achieving the Millennium Goals on water and sanitation. In combination, these strategies would enable the international community to deliver on these ambitious objectives

Ravi Narayanan is the Director of WaterAid.

PHOTOGRAPH: Hlaing Thntint/UNEP/Topham

* The United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000 added the target for safe water to the Millennium Development Goals, and two years later, the World Summit on Sustainable Development agreed the target for sanitation.

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | World Environment Day | Water is life | The water century | Taking it at the flood | Renewing the commitment | Waterless cities | Keeping pollution at bay | People | At a glance | Changing agenda | Nor any drop to drink | Bridging troubled waters | Books & products | Getting there | Sinking fast | Waste not | Water – the poor’s priority | Atomic power

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Freshwater, 1998

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Freshwater wetlands
Mangroves and estuaries