Flowing from
the bottom up

Gourisankar Ghosh
calls for integrated management of water – of the people, for the people and by the people

Lack of access to sanitation and water is one of the major causes behind the cycle of poverty. The poor lack access because they are poor, and because they do not have access they remain poor – suffering ill-health, more diseases, less education for their girl children and life in degrading, environmentally unhygienic conditions. They remain in that miserable state, sometimes very close to the opulence of multi-storied building complexes or hotels in developing world cities. Living in illegal slum settlements, they provide cheap labour to the urban economy, but remain unrecognized as legal residents.

Global commitments
Global leaders endorsed the Millennium Development Goals for water at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. They also, for the first time, recognized the need for sanitation goals, and committed themselves to reducing by half the proportion of people without access to safe water and sanitation by the year 2015.

Some, however, are now attempting to weaken the goals. They claim that these are narrow and not viable, and project a very high cost for achieving them – one not compatible with what is actually needed to reach the poor populations that should be targeted. It is an attempt to divert attention to capital-intensive investments in large water structures and waste treatment plants, and to justify this with an argument based on an integrated approach. This new paradigm – advanced by followers of the same school of thought that claims that the last International Water Supply and Sanitation Decade failed – is simply to promote more investment in infrastructure and greater allocations of donor funds for large structures and multipurpose projects. This is not necessarily an integrated approach, and contains little or no mention of the need for popular involvement.

Yet the lessons from the last decade were that no sustainable solution can be achieved without putting people at the centre of planning, implementation, operation and maintenance; and that the only way to ensure long-term sustainability of water resources is, again, to involve the people at all stages and levels of water protection, conservation and development.

The Millennium Development Goals must be approached through choosing the right models with appropriate and affordable costs. Achieving them also calls for good local planning and design; sound, dynamic policy; responsibility delegated to the people; and environmental protection. Advocating top-down planning and infrastructure-oriented approaches will not reach the poor and will divert precious resources.

In the second half of the Water Decade, India experimented with an integrated approach through the Water Mission (later named the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission) involving almost all its departments and institutions. Over the five years 1986-1990, this reached nearly 165,000 villages with a population of almost 300 million people. It did so by proper planning and coordination, by systematic monitoring, by allocating resources out of its own budget and controlling cost, and, above all, by mobilizing a programme on its own.

The most important experiments were mini-missions, implemented in approximately 16 pilot project districts, each with a population of around 1.5-2 million people. An integrated approach was developed through mobilizing all the development programmes related to water, forestry, agriculture, schools, health, education and energy, and coordinating them through elected bodies in villages and districts. They were further coordinated by the district administration to develop water-harvesting structures and to recharge groundwater through deep wells, to introduce hydro-fracturing techniques for rejuvenating wells, and to offer geological advice on better locating wells and water conservation structures.

Popular involvement
The key point was that the people were involved at all levels through local governments. The most successful model was in Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, where the tribal population tripled their agricultural productivity, got rid of guinea worm, increased school attendance, improved their hygiene practices and planted more trees for afforestation.

Similarly the local government (panchaats) in Medinipur in the state of West Bengal involved volunteers from youth and women’s groups for a campaign on sanitation and hygiene run through a non-governmental organization (Ramakrishna Mission), taking an integrated approach to sanitation, education and health. Instead of subsidizing free latrines, small loans were provided through the youth clubs, after health and hygiene education. The community recycled funds, encouraged local entrepreneurs and provided the people with options for different sanitation models. As a result, nearly 16 million people were served in just ten years.
Lack of access to sanitation and water is one of the major causes behind the cycle of poverty
Of course, like all models, the Indian experience is not perfect. Imbalanced demand and supply has been created by the absence of proper regulation for groundwater extraction, over-irrigation of crops, deforestation and an indiscriminate increase of urban population with inefficient water system management. Top-down water policy development may never provide long-term solutions to such complex water management problems.

Yet experience from India and, more recently, South Africa – where I have been fortunate to be closely involved in policy development and reconstruction since 1994 – demonstrates the need for countries and governments to take leadership. It shows that India, with a GDP of less than $350 per capita and a population of close to a billion, could develop a programme of nearly $1 billion a year out of its own resources, and reach the goals in stages. The Indian programme has been developed through successive five-year plans and is now undergoing further evaluation and reform.

Indigenous, appropriate, affordable
South Africa is one of the developing countries allocating the highest percentage of GDP to water and sanitation. It demonstrates that – with determination, self-esteem and proper planning within its own resources – goals can be achieved without waiting for outside support. The choice of technology and approach has to be indigenous, appropriate and affordable.

Both the Indian and South African Governments are responsible to their people. Though the programmes are never perfect, they are based on learning from experience, and are part of a continuous process. Moreover, the integrated approach is based on decentralized governance, involvement of the people and a true people-centred programme.
We need a water management strategy oriented ... towards conservation, involving the people

Crucial leadership
The leadership given by India and South Africa and their political leaders has been crucial. Only governments can do this, and they should help multi-stakeholder coalitions to grow towards the sustainable achievement of their goals. Smaller countries will also need capacity development and support to develop their infrastructure. More education, capacity-building, open dialogue and encouragement of small private entrepreneurs will be essential

Water is not a global issue. It is very local, but not restricted by political boundaries. Both water and pollution travel downstream. More cooperation is needed between nations on transboundary water resource management. However, the process must be affordable, appropriate and environmentally sustainable for the poor.

If water management is beyond the poor – and is commercialized as a business – it will neither be sustainable nor integrated. Without water, no poverty reduction is possible. Without integrating sanitation into water resource management plans and actions, water quality and health will not improve.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development’s Plan of Action identified school sanitation and hygiene education and integration of sanitation into integrated water resource management as priority areas. Hence we need a water management strategy oriented not just towards creating infrastructure but towards conservation, involving the people; focused not just on private-sector development but on developing true partnership and encouraging small private entrepreneurs; and stimulating not just an addition of assets but the development of an efficient and well-managed system. This strategy should not destroy sustainable models and technologies like rainwater harvesting, but encourage ones close to the people and managed by them. Lastly, we need to know the parameters and indicators to measure progress and success in different countries, so as to reach the Millennium Development Goals through an integrated approach.

The world needs integrated management of water – of the people, for the people and by the people – towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals

Gourisankar Ghosh is Executive Director of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, Geneva.

PHOTOGRAPH: Klarehen Kallenbach/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Action for tomorrow | Turning words into action | One hand washes the other | People | Fragile resource | Realizing the dream | Washing away poverty | At a glance: Water and sanitation | Music makes magic – Angélique Kidjo | Targeting sanitation | In a city like Mumbai | Flowing from the bottom up | Books & products | Watering a thirsty land | Peace through parks | Reaching the unheard

Complementary issues:
Water, 1996
Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996
Freshwater, 1998
The Environment Millennium, 2000
Poverty Health and the Environment, 2001
WSSD, 2002
Freshwater, 2003