A global thirst: water, power and the poor

About the author
Mike Muller, a civil engineer by training, was director-general of water affairs and forestry (1997-2005).

The 2006 edition of the United Nations Human Development Report, launched on 9 November 2006, focuses on power and scarcity and the challenge of addressing the world's so-called water crisis. But it is not obvious that it addresses some of the key obstacles to improving the situation. Indeed, it may even be aggravating some of the problems.

Water practitioners are always glad to get some attention, which usually comes only with flood, drought and cholera, or when a community empties its toilet buckets in the mayor's parlour. But sometimes we are so pathetically grateful to be noticed that we are not critical enough of the politicians and development mandarins who have such an influence on our work.

Perhaps as a result, after thirty years of talking - the first world water decade was agreed upon in 1977 - the number of people in the world without adequate water or sanitation has changed very little.

Part of the problem is that water is a long-term business with water managers often out of sync with the political cycles and development fashions that drive policy decisions and funding. So as the pendulum swings, and the money begins to flow, the obstacles appear again. The latest human-development report threatens to continue in this vein.

Mike Muller, a civil engineer by training, was director-general of water affairs and forestry (1997-2005). He is now a visiting research fellow at the graduate school of public and development management at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

A slightly different version of this article was first published in Business Day
(9 November 2006)

Also by Mike Muller:

"Water lessons from South Africa and China" (chinadialogue,
4 October 2006)

Theory and practice

Human development is a vital concept and the annual United Nations report is an important tool to promote it. When the first report was launched in 1990 under the leadership of renowned Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, it played an indispensable role in countering the then-dominant view that economic growth was the sole worthy goal to which poor countries should aspire.

In such an intellectual and political environment, simply to ask who benefited from that economic growth was potentially revolutionary. The effects could be intoxicating: published tables of quality-of-life outcomes brought joy to polemicists who pointed out that the United States was only just keeping up with Cuba when its health performance was measured against robust indicators such as infant mortality and longevity.

The problems of interpretation only gradually became apparent, and are today still imperfectly understood. One is that it is potentially dangerous to use a theoretical analysis of the nature of development to guide the practical management of development programmes.

Development fashions come with costs, particularly when they change - with monotonous regularity - every five or ten years. The prioritisation of water in the 1980s meant that a great deal of money was spent, and progress made. But the failure of some of the schemes implemented, because of lack of maintenance, combined with a change of language and thinking to result in the application of a new model in the 1990s: the Washington consensus, with its prescriptions of privatisation, governance and capacity-building.

The message to poor countries shifted accordingly: if only you would adopt the right policies, set the right prices and establish the right institutions, you would build your own water and sanitation facilities. As a result, the money for actually providing water supplies dried up - and so did progress, particularly in the poorer countries themselves.

Now the pendulum has swung again and money has begun to flow as specialists have convinced the development mandarins that without resources there will be no progress. Some of the new fashions have commandeered the language of human development to insist that the way forward is based on human rights, participation and decentralisation. In their own way, they too threaten to constrain progress.

Where the money goes

I was talking about this in one of South Africa's neighbours where I recently went to evaluate a water project.

Down by the river, the project had worked well - perhaps 150,000 people had more water and better sanitation than they had three years before. But it could and should have been 300,000 people who benefited, because only 40% of the project's money was used for building water infrastructure. The rest went on the software, including a memorable component of "training in a human rights-based approach to planning" - just what the hard-pressed administrator, with 500,000 people without water, did not need.

South Africans know from experience that human-rights approaches can be fraught with difficulty and sometimes cause more problems than they solve.

A Legal Resources Centre meeting was told recently by a senior housing official of how the historic Grootboom case (where, in 2000, South Africa's constitutional court ruled in favour of the protection of citizens' right to housing), and other court decisions that constrain eviction, have helped in practice to keep homeless people homeless.

The reason (as Albie Sachs, the veteran human-rights campaigner and member of the constitutional court, memorably put it) is not that the people with the sharpest elbows use the law to defend their personal interests. It is rather that public decisions and declarations in favour of human rights may fail to take account of "facts on the ground" and the dynamics of local experience.

In the South African case, the post-Grootboom experience is that gangsters with AK-47s ran land invasions, comforted now in the knowledge that the courts would protect them, even as they demanded protection money from their settlers. They could take over land for planned housing with impunity at the expense of the people who were waiting for a home of their own.

Back at that project on the river, we tried to find out where the bulk of money had gone. It turned out that most had been spent on consultants and capacity-building: principally, teaching local officials how to use donor-management systems rather than those of their own government.

The lesson is that power needs to be shifted if poor people are going to get water and sanitation. But the people in the way are not just obstructive local politicians (empowered, incidentally, by unthinking application of the fashion for local participation and decentralisation); nor are they only the national politicians who see an opportunity to cream 5% off the top for themselves (the first Lesotho Highlands water-project corruption conviction was for a capacity-building contract). They are also the development mandarins who think nothing of taking 20% for their overheads, and then another 40% for their friends to patronise and prattle with.

One half of the world's water problem has been addressed - there is now wide acknowledgement that more resources are needed and the funds are flowing. The second challenge still remains. Aid agencies have to be convinced to make their processes more effective and to stop insisting that they know best how to do the job.

The world's rich countries, meeting in a "high-level forum" in France in March 2005, agreed the "Paris declaration on aid effectiveness" which committed them to give aid to the countries that need it with just one condition: that it be used efficiently to meet the agreed goals. It was a revolutionary step. But in practice, they are proving remarkably unwilling to give up their right to preach and prescribe. The test of the relevance of this year's human-development report is whether it supports the reform process or simply places a series of new obstacles in the path of progress.