The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
Water supply and sanitation: the end of networks?
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The World Health Organization holds that handwashing is one of the most effective actions you can take to reduce the spread of pathogens and prevent infections, including the COVID-19 virus. Yet billions of people still lack safe water sanitation. Universal access to water and wastewater treatment is one of the 17 UN sustainable development goal (SDG 6). "Billions of people—mostly in rural areas—still lack these basic services. Worldwide, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water, two out of five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water, and more than 673 million people still practice open defecation" (UN 2020). The UN organisations argue that funding is insufficient. Would the situation be different if public utilities, donors and standard-setting experts favour decentralised solutions instead of investing in long pipes for water supply and sanitation?
Decentralised sanitation has long been promoted in the global South, especially in peripheral or rural neighbourhoods. Recently, a few scholars and donors have discussed off-grid water supply. Yet the use of springs or the municipal network to resell water (at the source or by tanker) to unserved neighbourhoods has long existed. In small and medium-sized Indian cities, private operators do this work (Angueletou-Marteau, 2010), while in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, this resale is carried out by public management committees (Barrau et Frenoux, 2010). This raises many issues of justice. Numerous studies have evidenced that people in poor urban areas pay a lot more for water than those served by centralized systems When decentralised water production leads to bottled water and sometimes aquifer overdraft, its sustainability is questioned. Could a public network in this case be more sustainable? When the water quality of the public network does not meet potability criteria, shall we consider that bottled water is de facto a complementary to off-grid solutions, and to be accounted for in the analysis of water services?
In the municipalities of the Global North, which have built centralized public water and sanitation systems with subsidies from the welfare state, there are also technical arguments for more sustainable management. Rainwater harvesting tanks could play a role in domestic use for saving drinkable water. Diverting rainwater from runoff in impervious areas has positive effects on flood mitigation. From a recycling point of view, wastewater networks and treatment plants are energy and nitrogen nonsense (Esculier et al., 2019). Separation of urine and faeces at the source could better value urine composition in nitrogen and phosphorous for agricultural use. However, the reuse of water often comes up against social representations of cleanliness and dirtiness.
For all these reasons, the respective merits of small-scale schemes must be assessed in relation to other resources, including who are the winners and losers in each situation.
However, mere technical assessment obscures the politics of large networks. Goldman (2007) considers that the "water for all" motto is a neoliberal mantra. Through a focus on affordability, it frames tap water as a commodity. In many fast-growing cities of the global South, tap water or connection to sewerage is much more than a commodity, since it means access to citizenship (del Carmen Morales et al., 2014; Ranganathan, 2014). But tap water and collective sanitation go with a loss of autonomy. Technical experts of large corporations and wealthy countries are well-positioned to impose technical norms that may not benefit the people everywhere. To what extent are decentralized solutions the vehicle for a better balance of power?
Who supports the cost of centralised and decentralised solutions? When public networks are not yet developed, are decentralised solutions socially, ecologically and economically sustainable? Should disconnection from collective networks be encouraged where public networks exist? This raises the question of who is going to pay for small or big solutions whatever their respective technical merits? Do rainwater harvesting tanks and dry toilets jeopardize the financing model for public networks?
Gabrielle Bouleau (INRAE, France)
Angueletou-Marteau, A. 2010, « Les petits opérateurs privés dans la chaîne d'approvisionnement d'eau potable dans les petites et moyennes villes indiennes », Revue tiers monde, n° 3, p. 141-158.
Barrau, E. ; Frenoux, C. 2010, « Vers l'institutionnalisation d'une délégation communautaire? », Revue Tiers Monde, n° 3, p. 123-140.
del Carmen Morales, M.; Harris, L. and Ãberg, G. 2014. Citizenshit: the right to flush and the urban sanitation imaginary. Environment and Planning A 46 (12): 2816-2833.
Esculier, F.; Le Noë, J.; Barles, S.; Billen, G.; Créno, B.; Garnier, J.; Lesavre, J.; Petit, L. and Tabuchi, J.-P. 2019. The biogeochemical imprint of human metabolism in Paris Megacity: A regionalized analysis of a water-agro-food system. Journal of Hydrology 573: 1028-1045.
Goldman, M. 2007. How ''Water for All!'' policy became hegemonic: The power of the World Bank and its transnational policy networks. Geoforum 38: 786–800.
Ranganathan, M. 2014. Paying for pipes, claiming citizenship: Political agency and water reforms at the urban periphery. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38 (2): 590-608.
Photo: Biofactoría Gran Santiago, Chile, by Valebe - CC BY-SA 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73521183
Here is a model for dispersed populations that I consider sustainable, low cost and ensures local autonomy: https://www.pottersforpeace.org/ceramic-water-filter-project
A very pertinent set of issues have been raised. Some of us in the "Cities as a Force for Good (CFG)" network argue that avoiding technological lockedness with heavy engineering solutions (characterized by capital intensiveness, long lead time, need for additional infrastructures such as roads, electricity, hype and hubris) is the best, failing which a pluralized policy terrain (where voices not just of the market but also egalitarian activists are not just heard but also responded to) is the only other saviour. A small starting point is getting rid of the concept of waste and replacing it with "nutrient recycling". https://www.icevirtuallibrary.com/doi/abs/10.1680/ensu.2011.164.2.129
Water systems did NOT receive subsidies for the (welfare) state in the US or the UK. Historically, they were financed by the water users in cities, primarily through property taxes. In the US sewer pipe systems and primary treatment was not subsidized by the federal government, either. Secondary treatment was lavishly subsidized by the federal government through a program that ran for ~23 years from 1972, but that had ended by 1995. Wastewater treatment (including new capital expenditures) is largely financed by charges to water users.
Due to the massive presence of economies of scale, networked water supply and sewage systems are vastly cheaper per household served than other alternatives -- but of course, networked systems are highly capital intensive and highly inflexible. That is why the economics of urban water supply are so difficult. Moreover, there are major financial problems if the demand for water declines as has happened in California since 2008. if conservation occurs on a significant scale -- in Southern California overall, the amount of water delivered by the regional wholesale supplied has dropped by about 20% (in total, not per capita) since 2008, and in San Diego County the amount water delivered by the County wholesale supplier has dropped 40% since 2008 -- ~90% of the cost of wholesale supply is fixed costs and the decline in the amount of water delivered drives a massive increase in the charge per unit of water delivered. This is creating a huge financial crisis for urban water supply.
Thank you Michael Hanneman for clarifying the historical financing of the US and UK water networks. Indeed, most of the time subsidies from the welfare state did not cover the total cost of infrastructures in continental Europe either, but rather a part of it, and notably for secondary and third treatment. And it took very different forms: defiscalisation of municipal natural resource exploitation for the first investment in pipes, direct state (or water agencies) earmarked money for water resource mobilisation (dams, interconnexions, ...), technical assistance of state engineering services. It can be noted that financing through property taxes often induces some social redistribution, albeit at municipal level rather than national level.
Most subsidies and redistribution schemes declined after the 90s and water policies at all levels called for a user-pay principle with incentive pricing. As you clearly stated, when prices depend on consumed volumes, fixed costs can hardly be met when water conservation occurs on a significant scale. Individual rainwater harvesting tanks can therefore be seen as threat on utilities affordability, if nothing changes in pricing or subsidies policies.
what I can add is that wastewater treatment can be inexpensive, thanks to the spectacular advance in desalination techniques, especially thermal. With solar thermal power plants called Concentrating Solar Power, we can provide large amounts of renewable thermal energy at a lower cost, capable of operating thermal desalination plants and thus treating wastewater.
It seems to me that the development of water and wastewater systems in the UK and US as well as in other highly industrialised countries, while not always or even seldom subsidized, (and there is much evidence that shows that water supply has for more than a century alternated between being privately supplied to be being publicly supplied and vice versa) nevertheless has only been possible because of processes of accumulation on a world scale. The historical subjugation and dedevelopment of the global south (i.e. colonial and neocolonial exploitation and appropriation) was the corollary of accumulation of wealth in the center (i.e. EU, US, UK, Japan). It is this historically and violently accumulated wealth- be it in the form of subsidies or user fees- that allows (or allowed) for the production and maintenance of these large technical systems and their continued functioning. If then these systems are at least in part a function of or a result of the position of states in the hierarchy of unequal global economic flows and the architecture of global political power then, it seems to me, there are two answers to the questions breached here. 1) What technologies are adapted to the contexts of limited indigenous accumulation 2) what kind of politics can be the basis to reverse political and economic dependency / produce the kind of popular sovereignty that may lead to the development and maintenance of more advanced network systems - at least for the global south.
Related are questions of national, regional and urban /rural planning.
The corollary to decentralised systems or smaller networks as well as the appropriate socio-technical complexity, is a counter acting of the politics responsible for the massive rural urban migration that create dense urban agglomeration and concentrate water needs. Or asked differently, can technological solutions be discussed outside of these much larger development/planning frameworks and questions.