<<<  This discussion is now closed   >>>

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.

UN Water and sanitation. 2020. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/water-and-sanitation/

Photo: Biofactoría Gran Santiago, Chile, by Valebe - CC BY-SA 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73521183