The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
SDG-6: Useful, but what about transformative change?
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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda is considered by many to be truly global, inclusive and ambitious. However, are these global aspirations translating into progressive change and moving the water sector in the right direction?
On paper, the targets set by SDG6 - water and sanitation for all by 2030 - are far more ambitious than those set by MDG-7c, which aimed at halving the population with no access to water and basic sanitation by 2015. With the SDGs, universal access to water and sanitation has become a stand-alone goal. Some of the critiques raised against MDG-7c were addressed by including indicators on water quality, availability, affordability and accessibility. Moreover, for the first time, the UN acknowledged that transformative change is necessary to meet these ambitious goals. It recognizes the need for "structural changes in the world economy" and calls for "new models" (United Nations, 2013:5). Yet, if SDG-6 is more comprehensive and its goal is more ambitious, it remains completely silent on effective pathways or strategies to achieve its ambitious targets. In other words, SDG-6 sets the targets – what to achieve – and indicators – what is monitored – but does not engage with the question of how to transform the sector and achieve sustainable and universal access to water and sanitation.
In doing so, it conceals some of the great challenges that have long constrained water providers' ability to achieve universal service provision. One of the main challenges confronting water service providers, particularly in the Global South, is the mixed mandate of having to manage their own finances (i.e. recover all service costs), whilst also ensuring the universal provision of a basic service. On the one hand, utilities need to operate on the basis of commercial principles, including full-cost recovery. On the other hand, these same utilities are the main instrument for national governments to achieve the universal service coverage stipulated in SDG6. These conflicting mandates have been referred to as the schizophrenia of water providers.
The tension of the mixed mandate is particularly visible when it comes to financing service extension. Meeting SDG-6 is expensive: the World Bank (2017) estimated the cost at 150 billion US$ per year. How will this be financed and by whom? There is a tendency to turn to private equity, but the water sector is a risky business, with limited and slow returns on investments. Moreover, the contribution through loans and grants from development agencies remains small. Apart from sourcing funds for future investments in water infrastructure, many utilities also struggle to service debts that were incurred in the past. Kathryn Furlong (2020) suggests that debt servicing forms a major part of the cost structure of water utilities.
The policy prescription for commercialization is quite clear: utilities are to pursue efficiency gains to reduce costs and raise tariffs to cover the remaining costs. Subsidies, in so far as needed, are to be limited to transitioning the utility towards operating as a commercial public utility. However, the practice of commercialization is much more complex. Most water utilities do not have control over their tariffs, which are set externally. These tariffs often do not reflect actual costs faced by the utility. Without control over the revenues, a utility can only strive for cost-recovery by reducing costs. Water utility managers, forced to pragmatically address conflicting objectives, subsequently opt for sub-optimal solutions in the attempt to achieve the very ambitious goals set by SDGs.
One way in which this is pursued is by seeking efficiency gains well beyond what is desirable. Cost savings achieved by reducing or foregoing maintenance or reducing treatment processes inevitably lead to deteriorating assets and declining service levels. A second consequence is that utilities will base decisions to extend services to unserved areas on the ability to generate revenue streams from potential consumers. As low-income areas are considered a commercial risk, they are often excluded in extension plans. Thirdly, all costs incurred by the utility are transferred to consumers. This also includes servicing debts that have been incurred by the utility a long time ago and that may not reflect the current costs of providing water services.
In order to service low-income areas in a cost-effective manner, water utilities have increasingly opted to engage with intermediary providers. These intermediary providers (water kiosk operators managing single kiosk facilities, small-scale providers operating small decentralized networks, water user associations managing a larger number of kiosks, or landlords) receive bulk water from the utility, which they then use supply to consumers. In this way, the water utility reduces commercial risks of supplying water in low-income areas but is still able to claim it is contributing to achieving universal service provision. Much of our research, however, suggests that service differentiation frequently results in low-income consumers paying more for poorer quality water and services (Hadzovich et al., forthcoming; Rusca and Schwartz, 2018; Schwartz et al., 2017). These intermediary providers are run like businesses and therefore need to recover their costs and ensure a profit margin. In order recover these costs as quickly as possible and achieve their profit margins, these costs are passed on to consumers in the form of relatively high tariffs. Operations of these intermediaries are difficult to regulate, leaving open the possibility of abuse of market power and of exploiting consumers. This is especially a concern as the areas served by these intermediaries are primary targets to meet the SDGs and are very often characterized by high poverty levels.
Through a focus on commercialization, governments have transferred financial responsibilities for ensuring universal service provision to water utilities. This transfer of responsibilities effectively signals a withdrawal of government from its obligation to ensure universal service provision. Under these circumstances, the global aspiration of universal access to water will not be fulfilled. Meeting this goal requires, first of all, recognizing that governments that have committed to the SDGs are ultimately responsible for their implementation. Water providers may be delegated this responsibility, but governments need to provide the tools to resolve conflicts created by clashing mandates. This should include a commitment to debt relief measures and subsidy mechanisms to enable the water sector to move in the right direction and meet the obligation to ensure universal service coverage. This entails subsidy mechanisms, which are not only geared towards leveraging additional financial resources (blended financing), but that also structurally support safe water service provision in low-income areas. For utilities to realistically have a chance to achieve SDG-6, they are dependent on the institutional environment in which they operate. Commercialization, without such support from the public sector, will not lead to universal service coverage.
Maria Rusca and Klaas Schwartz
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Furlong, K. (2020) 'Trickle-down debt: Infrastructure, development, and financialisation, Medellín 1960–2013', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 45(2): 406-419. Hadzovich, L., Alda-Vidal, C., Rusca, M. and Schwartz, K. (forthcoming) "Everyday practices and the production of uneven waterscapes: water pricing regimes in Lilongwe, Malawi", Environment and Planning C. doi.org/10.1177/2399654419856021
McDonald, D.A., Marois, T. and Spronk, S. (2021) 'Public banks + public water = SDG 6?', Water Alternatives, 14(1): 1-18.
Rusca, M. and Schwartz, K. (2018) 'The paradox of cost recovery in heterogeneous municipal water supply systems: Ensuring inclusiveness or exacerbating inequalities?', Habitat International,73: 101-108.
Rusca, M., Boakye-Ansah, A., Loftus, A., Ferrero, G. and van der Zaag, P. (2017) 'An interdisciplinary political ecology of drinking water quality. Exploring socio-ecological inequalities in Lilongwe's water supply network',Geoforum, 84: 138-146.
Rusca, M., Schwartz, K., Hadzovic, L. and Ahlers, R. (2015) 'Adapting Generic Models through Bricolage: Elite Capture of Water User Associations in Peri-urban Lilongwe', European Journal for Development Research, 27(5): 777-792.
Schwartz, K., Tutusaus, M., and Savelli, E. (2017) 'Water for the Urban Poor: Balancing financial and social objectives through service differentiation for low-income areas in the Kenyan water services sector', Utilities Policy, 48: 22-31.
United Nations, UN (2013). A new global partnership: Eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development. The report of the high‐level panel of eminent persons on the post‐2015 development agenda. United Nations, New York.
Photo credit: Water kiosk in Lilongwe, Malawi (Maria Rusca)
"Most water utilities do not have control over their tariffs, which are set externally."
In this short sentence, the authors surely capture the critical determinant of the failed commercialisation approach in most countries.
If politicians are unwilling to allow water charges that cover the cost of service provision (usually, and often incorrectly, asserting that the beneficiaries are poor) they have to fund the gap. Irrigation projects face precisely the same problem, and the same cycle of construct/deteriorate/ renovate/deteriorate, etc.
Donor agencies prefer easy, expensive projects that disburse quickly. Political reform is difficult, cheap and slow--hence the cycle continues.
Dear Chris, Thanks for engaging with our blog. Political reform is, indeed, very slow and often 'inconvenient'. One thing is recognizing that there is a need for "structural changes in the world economy" to meet the SDGs and another is to actually undertake the necessary political reforms to implement those changes. Best, Maria and Klaas.
Water is political, but so are schools, roads, police departments, national defense, etc. We pay for these through taxation. Since access to clean safe water as well as effective sanitation services is also a public good it seems to me access should not be based on ability to pay. Being forced to choose between paying one's water bill and feeding one's family should never be a choice facing people.
As an inhabitant of a post-socialistic country, I feel the last paragraph very dangerous. Subsidies or other direct state intervention to the water services are not a good way to achieve SDGs. Governments are obliged to create a level playing field for all stakeholders and create incentives to encourage the development of water services. However, the provision of water services alone must be based on local conditions and the needs of local residents. It does not matter whether it is provided by a public institution or a private entity.
Dear Libor, we would challenge the idea that subsides are not desirable in the water supply and sanitation sector. If we want to meet SDG6, we must recognise that for many affordability is a barrier to accessing domestic water. Defining condition of access to water only based on local conditions will likely cause the exclusion of many urban dwellers. This is also the case for the water provider – whether public or private. In many contexts, a utility that only relies on tariffs is likely to be unable to provide services to all. Of course, questions of how these subsidies are designed, targeted and implemented are crucial in order to ensure that they reach the citizens that need to be reached, but in principle we see no objection to using State subsidies. Many countries subsidize private companies in the agricultural and industrial sectors, the cultural sector. In the Netherlands, (local) government has even provided subsidies to support football clubs. Why should subsidies then not be used to ensure that people have access to a basic service such as water supply and sanitation? Best, Maria and Klaas.
Libor makes a very important point. COVID-19 has shown quite clearly how some states (through their governing entities) have acted more or less effectively in the public interest, while others (through their leaders) have used the pandemic to crush civil society and/or extend their control over the levers of political and economic power. So, a generic notion regarding 'states agree to meet particular targets' can only miss the point that those in control of states tend to act first in their own interest. Equitable, sustainable and economically efficient water and sanitation for all cannot arise from social formations designed in support of all water (and related resources) for some for ever.
The blog omits to consider two key aspects of the problem: first, the majority of those who lack basic or 'safely-managed' services in low- and lower-middle income countries live in rural settings where the utility model is not applied. In addition, low-income country rural populations cannot afford the full life cycle costs of even basic services, let alone 'safely-managed' water supply. The second point follows from the first - namely that the SDG target of safely-managed services for all by 2030, is totally unrealistic. A time scale of 50-100 years rather than the remaining ten years which we think we have may be more realistic.
Indeed - while the blog takes is in the direction of water for all, it omits rural, where, as Richard points out, the majority of those without basic services live. However I think that is also misses the huge efforts by people themselves in urban areas to secure their own water supplies, through self supply. These household investments are part of the mix (see HI and the 3T's editorial by Danert and Hutton). I would argue, that a very different model has emerged, particularly in towns and cities with accessible groundwater, but that the focus on utilities leaves a blind spot for what is actually happening on the ground and what it means, particularly for equity and environmental sustainability.
In addition, I would like to see more discussion of the training and mentoring of those who are to provide and service the water supplies - the plumbers, the masons, the drillers, the supervisors, the utility staff and management. Who is paying to ensure that every country has the skills?
Dear Kerstin, we agree that issues such as different forms of service provision and capacity strengthening of service providers are relevant for improving service provision. In this sense the blog is indeed not exhaustive. Yet, this point confirms that utilities require extensive funding to function effectively and ensure water for all. Best, Maria and Klaas.
Dear Richard, we acknowledge that major challenges concerning achievement of SDG 6.1 exist for rural water services and that the blog has a particular focus on urban low-income areas. However, urban water challenges are still significant for a large majority of low-income dwellers, especially (but not only) in the global South. Our research has highlighted that even the condition of access of low-income dwellers that – on paper – have access to 'safely-managed' water supply are often critical. In Lilongwe, for instance, water contamination and shortages for 3-5 are the norm and often lead to other risks, such as physical violence – when, for instance, water is only available at night and women have to walk to kiosks to purchase it. Beyond the water supply network, women and men excluded from service provision access water from highly contaminated shallow wells and streams. We share your assessment that achievement of this target by 2030 is unrealistic. However, we feel that this does not undermine the main argument that we are trying to make in the blog. Best, Maria and Klaas.
The post-Cold War period saw a sustained attack on the state, blaming it for all sorts of ills. In its place citizens were promised that markets, private sector actors (large and small), and civil society would deliver the services that the state could not. What this led to was basically the abandonment of rural areas to NGOs sinking boreholes and urban areas to small scale for-profit providers such as water kiosks, pay as you go and so on. Sanitation of course is a whole other conversation. For more than 2 decades people have built up local systems of delivery and local prejudices against the state. Meanwhile, states across the Global South have gotten a free pass on meaningful engagement with citizens in support of common interests. Instead, they have continued to face outward satisfying their own interests and those of creditors, foreign investors, corporate partners and so on. There will be no SDG 6 success without establishing meaningful ways to bring states, civil societies and private sector actors together. No easy feat.
Bioregional planning is a learning experience that helps people identify actively engaged people of the region, as well as learning local movers and shakers that often work behind the scenes. It helps provide a self-education in hydrology and forces people to become more informed on the resource. It is also democracy at work at the most fundamental level and in the most fundamental area of policy determination impacting on water management.
Even the objectives within SDG for example, Integrated Water Resource Management are not translated at the local level the way it is desired. It can be transformative only at a point when there is a coherence in the discourse between these objectives and the way the communities perceive it.
Hello Deb, thanks for your response. Indeed, our critique does not only apply to drinking water. As you suggest, other sectors face the challenges of moving from these global aspirations to progressive change. Indeed, local communities are crucial in meeting these goals. Here we also call on national and international actors to play an active role. Best, Maria and Klaas.
This seems to be more of Africa & Latin America story. In India, the Governemtn at all levels - national, state and local - are taking on these responsibilities. To ensure sustainability, strengtheing local governments is ctritical.
Dear Meera Mehta, thanks for your reply to our blog. Indeed, as mentioned above, translating global ambitions into positive outcomes requires strong local commitment and capacities. Our research does indeed focus more on Sub-Saharan Africa. However, research from colleagues often points to similar challenges. It is good to hear that, in India, governments at all levels are taking on these responsibilities. However, I wonder: does this mean that water utilities have sufficient resources to expand services in low-income areas? Are tariffs affordable for all? Best, Maria and Klaas.
I am not sure the narrative fits neatly with Latin American countries either. Situations vary greatly within the region as well. In Latin America, one can find different outcomes of the transfer of responsibilities to water utilities. Some countries such as Chile rely on private companies while others (the majority in the region actually) rely on public, usually municipal utilities. To enhance their capacity to provide safe drinking water, some municipalities have formed consortia that help reduce some operative costs and to increase their technical capacity. Outcomes of initiatives of this kind vary greatly within the region. Now how much of this change can be attributed to Agenda 2030 and SDG 6 is still a good question. My research in Ecuador suggests the answer is not much if any.
Perhaps one thing that most countries have in common is that despite substantial investments in infrastructure during the past decade, they have fallen short of protecting water catchment areas from degradation and where involvement of the private sector is negligent. In this regard, the renewed call for implementing IWRM made by Agenda 2030 does not seem to be making a big difference yet.
Since the post relates mostly to the issue of expanding coverage to underserved areas I would like to point out that one thing left to be resolved is the way subsidies are managed. In many large cities in Latin America, people with high incomes receive subsidies from public utilities instead of contributing more to the expansion of maintenance of the system. The implementation of SDG 6 in all of its aspects, not just the expansion of systems, could benefit from increasing the contribution of those better-off.
I completely agree with you Meera in that local government is crucial. This is where the people see the state. Yet it is often the level with the fewest resources (human, financial, technical). So, INGOs working at grassroots level must also find ways of building local government capacity. A better capacitated local government may enhance state-civil society trust which is a social foundation for sustainable development.
Great article. The private sector will never provide sufficient levels of funding for SDG 6, simply because there is not enough profit in it for them (no matter how hard they squeeze the poor for full cost recovery). The only way we are going to reach SDG 6 goals is through massive public spending and public sector lending at concessional rates. One option is public banks. There are over 900 public banks in the world, with US$49 trillion in assets. these publicly-owned finance institutions have, however, been largely ignored in the literature on water and sanitation funding, particularly by mainstream policy organisations such as the World Bank. There is a need to better understand how public banks can be mobilised as effective funders of public water. I encourage readers to have a look at our article on this topic in the February issue of Water Alternatives (currently located in the “Issue in Progress” section) where we provide a brief history of public banking practices in the water sector, review their pros and cons, and critically discuss the potential these entities offer for financing the SDGs (see McDonald, Marois and Spronk. "Public Banks + Public Water = SDG 6?").
Dear David, thanks for your response and for suggesting an alternative avenue for financing water services. We look forward to reading your work on this – meanwhile: for those who may be interested in researching this topic, which cases/public banks would you recommend focusing on? Best, Maria and Klaas.
As an introduction to the discussion of the future development within the WSS sector, Maria Rusca and Klaas Schwartz (RS) paint a very bleak picture of that future, and judging from historical performance, which the former WSSCC fittingly named the greatest shame of the development community, their assessment makes sense. However, there is an important caveat, RS seem to be totally unaware of what has happened within the development community since 2012. This was when the Rio+20 event took place in Rio de Janeiro. Here it was concluded, about development in general, that ”Business as Usual” or ”More of the Same” wouldn’t do any good. Thus, it was found overdue to weather out old and inadequate paradigms and methodologies, and open up for radical reformation of the agenda.
Until 2012, there had been two major roadblocks to successful interventions – the MDGs, and for water affairs, the World Bank Style IWRM. The MDGs were originally developed by an ”expert group”, and consisted of an old-school, laundry list type of goals. This structure allowed the development community to remain comfortably within their old paradigms, and forget about sustainable development. The list simply offered a ”smorgaasboard”, where actors could pick at will what was most appealing to them. The list was entirely focused on what and how much. The why had just disappeared.
Thus, the MDGs simply flunked the test they were given at the Rio+10 event in Johannesburg in 2002. They were found totally inadequate, and they were especially lamented for lacking any priorities whatsoever. The delegates at the conference developed an alternative agenda, the WEHAB Aganda, which they wanted to replace the MDGs. This one came with clear priorities, and the number one priority was water and sanitation. As one result, a shameful UN amended the MDGs with some water issues. However, the mainstream water community flatly rejected the more challenging WEHAB agenda and opted to focus on the unchallenging MDGs.
The World Bank had its IWRM concept launched by its affiliate, the Global Water Partnership, in 1996. It also grandfathered the World Water Council, which was given a task to monitor and advance the uptake of the IWRM concept. One of the tasks was the organization of recurring World Water Forums, where the advance of the concept was to be discussed and promoted. It goes without saying that the World bank was successful in its ambition to crowd out alternative approaches to water management, at least until 2012.
The Rio+20 event also underlined the importannce of making use of knowledge that had been developed during and after WWII. Furthermore, it was clarified that development planning and water resources management are fundamentally political issues, which has to be duly recognized. The uncertainty and complexity of development issues were also stressed.
The conference really opened up a floodgate novel approaches. Suddenly, there was a wealth of projects under the ”Thinking and Working Politically” (WTP) umbrella. There were also a fair number of projects under the ”Doing development Differently” (DDD) umbrella. Interestingly enough, even the World Bank jumped the bandwaggon and engaged in some pilots, that have much in common with the Adaptive Management approach. These pilots were undertaken in a ”stealth mode” and were labeled ”Project Development by Iterative Adaptations” (PDIA). Concerning water, water resources management has effectively morphed into ”water governance”.
The SDGs do really consider water in a serious way. This time, the monitoring system is much more sensible than the ”bean counting” monitoring of the MDGs.
RS seem to belong to those who are deeply entrenched in the old paradigms, and unable to feel the winds of new, that have fostered so much new thinking about old problems. What they describe is the prospects of adwances concerning WSS within the IWRM framework. In this respect, their analysis is correct. However, all signs seem to tell that this framework is doomed for replacement as soon as possible, preferably tomorrow.
RS seem to take for granted that it will be up to commercial (private) utilities to manage the WSS problems. However, I dare claim that that is a highly unlikely scenario. The pandemic that currently affects most countries has, in a most unpleasant way, demonstrated the deadly consequences of the poor coordination and poor oversight that follow when governments outsource essential service functions to private actors. It has also demonstrated that it is the state, rather than the private subcontractors, that has to step in and bolster the serious consequences that have emerged. Thus, the neoliberal war-cry ”More market – less state” has showed itself a recipe for disaster. Consequently, there is virtually no-one, among the commentators speculating about life after the pandemic, that has shown a desire for things to return ”normal”. There is an overwhelming consensus for ”building back better”. Christiana Figueres published her comments in ”PS on Point Weekly” on 5 October 2020. They seem to resonate well with predominant thinking, when she says that the world that that we had gotten used to when the pandemic struck, was in an unstable, deeply disfunctional, unfair, and ulimately, highly unsustainable state. Thus, it was highly abnormal by any reasonable standard, and the pandemic has now shaken us from our complacency. With our eyes opened, we can now see that a better world is possible. Some got aware somewhat sooner, and Joseph Stieglitz (2019) was among them. He lamented that neo-liberal policies have produced financial crises and rising inequality, fostered by an abstract, orthodox ”intellectual construct”. Concerning an issue of special interest to our current discussion, he claimed that one of of its many disgusting results was that it required developing countries to open up to international capital markets, even when this was detrimental to social order.
There can be no doubt the the general sentiment is for the state to regain oversight and control over essential social systems and, right now, the health care systems in particular, from which it would logically follow that this applies as well to water supply and sanitation services.
Thus, the transition has got a head start. Normally a transition takes some 20 – 30 years. As the responses to the pandemic have demonstrated, they can be considerably more rapid, when enough heat is on. The pandemic has triggered an increasingly strong feeling of solidarity within the general public, and a much stronger feeling of responsibility among the political leadership. Furthermore. the costs of a general coverage of water supply and sanitation services are not that enormous that many commentators tend to claim. An educated guess indicates that the money spent on poorly conceived, large dams, only in this, current century, would foot the bill several times over.
Cristiana Figueres (2020) "The Promise of Decarbonization" PS on Point Weekly Oct 5.
Joseph Stieglitz (2019) "The end of neoliberalism and the rebirth of history" 26th November 2019
The end of neoliberalism and the rebirth of history – Joseph Stiglitz (socialeurope.eu)
Dear Peder Hjorth, transformative development has been invoked numerous times and in several forms – e.g. the need to radically transform the economy or live sustainably, or as you suggest calls against “Business as Usual” or ”More of the Same”. Yet, the question we raise is to what extent the calls for transformative change materialize or – in other words – to what extent the SDGs have actually changed development pathways. We suggest that in the case of water provisioning in urban centres, the challenges and development pathways have not changed: we see ”More of the Same”, which in this specific case is more commercialization of water utilities, more outsourcing of services to low-income areas to small private sector and more challenges to expand services to the unserved and underserved urban poor. Thus, in this blog we warn that this is a major challenge in achieving SGD6. In this light, we believe that our blog reiterates rather than contradicts Stieglitz’s statement on neoliberalisation and inequalities. Best, Maria and Klaas.
You condemn R and S for their commitment to an outmoded paradigm (which I think reflects a misreading of their blog) but you don't tell us what's new about what you say? Bringing the state back in looks a lot like a Keynesian reaction to 4+ decades of neoliberalism. And, as I say above, many states are little more than kleptocracies, hence their preference for Chinese dams and land grabs. Unlike you I hold zero faith in anything Joseph Stieglitz or Cristiana Figueres say. The 1% will never lead a transformation of anything.
I have to say that I share the concern expressed in the article. Work with many governmental agencies in the developing south is showing that much of the sheen of the SDG's and their ambitions are being slowly worn away. Sadly in the formulation of the SDG's, the enthusiastic and idealistic drafters were unconcerned with two fundamental realities - the institutional lock jam and the lack of well thought out finance for the SDG requirements. Today the SDG 6 and all of its component parts can be seen to be far from implementation - one look at the UN's mid point review demonstrates this - read through the 'country reports' and one can sink into the wonderful quagmire of 'officialese' ( a language that bureaucrats excel at, especially for international reporting of 'look how well we are doing..') - with nothing to show for achieving SDG's, they will recall irrelevancies to state how well they are doing!! (I have gone through in some details on country replies to UNESCO & UNEPs mid point country replies to their questionnaires.).
Add to this the post COVID era - falling GDP's and lack of flow of finances, plus the continuing institutional log jams (they all work in silo's despite the urgent need to look across the box - never mind 'out of the box') and the outlook is not so great for the next 3 to 5 years.
What to do?
Well for a start perhaps face reality- tone down the unrealistic and aim for what can be done. In the world of rural water supply, where household incomes reman Add to this the post COVID era - falling GDP's and lack of flow of finances, plus the continuing institutional log jams (they all work in silo's despite the urgent need to look across the box - never mind 'out of the box') and the outlook is not so great for the next 3 to 5 years.
What to do?
Well for a start perhaps face reality- tone down the unrealistic and aim for what can be done. In the world of rural water supply, where household incomes reman
Indeed, the lack of well thought out finance for the SDG requirements. It is exactly in this light that we argue that aspirational goals with directions to reach them does not necessarily move the sector in the right direction. Yet, this seems to be straightforward: big change requires a strategy. Why is it then that this strategy and commitment to a more practical goal (i.e. identifying financing mechanisms and setting aside the resources) does not happen? Should we then question States/our commitment to meet these goals? I wonder if it is about toning down the unrealistic expectations or this last bit is incorrect but cannot think of the phrasing at the moment.
Looks like there was a 'cyber rat' - munching at the last bit of my post and chucking the rest as debris..... !!
Not to be out done by Cyber Rat - here is the last part of my post...
Sorry - there seems to be a 'word restriction' here - the rest of the remaining post does not show up here. So I am putting in a new post below.
Great article, thank you Maria and Klaas. Your essential point that water services rarely thrive on "full cost recovery" models is vital. Subsidies are necessary - if not in actual cash, then certainly in the institutional and organizational forms that enable water service provision, including management of catchments, regulation of pollution, protection of contracts and private property, etc, and which are ultimately guaranteed / underpinned by a capable state. The 'dividends' in health, well-being, equity, gender-equality and other outcomes (including other SDG targets) outweigh the investments required. There's no doubt we need new thinking - and ideological shifts - if we're going to get anywhere near achieving the SDGs on watsan in the time we have left.
Indeed, this is a very crucial point: there cannot be transformational change without an ideological shift.
A transformative, revolutionary, radical (?) idea: let us start with the people the SDGs claim to serve: the urban and rural poor who cannot pay for commercial services. They would have died without water for basic domestic uses (and, certainly in rural areas, without water for basic productive uses too). As Kerstin says, self supply exists and already contributes to realizing SDG6.1 (and sometimes achieving). Support to self supply gives high value for investment (Sutton and Butterworth forthcoming). Or in forms of co-management, the state takes care of bulk-supply and users of reticulation. States keep responsibility to ensure drinking water quality of 5 lpcd (treating water to do laundry is probably no priority....) Instead of upward accountable consultants and contractors, users co-design infrastructure improvements prioritizing what they see as next incremental improvement. 'Nothing about us without us', as villagers in South Africa advocate community-led water services planning and design.
There are indeed many arrangements in place to provide water to low income rural and urban residents. Self-supply and co-production are certainly crucial. Yet, here we also highlight that some of these arrangements may increase coverage but not necessarily provide sustainable and adequate condition of access. For instance, research suggests that in Lilongwe and other medium and small towns in Malawi, groundwater is contaminated. Moreover, our research suggests that co- production has increased coverage, but at the cost of a substantial price increase. In Lilongwe, these systems are managed by ‘the community’, which however is not homogenous and does not equally benefit from this service modality. We appreciate the notion of 'Nothing about us without us'. Yet, when thinking about water provision in Lilongwe, the ‘us’ is not easy to identify.
This is a very interesting discussion about the fundamental human right of providing everyone access to safe drinking water and fair sanitation. In the year 2000, the UN had formulated the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be achieved by 2015, including MDG 7 on water and sanitation. In that year the obtained results around the globe were not completely satisfactory and distinguished UN experts and knowledgeable consultants have suggested the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) be achieved by 2030. I am afraid that the new 17 SDGs, followed by 169 new targets and 230 new indicators although prosperous in terms of numbers, will follow more or less the same fate as the MDGs. Fixing goals without providing countries a methodology on how to achieve them, is like showing a destination without an indication on how to reach it. In that way, countries continue “business as usual” with a bureaucratic commitment to costly monitoring hundreds of targets and indicators.
It is true that except for individual family-owned wells in rural areas where water costing is not applied, the operation of water utilities in small and large cities is about governance and economic sustainability of water companies. The 2009-2019 Greek public-debt crisis provided an opportunity to know more about the dominant methodology for achieving technical and financial sustainability in the water sector that was widely recommended by international financial institutions, banks and governments in developed countries.
As State Secretary for Water at the Ministry of Environment and Energy, Athens, Greece during the 2015-2019 financial crisis, I was in charge of negotiating with the triad, so-called troika “International Monetary Fund (IMF), Eurogroup and European Central Bank (ECB)” on how to get sustainable water services. Privatization of water utilities was first recommended in the “austerity receipt” of the troika, but the Greek government insisted on preserving their public character. For implementing by law the cost recovery methodology, the troika used the conditionality for allocating to Greece 10 billion Euros from the European Regional Cohesion Funding. Under that pressure, full cost recovery calculations resulted in high water pricing especially in the agricultural sector that in Greece use more than 80% of total water consumption.
After hard negotiations with the creditors, the following fair agreement that may serve as a model was passed in the law for water tarification and pricing: the amount of water necessary for human subsistence, say 5 lpcd was accounted in a very low almost zero affordable price. Further water consumption of those who wanted to use more water for a swimming pool or gardening, the water bill was exponentially growing. For agricultural water pricing, the nexus food-energy-water was taken into consideration for preserving the income of farmers by keeping the price for water at an affordable level. (See Jacques Ganoulis: The Role of Water-Food-Energy Nexus in Achieving Sustainable Agriculture.
Curr Inves Agri Curr Res 8(3)-2020)
Thanks for this very interesting insight in the water related negotiations in the aftermath of the financial crisis in Greece. Indeed, privatization and tariff increases are often demanded by international lending agencies. As suggested by David McDonald in his post above, “The only way we are going to reach SDG 6 goals is through massive public spending and public sector lending at concessional rates. One option is public banks. There are over 900 public banks in the world, with US$49 trillion in assets. these publicly-owned finance institutions have, however, been largely ignored in the literature on water and sanitation funding, particularly by mainstream policy organisations such as the World Bank”.
Just before the Covid lockdowns started and I was lucky to fly back home to Nepal in time, I was at a water meet at UK House of Lords. Interesting consensus comment from water experts present there was: "Not a snowball's chance in hell that SDG6 will be achieved in the coming decade". Now with Covid making an omelette of all development eggs (and as former editor the Ecologist put it, the omelette is inedible!), the "business as usual" approach of big development agencies and their bureaucratic procedural fetishism is obviously getting more irrelevant. What new approach might be needed is something that has to emerge from a more vibrant debate, but my few points to consider in this huge task of "rethinking development" are as follows:
*Water is life. That means it is more a public and even common pool good than a private one. Attempts to get poor countries to forcibly treat it as a private good and allow private companies (foreign and domestic) the right to profit from providing this life-giving substance is the source of all the current malaise!
*As far as economy of firms to states is concerned, water is also a strategic good. It means it is in everyone's interest to acquire it at as low a price as possible because it is that sine qua non resource that allows other goods and services to be produced at all, and from where the cost of maintaining water infrastructure must be extracted via tax mechanisms. That implies that water managing entities cannot be treated as private, stand-alone profit-making firms: they must be treated as service providing infrastructure (as public goods) and also charitable entities (as common pool goods where human agencies are treated not as "owners" but as "custodians" for generations to come).
*A small attempt to expand on these ideas, on reflecting on why not just MDGs but also their successors the SDGs are well on the path to inevitable impasse and irrelevance can be found in: https://bulletin.ids.ac.uk/index.php/idsbo/article/view/2822/ONLINE%20ARTICLE
Dear Dipak, “rethinking development" or ideological shifts, as Jude put it in his post above, is indeed essential to meet these goals. Thanks for making some suggestions on how to rethink development and and for sharing your work on this topic.
What to do?
Well for a start perhaps let the ardent promoters of the SDG's face reality- they might tone down the unrealistic, and aim for what can be done practically. In the world of rural water supply, where household incomes remain at less than USD5 per day, lets only design what can be self maintained by the local community - and not what an overzealous NGO from 'the north' thinks the poor must be given! In such a socio-economic layer 'outsourcing'; and 'commercialisation' will not work because there just isn't the finance that is needed! Anyone with real world experience knows this already ... where the household incomes can however, afford reticulation, in both rural and urban settings, and a more centralised supply can be put in, modest commercialisation might work. And so on... As the authors say - let get a reality check and lets get real!
Thanks for your comment. It really exposes the problem to which I tried to sketch a solution. It is solidly anchored in a mainstream thinking, which makes you unable to see what is going on elsewhere. As I mentioned, a vast amount of new knowledge has surfaced since WWII. This knowledge has essentially been ignored in mainstream water sector thinking, which tends to rely on thinking and methodologies that are more than a 100 years old. Examples of new are uncertainty, complexity and systems thinking. Within development thinking, the Rio+20 was a watershed event. It even made the World Bank embark on new thinking about doing development differently. As I mentioned, it also opened the door to an impressive amount of work based on new paradigms. In particular, I point to the fact that water resources management has morphed into water governance, which reflects an understanding that water management is, fundamentally, a political issue. I also tried to emphasize that adaptive management is emerging as a superior approach. This is very much in line with what Jude Cobbing is asking for when she states that ”we need new thinking and and ideological shift”. I would also like to highlight Barbara van Koppen’s observation from South Africa, which highlights the importance of working with the local community. This is actually an important issue in many efforts at adaptive water management, and it is increasingly well understood that context needs to be seriouly attended to. The beloved ”best practices” have long surpassed their ”use before” date. As Jaques Ganoulis shows, the neoliberal agenda has been a disaster to the idea of water and sanitation for all. Thus, I find the crumbling support for that policy to be of importance to these issues. As Dipak Gyawati points out, water should be seen as more of a public or even public resource. Here, I see a major shift in public sentiment as a result of the current pandemic. In virtually every country, it is the state that has taken measures to bolster the consquences of the pandemic. The private sector, on the other hand, has rather acted to protect its resources. The less it got involved in the problems, the better, for them. It has become increasingly clear to ordinary people who is the most dependable guardian of their wellbeing. In addition, the pandemic seems to promote a sense of solidarity. People are getting acutely aware that we are in this mess together. As water is such a multi-faceted and vital resource, I feel confident in my belief that the public sentiment has tipped towards favouring a stronger state involvement in water management. As the German philosopher Hegel once observed: Doubts are not enough to initiate a change – it takes despair to that. If we add the strongly water-related issue of climate change, it seems rather obvious that people are becoming increasingly desperate. As I mentioned in my previous comment, we need to realize that a governance transformation is a process that normally requires a time-frame in the order of generations. I expressed a hope that our current, precarious, situation would give an extra kick to the transformation required. It is, admittedly, a bit optimistic.
In presenting the SDGs the UN have recognized, perhaps for the first time, that transformative change is necessary to meet these ambitious goals. It recognized the need for "structural changes in the world economy" and calls for "new models". We have questioned whether these global aspirations were translating into progressive change and if they were moving the water sector in the right direction to improve access to water. The lively discussion that followed has highlighted important challenges and opportunities for the sector to move in the 'right' direction.
First, there is a recognition that in urban context local government and water utilities are crucial as that is where citizens see the state. Many have emphasized that states and governments that have committed to SDGs are responsible for providing the necessary resources and capacities to meet the goals. Others have suggested that water services rarely succeed in providing universal access on "full cost recovery" models. Subsidies are necessary for service providers to be able to serve lower income residents and ensure adequate condition of access for all. Here, there is a suggestion that public banks provide an alternative for financing these services and ensuring inclusive and equitable water services. Yet, these have been underutilized in the water sector - why? Many have argued that states (central, local service providers) should be accountable for these goals, which cannot be achieved by governments that support models and approaches that exclude and marginalize many at the benefits of few. All together this brings us to the first point of our blog: transformative change and ideological shifts are essential for meeting these and other targets of inclusive development.