A wake-up call for MDG challenges

The importance of water as a driver of economic growth and elimination of poverty will be the central topic when some 130 government ministers and more than 25,000 delegates gather in Mexico for the 4th World Water Forum in March. Toni Sittoni, communications specialist of the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP) in Africa, calls on governments to act with investment and reform, especially in sanitation.

The World Water Forum (WWF), co-organised by the World Water Council (WWC) and the host country every three years, is where worldwide experiences, policies and techniques in the management of water are shared. The event brings together a wide range of actors, including all governmental levels as well as non-governmental, intergovernmental, and multilateral organisations.

This includes the UN and international finance institutions; civil society institutions; industrial, agricultural, commercial and services sectors; communities, especially from the host country; the media; and many others who influence decisions concerning water issues.

The Forum is being held just over five years after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were first formulated and about ten years before the 2015 deadline: the year by which nations of the world pledged to achieve specific target on water issues. A key target is to halve the global proportion of people without access to safe drinking water.

Given its profile and timing, the Mexico Forum provides an opportunity for a reality check on what is required to meet one of “the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century — provision of clean water”. Currently, at least 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation, a silent humanitarian crisis that each day takes thousands of lives, robs the poor of their health, thwarts progress toward gender equality, and impedes economic development, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Local actions, global challenge

The overall theme chosen for the Mexico Forum – Local Actions for a Global Challenge – acknowledges that local action is a prerequisite to reaching the water-related MDGs. Priority is therefore being placed on those local actions that represent examples of adequate management, as well as the obstacles and opportunities that are presented to local agents when dealing with specific water-related issues.

The framework themes to be discussed in Mexico are: water for growth and development; implementation of integrated water resources management; water and sanitation for all; and, water for food and the environment. Deliberations on the theme Water and Sanitation for All will centre on four urgent and critical preconditions without which the global targets simply cannot be achieved.

  1. A deliberate commitment by donors to increase and refocus their development assistance and to target sufficient aid to the poorest low-income countries and for government agencies to put in place policies and governance systems to use overseas development assistance (ODA) efficiently and effectively. For the very poorest countries, the MDGs simply cannot be met without more ODA and more efficient use of existing resources. Donor countries must fulfill their side of the Monterrey compact to provide more ODA, as well as to increase the efficiency of aid through better coordination.
  2. There must be a deliberate commitment by governments of middle-income countries, that are not aid-dependent, to reallocate their resources to fund the unserved poor. To make the MDGs a reality for everyone, countries must focus their efforts and resources where needs and challenges are greatest, particularly among concentrations of very poor people in urban and peri-urban slums as well as rural areas. (See article on condominial sanitation page 18)

    They must ensure that the financial burden of serving the poor is not borne by the poor alone. For middle-income countries, this commitment principally means that existing resources must be used more effectively and equitably.
  3. There should be deliberate activities to create support and ownership for water supply and sanitation initiatives among both women and men in poor communities. To ensure inclusion of and priority for the poor, the vulnerable, and the remote in improved services, ODA should be targeted within countries to programmes that benefit the poorest; it should never go to projects that will primarily benefit the middle and upper-income groups.
  4. 4. Deliberate recognition that sanitation, in particular, requires an approach that centres on more effective demand-creation and marketing of sustainable solutions. The key to reaching the targets will be to mobilise and support people themselves, country by country, particularly in slums, rural areas, and other marginalised communities where access to services is lowest.

Priority actions

Among the key actions that will emerge from Mexico are the emphases on governments and other stakeholders to advance the sanitation crisis to the top of the agenda. For this to happen, more focus will need to be placed on the implementation of sanitation marketing approaches, sanitation and hygiene promotion during the planning, policy-making, budgeting, and implementation phases. Budgets specifically need to reflect a larger allocation towards sanitation.

Another key action is for countries to ensure that policies and institutions for water supply and sanitation service delivery, as well as for water resources management and development, respond equally to the different roles, needs, and priorities of women and men. Women and girls shoulder the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities so they suffer disproportionately when water supply and sanitation services are deficient.

Also, women’s relative access to and control over water (and other key resources linked to water, such as land, credit, and extension services) as well as gender biases within public institutions, greatly affect the degree to which women can take part in and benefit from water management and development schemes. Addressing this reality is critical for the effectiveness and sustainability of water and sanitation interventions.

Governments and donor agencies will also be urged to simultaneously pursue investment and reforms. Allowing reforms and investments to take place simultaneously, which some call “learning by doing,” will help address the tension between the desire to have reforms in place before investments and meet the MDGs by the deadline of 2015. This parallel approach could be made contingent upon a credible program of investments and a commitment (at the highest level) to simultaneous reforms.

It is important to stress that water supply and sanitation are services, not simply facilities. Efforts to reach the MDGs must therefore focus on sustainable service delivery, rather than on construction of facilities alone. Adopting a service orientation requires attention to financial flows and institutional arrangements for operations and maintenance, as well as incentives for providing safe, reliable services to all customers (including the poor) on a continuing basis.

This approach is being contemplated in Brazil, where government has proposed subsidising service for the poor contingent not on the provision of physical infrastructure, but rather on the supply of reliable service.

Another important action is for governments and donor agencies to empower local authorities and communities with the authority, resources, and professional capacity required to manage water supply and sanitation service delivery. Water and sanitation service delivery should be managed at the lowest appropriate level; however, this devolution of responsibility must be accompanied by corresponding devolution of financial resources and authority, as well as the provision of technical and managerial support to build local capacity.

Governments and utilities must also ensure that users who can pay do pay in order to create viable service agencies – but they must also ensure that the needs of poor households are met. Where the needs of the poor are not being met because available public resources are being captured by the rich and powerful, appropriate reforms must be implemented.

Community-based and/or micro-financing will be a starting point, building a domestic financing system in the process. Governments can also develop financial models for support to non-governmental and community-based organisations as well as small-scale providers, which can often deliver services at lower costs.

In many areas without access to improved services, however, the financial resources for meeting the MDGs must come from outside the communities concerned, through cross-subsidies, national income redistribution mechanisms and international donors. For those poor families and communities who simply cannot pay for water and sanitation services, carefully targeted subsides will be essential.

Governments and partners in civil society and the private sector must also support a wide range of water and sanitation technologies and service levels that are technically, socially, environmentally, and financially appropriate. Supporting a broad range of technological choices and promoting innovation allows communities to install the water and sanitation infrastructure that they want, are willing to pay for, and can maintain in the long term. It can also lower per-capita costs, thus permitting limited resources to bring service to more households.

Beyond conference

The Mexico Forum will not be simply a conference, it is a process that started more than a year ago with two parallel tracks: a thematic one and a regional one. Major themes and cross-cutting issues of the Forum were agreed upon in a large consultative process.

Each world region – the Americas, Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Middle East – has been involved in bringing forward proposals and topics for discussion to Mexico and building on ongoing regional processes. The Forum and its preparatory process thus provides a springboard for engaging key actors – from ministers to community groups – with the main messages and recommended actions and launching comprehensive, multi-stakeholder efforts to achieve the water supply and sanitation targets.

Mexico 2006 will be an important milestone for making things happen more quickly in key countries – particularly those most off-track in achieving the goals – as well as a critical planning opportunity for the decade ending in 2015.

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