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Breaking the political taboo on water supply and sanitation

On my way to this year’s “World Water Week” in Stockholm (17-23 August 2008), the world’s largest annual international conference on water and sanitation issues, water shortage did not seem to be a problem: the city of Stockholm is surrounded by water and it was raining cats and dogs. However, in other parts of the world, where many of the participants come from, the situation looks very different. According to recent UN estimates, close to 1 billion people worldwide have no access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people have no access to basic sanitation facilities. But why has the world been unable to solve this water supply and sanitation crisis and what solutions will the international community of water experts propose?

To mark the UN declared “International Year of Sanitation” in 2008, the conference had a special focus on sanitation under the heading “Progress and Prospects on Water: For a Clean and Healthy World”. The conference was characterised by agreement and pragmatism. The heated ideological battles on the role of the private sector, the human right to water or water pricing seemed to be a thing of the past. Instead, the representatives of governments, civil society, the private sector and donor agencies were following the new dictum: “what works is right”. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for all countries and policies that work in one country may not work in another. For example, some countries with universal access to water supply have a regulatory authority while others do not. 

The bottom line of many discussions was that it is not lack of knowledge, technology or money that is putting the brakes on progress towards universal water supply and sanitation services. There is sufficient knowledge, appropriate technology and domestic and external funding out there. After all, “it’s not rocket science, it’s about washing your hands”, as one participant put it.

So, what is it that blocks the road to water and sanitation progress? Many participants blamed the ‘lack of political will’ and the ‘political mess’ for the limited advances on the ground. They were right and wrong at the same time.

They were right in emphasising the key role of political decision makers. After all, it is the national and local politicians who have to make the tough decisions needed to solve the water and sanitation crisis. They are the ones who are in the difficult position of assessing different policy options. They have to allocate scarce public funds and bear the political risks of these decisions – often under very challenging conditions.

But they are wrong in treating politics as a taboo – refusing to discuss openly and free of bias the political processes that drive or block progress. All too often, politics is seen as an exogenous threat to donor interventions, politicians are referred to in the context of elites or corruption and political decision-making processes are described as non-transparent and mysterious ‘black boxes’. Now, that the water community has successfully broken the taboo on toilets, it is time to break this political taboo.

Political decision makers have to play according to the political rules of the game in their country. They have to take into account public opinion, different societal interests and their own interest in political survival. There are cases where policy-makers may have no choice. Those in countries hit hard by rising food prices, for example, may have to relax controls on groundwater extraction to allow farmers to produce more food crops, knowing that this will lead to falling groundwater tables in the medium-term.

In part, the present crisis is also a result of too little pressure from citizens and customers in many countries. Professor John Anthony Allan, this year’s Laureate of the “Stockholm Water Prize”, pointed out that during the oil crises in industrialised countries, politicians had to realise that “consumers are addicted, ignorant and unforgiving voters.” The time has come, for consumers in the developing world, who face the more severe crisis of lack of clean water supply and proper sanitation, to become equally unforgiving towards unresponsive ministers and mayors.

Not least, the international water community needs to put its own house in order. It is becoming increasingly obvious that problems in the water and sanitation sector cannot be solved within the sector alone - or by technical experts alone. One panel member pointed out that “political aspects are as important as the technical aspects. In the water community, we tend to talk to ourselves. Yet, the critical decisions are made outside the water sector. We need to get out of the water box.

It is high time for international organisations, donor agencies and research institutes to sharpen up their understanding of the political arena and the political players on this issue. If international water experts want to get the water and sanitation crisis on the political agenda, they need to make it more relevant to the political decision makers. At the national level, for example, that could mean showing how investments in water supply and sanitation can help to transform the country’s economic structure and boost economic growth.

On 25 September 2008, the UN General Assembly will hold a “High-Level Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals” to assess progress towards the MDG targets and accelerate efforts to meet the most off-track MDG targets. This event will provide a unique opportunity for the international water community to inform the wider public about achievements and shortcomings regarding the water supply and sanitation targets and to get the water and sanitation crisis on the political agenda.

The international water community will then need to sustain this political momentum by feeding politicians and their electorate with the scientific evidence, technologies and policy options they need to take action. The organisers of the “5th World Water Forum” in Istanbul in March 2009 have recognised the need to carry the water and sanitation issues into the political arena. This Forum will aim to develop a genuine dialogue between political decision makers at all levels – Heads of State and Government, Ministers, Parliamentarians and Mayors. And all topics must aim to transform the politics into policy. The water and sanitation community still has a long way to go, but Istanbul points in the right direction.