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Fresh thinking ahead of the World Water Forum – Part 1

Written by Roger Calow


On 15 March, the 6th World Water Forum (WWF) – the largest event of its kind – kicks off in Istanbul, Turkey. Under the theme of ‘Bridging Divides for Water’, over 20,000 people are expected to gather to discuss the developing world’s water and sanitation problems. It is easy to be cynical about such events: most of the participants will be from rich countries, and a lot of the debate will be recycled from previous meetings on the topic. But the WWF does provide an opportunity to take stock of progress and focus on ‘new’ issues such as water and climate change.       

In the run up to the Forum, ODI is hosting a series of public meetings funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) on water and sanitation issues. The first, held on 28 October last year, followed the launch of DFID’s new water and sanitation policy, ‘Water: An increasingly precious resource. Sanitation: A matter of dignity by the Secretary of State for International Development, Douglas Alexander. The second,  on 15 January 2009 at ODI  will examine the topic  of Scalable actions and effective aid in water and sanitation’. So what is there to discuss that isn’t recycled, and does DFID’s new policy offer anything fresh?    

First, let’s take sanitation. DFID’s policy gives this neglected subject top billing, and rightly so. Progress here remains depressingly slow. Between 1990 and 2006, the proportion of people globally without improved sanitation decreased by only 8%. At this rate, according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) , the world will not get even halfway to the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) sanitation target of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.  Progress in sub-Saharan Africa is particularly slow. As Bai Mass Taal from the African Ministers’ Council on Water put it during the first ODI meeting, sanitation is ‘falling between the cracks’ of line ministries, and political champions remain few and far between. The Water Policy Programme at ODI  is therefore asking speakers on 15 January to address a series of questions on political visibility, voice and funding:    

  • How far has the 2008 International Year of Sanitation helped overcome the stigma of sanitation and place the subject in wider development debates around (for example) economic growth and access to education?
  • What needs to happen to translate funding into effective approaches on the ground, and can new approaches such as ‘Community-led Total Sanitation’ (CLTS) be taken to scale?
  • How does extra funding for sanitation, channelled through (for example) the Global Sanitation Fund, fit with the zero subsidy approach to household  provision advocated by some?        

Second, on financing and the role of aid in achieving the MDGs. Writing this blog from Ethiopia – the country with the highest number of people without access to improved water supply and sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa – raises some interesting issues. In 2005, the government ratified an ambitious Universal Access Plan (UAP) to achieve full coverage by 2012, and donors (including DFID) have pushed for sector-wide programming to improve aid effectiveness and address the deficit. Both have encountered problems in delivering against expectations.

In Ethiopia at least, the key bottlenecks appear to lie with implementation capacity and low advocacy of the UAP at regional and sub-regional levels, rather than lack of funding or aid harmonisation. According to the recent Ethiopian Joint Budget and Aid Review, for example, only 75% of government funds allocated and only 47% and 27% of foreign grants and loans were actually spent in the 2006-2007 financial year. An important question is whether these capacity and advocacy constraints are shared with other countries, or whether the picture is much more mixed. Again, the meeting hosted by ODI on 15 January will debate the issues and look for answers.