Rural water services after 2015: what vision should replace the MDGs?

In my last post I referred to the concept of a ‘danger zone’ for rural water services – a term developed by the Triple-S project to describe the tension in many countries between the increased coverage created by new rural water infrastructure and the ‘slippage’ caused by older systems failing. This idea highlights the importance of allocating sufficient resources to recurrent costs and capital maintenance expenditure as coverage levels increase. Stef Smits recently reflected on the contribution of the Millennium Development Goals to this tension:

… the MDGs are one of the biggest competitors to the approach of sustainable services at scale … [they] have been great in mobilizing public investments for WASH… However, the focus on increasing coverage makes it also difficult to fund all the other life-cycle costs of water supplies, such as replacement of assets or post-construction support. In that sense, there is a competition brought about by the MDGs on whether to invest in coverage or dedicate funds to the sustainability of services. We would argue that both are needed, but that there are trade-offs between them. Therefore, a careful balance is needed in investing in that, a balance that even shifts over time.

In Mali, WaterAid’s programmes since 2004 have been based on an approach called the Local Millennium Development Goal Initiative (LMDGI). This was developed as a means of supporting decentralised local governments to fulfil their legal responsibilities of ensuring water and sanitation access for their populations. The focus so far has been on developing transparent local planning processes which translate the MDG targets into local goals and identify the needs in each village in the local government area. Since local governments in Mali are under-resourced, WaterAid has also begun direct local budget support to increase their staff capacity, combined with assistance in using the WASH plans they have developed as a tool to lobby other actors (the central government and other donors) for more implementation funds.

Some aspects of the LMDGI approach do promote thinking of sustainability beyond 2015. The emphasis on local governments as the key long-term presence, and other initiatives promoting increased engagement between citizens and local government, are positive steps. However there are other areas where Stef Smits’ observations on the MDGs ‘competing’ with sustainability may also apply at this local level. Firstly, the local WASH plans developed focus more on infrastructure investments than recurrent management and support costs – although encouragingly, some of the plans are clear on the need for significant capital maintenance expenditure too, an element that Triple-S identified as lacking in many policies in their country case studies. Secondly, the process of ‘marketing’ the WASH plans to raise funding from other actors has so far focused mostly on basic coordination and harmonisation between NGOs and local government for where new infrastructure is built rather than developing longer-term financing streams for ongoing services. Both these examples show the trade-offs involved in the choices made by local governments and NGOs in Mali, and suggest the potential shifts in emphasis that could be made as these plans are revised to think explicitly beyond 2015.

This leads into a wider question for the sector – what comes after the MDGs? Duncan Green discusses Claire Melamed’s general advice: don’t dive straight into a debate on targets and indicators before thinking about what the point of a post-MDGs agreement would be. In the rural water sector, I think this means we need to consider what our long-term vision looks like, and reminds me of a comment from Lant Pritchett:

I was living in India and discussing arrangements for household water supply with some development colleagues of mine. After about half an hour of pretty fruitless discussion I said, “let’s step back. tell me your long-run vision of the household water sector in India.” They said “Our vision is that India meets the target that every household lives within half a kilometer of an improved water source capable of providing 40 liters of safe water per person per day.” I said, “I see the problem. My vision of success is that every Indian can take a hot shower inside their own home.” The difference is that one can imagine meeting the first goal “programmatically” or with a series of “interventions” while the latter clearly requires endogenously functional systems. No one I know wants to have to go to a group meeting to take a hot shower. They want to turn the tap and it works.

In contrast, the vision of the Rural Water Supply Network (published last year and presented at the RWSN Forum last month) proposes that “water should be available very close to (though not necessarily in) the home”. This vision is more pragmatic than Pritchett’s, citing the previous failures of international targets to achieve even basic access for all and acknowledging that community management will still play a significant role for the foreseeable future. I would like to side with Pritchett in terms of ambition, but he perhaps underestimates the scale of the challenge. As the sector is realising – and RWSN expands on this in its full vision document – even achieving a basic level of reliable access of sufficient quality and quantity requires a service delivery approach rather than a series of projects.

So how might the sector deal with these tensions over vision and coverage vs sustainability in a possible post-MDGs agreement? The World Health Organisation has started the debate on how progress on WASH might be monitored after 2015. The report on the first stage of the consultation process recognises the benefits of a vision which goes beyond the ‘basic’ access currently defined, but does not yet indicate how far towards Pritchett’s argument this might go. The report also seems to show agreement on other key areas: the importance of monitoring equity of access to water and sanitation, the possibility of emphasising hygiene behaviour as a target, and the challenge of developing a global agreement which is somehow both ‘nationally owned’ and positively influences national governments.

This last point is one of the key questions raised by Melamed and Green: if international aid money becomes a less important part of the funding mix, what post-MDGs agreement might influence national governments to invest more in sustainable WASH services? WaterAid’s recent Off-track, off-target report on why WASH investment is poorly targeted suggests that water and sanitation-related ministries tend to be less successful than their health and education counterparts in lobbying finance ministries for funds, and do not focus on sustainable services when they do get the money. The Triple-S submission to the post-MDGs WASH consultation stressed the need for any new goals or targets – at both international and national levels – to reshift the focus from tracking coverage to monitoring sustainable service delivery, but this shift is not yet evident in the language in the first report. These concerns demonstrate the importance of the links between national and international politics for rural water services, and must be addressed as the consultation continues.


One Comment on “Rural water services after 2015: what vision should replace the MDGs?”

  1. […] Rural water services after 2015: what vision should replace the MDGs? […]

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