Water for all – but how?
21/12/2007 – by Michael Funcke-Bartz
According to estimates by the Joint Monitoring Programme of the WHO and UNICEF, 900 million people worldwide will not have reliable access to safe drinking water in 2015; and twice that number will lack adequate sanitation. These figures, moreover, are optimistic in so far as they assume that the infrastructure in place today will remain fully operational in the long term. However, that is not to be taken for granted.
Industry and agriculture are putting an increasing strain on water resources. On top of that, climate change will make supplies even scarcer in many places.
According to the WHO and UNICEF, Latin America is on track to meet Millennium Development Goal 7: to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water in the period from 1990 to 2015. Yet a glance at the current statistics from Peru indicates that some poor countries still have a long way to go. On average, 85 % of the urban population in Peru have piped drinking water at home – but only 74 % of those in rural communities do so.
Moreover, to have a water tap obviously does not mean that something actually flows out of it. It is true that, from 1997 to 2005, Peru’s national average of water availability was increased from 13 hours to 18 hours a day. But in some regions and districts, water is still only available for a few hours – and this is not only true of commercial companies, but of consumer households as well.
The need to act is even greater when it comes to sewage treatment. Only 67 % of city dwellers and just 7 % of the rural population are reached by sewers. Even if latrines are added to the equation, only 82 % of the urban and 44 % of the rural population have satisfactory sanitation facilities.
Such problems do not result only from weak public finances, as another statistic proves. On average, only 55 % of the water made available in Peru is invoiced, of which only around half is charged for on schedule. The average payment delay is two and a half months. As a result, 32 of a total 51 companies in charge of water supply and waste water treatment could not cover their day-to-day costs last year, according to Peru’s regulatory authority SUNASS. They have hardly any money for repairs and maintenance, and find it impossible to expand their services to additional areas like squatter settlements, for instance.
President Alan García’s government is making efforts to improve the situation with programmes such as “Agua para Todos” (water for all). For economically struggling utilities, success depends largely on better management. The companies must use their resources in the most effective way, which implies they must find and implement unconventional solutions.
“Strengthening our company depended on utilising the experience and ideas of our staff”, recalls Juan Tarazona, the managing director of EPS Chavín, a company that takes care of water provision and sewage treatment in Huaraz and neighbouring areas. He finds it regrettable that employees are often not asked for their opinion, though they are the people that understand the situation best. Tarazona reports that labour relations improved at EPS Chavín as goals were defined in close cooperation with the staff.
According to Tarazona, it was essential to make it clear from the very outset that innovation was not about cutting costs fast by reducing staff. The idea was to improve the service without increasing the tariff. “At first we focused on measures that incurred no – or only very low – costs while significantly improving our revenues”, he recalls. Such measures included re-categorising customers who had been classified as private households but who were actually operating commercially and thus had to pay higher rates. The additional revenue was then used for other investments.
Tarazona is critical of the fact that many utilities invest in projects that are problematic in business terms. It does not make sense, for example, to install water meters if doing so reduces revenues. Nonetheless, the sector is under great pressure to increase the share of households with meters. That figure is considered an important management indicator, as accurate monitoring of consumption is believed to lead to precise invoices and, consequently, to prompt people to use the resource sparingly.
The Peruvian manager knows, however, that installing, maintaining and reading the meters costs a lot of money – not to mention the costs of replacing vandalised equipment. “If there is a risk of revenues going down after the instalment of metres, it is better to do without for the time being, and use the money for more productive purposes, like connecting new households to the network,” he argues.
Sometimes perfection stands in the way of good solutions. The coastal town of Chimbote provides an example of how one measure, which did seem anything but ideal at first, nevertheless clearly improved the situation.
In Chimbote today, water is only available to people and companies for a daily average of eight hours. The mains lose some 50 % because of leakages and the like. It is impossible to constantly ensure sufficient pressure in the entire network. Technically, the perfect solution would be to gradually upgrade the system; but doing so would take a long time – and cost money the company can hardly afford.
However, action was urgent. The local community was up in protest, and funding had only been granted for a treatment plant. It quickly became clear, however, that additional money would be needed to extend the network and build a new reservoir.
Emilio Hito of SEDACHIMBOTE, the local utility, recalls: “We chose an innovative solution by Peruvian standards, quickly and cost-effectively providing more and safe water to disadvantaged districts on the outskirts of the city.” Instead of building an additional large water reservoir, the residents of shacks and houses in a selected pilot area received plastic tanks with a 600-litre capacity, and these tanks are refilled once every day. Supply is guaranteed at certain times of the day, after which a district is once again disconnected from the mains – to the benefit of other deprived areas.
The results are convincing. The residents have become used to the method, and they have enough safe drinking water at their disposal all day. “Of course, what especially pleases us as a utility is that our customers are satisfied – and that they pay their bills on time,” reports the manager, who attended an InWEnt course on constraint management in the water sector. Some households are even prepared to buy their tank, paying in instalments.
“This way, capital is freed up, for example, to expand the water supply and to fix particularly troublesome leaks,” Hito says. SEDACHIMBOTE does not need water meters in these areas, as tank sizes and the frequency of refilling are known.
Millennium Development Goal 7 to improve the drinking water supply seems ambitious at first glance. A country like Peru will probably achieve it. Much more still needs to be done in most of Africa.
Nonetheless, a paradigmatic re-think would be desireable. Let us not forget that, by 2015, an additional 260 000 people must get access to safe drinking water every day, and the respective figure for sanitation services is 370 000. These statistics of the World Water Council, moreover, are most likely underestimates, since they do not factor in population growth since 1990.
The recommendations of the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation indicate that MDG 7 will not prove achievable unless
– there is a stronger focus on the water and sanitation,
– capacities of respective institutions and utitilities are beefed up, and
– all resources available are put in use.
Moreover, it is worrisome that MDG 7 is merely about halving the number of those without adequate infrastructure. In other words, 50 % would stay needy, and their sad fate would not change at all. In this perspective, the aspirations of MDG 7 are actually not exaggerated at all. Rather, they seem too small.