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Utilities

Still not flowing

by Cathrine Schweikardt

In brief

Refugees at Lake Chad, the water level of which has dropped dramatically

Refugees at Lake Chad, the water level of which has dropped dramatically

The international community is hardly making progress on making safe water available to all. More awareness, better management and long-term cooperation could make a difference.

Up to 1992, water was generally considered part of the common goods and under state control. Governments, how­ever, often proved unable to take care of their citizens’ needs. In 1992, the Dublin Principles declared water an economic good, opening the utility sector to market forces and global competition. According to Petra Dobner of Hamburg University, powerful corporate interests dominate the sector internationally, and civil society is not heard adequately. The World Water Council, World Water Forum and World Water Commission all need broader participation, the scholar insists.

Dobner says the privatisation of water utilities is “theoretically wrong and empirically hopeless”. Water pipes form a natural monopoly, she explains, so privatisation cannot bring about meaningful competition. She considers it “economically absurd” to hope that major private-sector investments will be made in remote rural areas. Dobler points out that almost all major privatisation projects in the sector have failed, as the examples of Bujumbura (Burundi) and Managua (Nicaragua) show.

Global warming is compounding the problems. “Africa is particularly affected,” Professor Francis Mutua of the University of Nairobi told a conference at the Protestant Academy in Loccum, Germany, in late November. The meteorologist pointed out examples such as the drying of Lake Chad or the melting of the Kilimanjaro glaciers in Tanzania. His argument is that Africa lacks the technologies to deal with such change; for instance, groundwater is rarely used even though consumption of surface water increases the risk of infections. Mutua wants institutions to work together and technologies to be shared. Another of his demands is that wastewater should be recognised as a resource.

No recipe for all

Kelvin Chitumbo of the National Water Supply and Sanitation Council (NWASCO) in Zambia said that Africa's fast population growth is making the water crisis worse: „The management problems of African governments are reflected in unplanned urbanisation.” In his view, this trend is causing water to be sourced and used in­efficiently, while wastewater and garbage disposal systems tend to be catastrophic. Zambia is trying to set a good example, however. Since 1994, the government has been implementing reforms and building stronger institutions. Since 2003, NWASCO has provided 350,000 people with safe drinking water by setting up water kiosks in slums, Chitumbo reports.

Michael Klingler of GIZ, Germany's agency for international cooperation, says that water kiosks are only a temporary solution. He argues that they are not useful in rural areas and do not serve as the basis for sanitary facilities; people, moreover, should not have to walk more than ten minutes to get water. Klingler states that projects only succeed where local partners are involved, so new analyses and specific solutions are needed in each place. Kelvin Chitumbo from Zambia agrees that local participation matters. At the end of the conference in Loccum he said that development agencies should listen more carefully to the people concerned: they generally know best how to improve their lot.

Deutsche Bank Research estimates that 400 to 500 billion dollars are needed to reach the 7th Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. Thomas Kluge of the Institute for Social-Ecological Research in Frankfurt believes that more needs to be invested in people than in hardware if the goal is to be achieved: “Of the money spent on MDG 7, 60 % should be devoted to capacity building.” He believes that projects, in order to make sense, need to be conducted for at least 12 years.

“Climate change, nature conservation, food security and biofuels fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” said Dieter Gerten of Potsdam’s Climate Research Institute. He considers data about “virtual water” – the amount of water needed to produce something – especially relevant. Dorothea August of WWF, a globally-active environmentalist NGO, estimates that 140 liters of water are needed to make a cup of coffee. Meat production requires 15 times as much water as grain production does. August pointed out that, as the planet's human population continues to grow, so does meat consumption. At the same time, the number of malnourished people continues to rise, she added.

August said that one example of irresponsibility are strawberry plantations in Andalusia. As she sees it, products have to be grown where they fit the climate if ecosystems are to be kept running. The WWF expert said that thousands of illegal wells have been dug in Andalusia to irrigate the strawberries, and groundwater is being used up. She argues that people need to be made aware of water issues and that a label indicating virtual water on products could help consumers make informed decisions.

Cathrine Schweikardt