The global water crisis is not driven by absolute water scarcity, but by a scarcity of governance: there’s enough water to go around, we just need to get better at managing it.
To meet the sixth sustainable development goal (SDG) we must learn from stagnation in the sector and make sure that water institutions – policies, laws, organisations and their financing frameworks – actually deliver the goods. If we don’t adopt fresh approaches to debug this institutional software, the global water goal – and the many SDG targets underpinned by better water management – will remain a mirage. Some of the priorities for change are:
1 | Evidence-based action, not sector folklore
In 2013, we led a systematic mapping of evidence on water institutions to find out what makes them work towards poverty reduction and sustainable growth. We examined around 30,000 journal articles and reports on the topic and found that only 38 (0.13%) showed clear evidence linking water management to these outcomes.
Inadequate knowledge about how and why water management delivers societal outcomes people would want means that efforts to improve performance in the sector lack direction, and will struggle to get financial support. It also leaves the sector vulnerable to politically or commercially driven fixes such as water markets, credits and offsets.
Radical improvements throughout the research-policy-action cycle are needed. For example, we need investment in new studies that track and compare performance on water management, as well as better standards and guidelines for commissioning, reviewing and reporting on research evidence.
2 | Accountability and system change, not sticking plasters
Development partners and INGOs often focus on place-based projects, extending the provision of services or managing water supply on behalf of beleaguered governments.
Although this can help to avert immediate humanitarian crises, it has long been recognised – not least by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee – that the benefits of donor-led interventions which treat the symptoms rather than the root causes rarely endure. Instead, donors should prioritise approaches that hold water managers to account, help citizens get better services from their own governments and tackle things such as executive, legislative and judicial dysfunction, inadequate tax collection and mobilisation, overlapping ministerial mandates, power struggles, a vacuum of leadership and corruption.
As one example of a progressive response, we used social accountability monitoring, budget-tracking and evidence-based advocacy in our Fair Water Futures Programme. The initiative has helped more than 500,000 people in Tanzania and Zambia to obtain water rights, protect water resources and mitigate water-related disasters.
3 | Credible water stewardship, not bluewash
The private sector is finally catching on to sustainable water management. This is good news, given the power and reach of corporates, but they must show water stewardship with integrity and accountability. The Alliance for Water Stewardship standard is the right mechanism for this – it’s demanding and differentiates the companies that are contributing to improved water security from those that are just talking about it.
Early use of the standard by Olam International and Diageo has been shown to reduce the risks of pollution, interrupted supply and poor governance for production sites, supply chains, local communities and farmers. It’s now up to such progressive companies, responsible supermarkets and switched-on consumers to encourage other businesses to use the standard.
4 | Collaborative donor action, not competition
Despite the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and its principles of alignment and harmonisation, proper coordination in the water sector is rare. It’s still common to find multiple initiatives by multiple donors focusing on the same issues with the same people in the same places.
The Paris Declaration urgently needs to be lived and breathed. Improving the accountability of donors and how investments and impacts are tracked can help but this should be supported by shared progress indicators, such as one on good water governance (still strikingly absent from the SDGs).
Including targets on water resource management alongside taps and toilets under goal six of the SDGs is an important step towards recognising mutual dependencies, but these still need to come with a smarter, fit-for-purpose monitoring framework.
5 | Capacity building, not demolition
Building capacity through training workshops doesn’t work. Ad-hoc, one-off workshops rarely provide contextual relevance or inspire action. And consultant-led technical assistance is rarely effective in building long-term capacity; without the ownership needed for implementation, the plans and strategies created by consultants are often left to collect dust.
We urgently need new approaches to build professional capabilities. Contemporary theories of workplace motivationcould bear fruit here. Creating opportunities to learn by doing and receiving practitioner support from peers has been shown to yield the creativity and tenacity needed across the water sector. However, such models do not tally with the conditions of donor procurement processes, despite being stratospherically better value-for-money.
We also need to address the issues that cause so many skilled people to desert public sector water management roles in the global south, such as by improving civil service wages.
Global goals and targets might come and go but the pressing needs for improved water management in the real world don’t change. Let’s make sure that the ways we deliver it do.
Nick Hepworth is the director of Water Witness International. Follow @water_witness on Twitter.