Corruption Reduces the Basic Need for Water and Adequate Sanitation to an Elusive Dream for Billions

by Tess Raposas
- Philippines -

In coastal communities all over the Philippines, it is ironic that seawater is abundant everywhere but effectively, there’s not a drop of clean water to drink. But the problem exists throughout the country, and in fact, across the world. Residents must travel miles away to collect fresh water, which must be also be consumed sparingly because in the absence or shortage of this basic commodity. Children suffer the most. Not only are children usually assigned to be the handy collectors of water for many households, but they are also the most susceptible when it comes to water-borne diseases.

"Water and Sanitation is one of the primary drivers of public health. I often refer to it as “Health 101”, which means that once we can secure access to clean water and to adequate sanitation facilities for all people, irrespective of the difference in their living conditions, a huge battle against all kinds of diseases will be won," declared Dr Lee Jong-wook, Director-General of the World Health Organization in 2004.

Lack of clean water and adequate sanitation facilities are realities that poor people in almost every corner of the world have to contend with every single day of their lives. They end up paying a very steep price for the lack of something so basic to well-being.

Corruption and kickbacks affect 20 to 40 percent of water sector financing
The water sector is infested with so much corruption that in effect it overturns the impact of development. It also negates democratic principles. Ironically, water battles have been going on almost since civilization began.

Dr. Donal O’ Leary, Senior Adviser to Transparency International says that corruption in the water sector has been around for literally thousands of years. However, he says that the need to effectively curb the problem is now urgent and that encouraging action by those with influence who are “pro-poor” and community-level participation are both critical. Transparency International (TI) believes that corruption cannot be rooted out in one big sweep, so fighting it is a step-by-step, project-by-project process. TI’s anti-corruption strategy includes coalition building, proceeding incrementally, and remaining non-confrontational. TI's goal is to define and introduce strategies and mechanisms that make corrupt practices if not impossible, at least unlikely and punishable, both on the national as well as on the international level.

The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Report puts numbers on the extent of the crisis: global water crisis deprives some 1.1 billion people in the developing world access to a minimal amount of clean water, and 2.6 billion or half the developing world’s population of sanitation. The lack of attention to such critical needs is largely due to poor governance and public policy that directs resources toward the needs of the influential, according to the report. This is directly linked to other root causes such as poverty, inequality and unequal power relationships.

The most obvious failure of governments are the all-too-common corruption and kickbacks that occur in large scale infrastructure projects. The World Bank reports that between 20 to 40 percent of water sector financing worldwide is lost to corruption, certainly an appalling estimate.

Corrupt officials sabotage access to water and sanitation around the world

Transparency International came up with an index of where corruption occurs, pointing out that Sub-Saharan Africa has a much higher corruption level than anywhere else in the world. “At the end of the day, someone has to pay for all these costs and losses, and most of the time, the people who should be accountable get away with it”, comments Peter Svedberg, an international development economist.

But people all around the world suffer at the hands of corruption:

In the Philippines in 2003, a water district employee in Leyte was killed. It was reported that at the time, he had documents to prove there were corrupt practices in the water district where he worked. The following year, an activist was shot dead and his companion was seriously wounded just after the two accused the management of the local water district of conniving with the local police and military to dismiss water district workers illegally during a radio interview.

In India, in Keolari Village, inaction by authorities amounted to protecting wrongdoers. For the residents, it was a clear case of encroachment: in December 2006 a local official not only built a house adjacent to a public well, but even built a wall around it. One of only two sources of potable water in the village, residents demanded that the wall be demolished so the community could take back access to the well. Eventually community action won the residents their case.

So many instances of rampant corruption in the water sector in Colombia led concerned groups and individuals to come together to find solutions to existing problems. The Association Colombiana de Ingenieria Sanitaria y Ambiental or ACODAL is one organization that responded. ACODAL is composed of 150 companies and exposes irregularities in the water industry, seeking to penalize transgressors. The association imparts the need for a sustainable water supply and to be more discerning in regard to transaction costs incurred by water companies because higher transaction costs mean more money borne out by consumers.

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals are already falling short

Almost halfway through the Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) implementation, the UNDP Report is a result of a study that measures the progress of the MDGs’ benchmarks on the human right to water. UNDP clarified their point: the MDG for water and sanitation was set as a minimum threshold of what should be provided; it was certainly not a ceiling. This means that even if the MDG was achieved, there would still be a large global deficit after the target year 2015.

Yet, even though the expected goals set were minimal, performance still fell way below target. Current trends indicate that Sub-Saharan Africa won’t reach the clean water target until 2040 and its sanitation target not until 2076. The Arab States are 27 years off track in sanitation. Over-all projections indicate that the water targets missed will affect 234 million people; 55 countries will be off track on water goals. In addition, overall targets missed for adequate sanitation will affect 430 million people; 74 countries will not meet these critical goals. To be able to get back on track, Sub Saharan Africa will have to increase water connections from 10 million a year to 23 million a year, while South Asia’s rate of making adequate sanitation connections will have to rise from servicing 25 million people to 43 million a year.

So far, of the regions included in this MDG agenda, only East Asia and Latin America are on track for sanitation.

The human costs of the water and sanitation crisis may be quantified as massive economic losses. For instance, the UNDP Report pointed out that this two-part crisis is causing a 5 percent loss in GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa - or roughly $28.4 billion annually.

A crisis of the poor

According to a related World Health Organization (WHO) study, access to improved water and sanitation services increases the annual average GDP of poor countries up to 3.7 percent. Those that did not make these basic improvements grew at just 0.1 percent.

By and large, data shows that access to safe water reduces the child death rate by as much as 20 percent; the presence of a flush toilet reduces the risk of infant death by as much as 30 percent.

The UNDP Report clearly demonstrates that the crisis in water and sanitation is a crisis of the poor. A perverse principle is operating that applies to much of the developing world: the poorest people not only get access to less water, and to less clean water, but they also pay some of the world’s highest prices for what little they get. In Manila, Jakarta, Nairobi, and Kenya for example, people living in the slums pay five to 10 times more for water per unit than those in high income areas of their own cities. They even pay more than consumers pay in London or New York! In Manila, the cost of connecting to the water utility represents about three months’ income for the poorest 20% of households. Those lacking clean water in developing countries use about 5 liters of water per day, while an average European uses up more than 200 liters a day and an American uses 400 liters a day!

Given the purview that water and sanitation are basic human rights, the UNDP urges governments to make those top priorities. “There are international action and institutionalized agendas to tackle the crisis in HIV/AIDS, even if a big part of the agenda [has to] address threat and [a] potential public health crisis. Why not give the same attention and priority to the living reality of the water and sanitation crisis, which elicits only the most minimal and fragmented response?” demands Kevin Watkins, Director of the UNDP Human Development Report office.

The need for political leadership

Both development advocates and water experts emphasize the need for political leadership that will push for clear national strategies and attainable targets. Robert Gakubia, the Acting Director of Water Services in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Kenya contends, “A public policy that puts a premium on transparency and accountability makes all the difference”.

Anders Berntell, a biologist and water management specialist adds that an additional component must also change, in the attitudes of donors: “Transmitting commitment into action is the core of public duty that helps shape human development. On development aid, change in priorities is the order of the day, as well as change in the hearts, minds and attitudes of donors of development assistance”.

Whether development aid is making an impact on the stakeholders comes up every time there is another development debacles. One bilateral donor’s representative, Maria Norfalk, comments, “The call of the times is to assess the nature of development aid poured on water and sanitation projects and open avenues for better cooperation and participation among stakeholders.”

The political will to act on stakeholders’ issues as a top item in the list of governmental agendas cannot be overemphasized.

Meanwhile, the slogan water for life and adequate sanitation in every household remains an elusive dream for billions of people in developing countries. Intolerably bleak situations can be found in many countries around the globe, where people are forced to defecate in fields, ditches and buckets. There are also far too many people living in “flying toilet” communities where they must defecate into plastic bags and then throw them onto the streets. No one should have to live that way.

It’s a world of stark contradictions out there, of luxury and scarcity, of inequities and privileges. The water and sanitation targets that the MDGs have set forth may just turn out to be the great equalizer. But these too remain goals yet to be attained.

About the Author

For the past 15 years, Tess Raposas has been a freelance journalist and media and development consultant, having worked on various writing and research projects on gender and environmental concerns. She believes that every journalist must grow from being an "objective", somewhat robotic truthsayer to a socially aware and accountable truthseeker. She is based in Quezon City, Philippines.

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5 comments on “Corruption Reduces the Basic Need for Water and Adequate Sanitation to an Elusive Dream for Billions
  1. Nancy Van Ness says:

    This series of articles about water and sanitation, or rather the lack of them for so many poor people, is changing my consciousness about these issues. First, I do not want to take for granted my access to clean potable water and sanitation here in the US. We are so fortunate. Then, I want to look at what I can do to help others to have these basic necessities. For this I am responsible.

  2. Yes, I do fully agree with the views of Tess. Water is so fundamental to life yet so scarce for some underprivileged people in this world. I am deeply touched and concerned about them.

  3. Daniel Lobo says:

    Great article raising critical points around water rights and environmental justice. I would just like to note from this Washington DC that – at least for now – I call home the need to oversimplify or separate those problems played by the perception of developed vs. non-developed world.
    Unfortunately, the United States is home to plenty of environmental justice issues, water included, that often are overlooked by the behavior – direct and induced – of the ruling culture. In the case at hand of DC not only lead levels are critically high, leading to a cultural response that relies in bottled water consumption for those who can afford it. But several other studies indicate far more several contaminations of the waters in the capital of the United States. In addition to polluting natural water resources during the historic and continued mismanagement of the industrialized world, areas such as that surrounding the Anacostia river see the highest levels of cancer around their modest residents, the river is furiously contaminated with sewage during storms due to outdated infrastructure and yes, alleys downtown get hosed albeit on a random basis.
    The sad difference of this situation is that not only traditionally the US government lives back to its city but that nationwide these issues take distant spot in the worries promoted by the mainstream channels of communication. Ultimately, I do think that DC is stepping stone in the understanding of global inequality but for different reasons.
    Best regards,

  4. Abbas Travadi says:

    Even though Ms Tess Raposas article reflects light on the rampant corruption prevailing over ‘potable water access’ condition in the developing countries, I suggest her to cite the example of the present drinking water availability in rural parts of Saurashtra Region (Gujarat State) in India. It tremendously improves in increasing the ground water level thus making it possible for residents to have clear water for their consumption and also for farming purpose.
    In my opinion, countries that receive abundance or scarce rainfall, SHOULD conserve rain-water in the appropriate manner by building underground reservoirs/tanks, diverting rainwater to these tanks collected from terraces/roof-tops, or by changing its flow pattern towards these reservoirs instead of rain-water being wasted by flowing down in drains OR towards the sea.
    As the level of ground water increases, with the help of tube-wells fit near them people can still have access to clear drinking water. It will surely make a difference to some extent.

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