water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Urban Africa and Asia Need (Good) Sprawl?

I recently read an article in the Economist that made the argument that, given high rates of current and future urbanization throughout Asia and Africa, what is needed is good and orderly sprawl, in which rights of way are planned out and property rights are upheld and landowners are compensated for development of public ways.

I found this article to be quite simplistic and, to some extent, misleading.  Furthermore, it seems to ignore realities of infrastructure and the populations served by it.

“Sprawl” and any sense of order (“It would be vastly cheaper and better to do sprawl properly from the start.“) are antithetical, since sprawl is seen as unplanned and growth and order is order.  Since comprehensive planning takes too long, the article asserts, the main roads and parks, at minimum, have to be planned.  If the roads are being planned, is the resulting development even considered “sprawl”?

What’s most striking in this article, however, is the implicit focus on the likely (very) small percentage of the new urbanites who would be served by planned communities and the dismissive tone towards doing anything within the existing unplanned areas:

In some unplanned African suburbs as little as 5% of the land is road. Even middle-class districts often lack sewers and mains water. As for amenities like public parks, forget it.”

What I am confused by is the complete giving up on existing unplanned settlements inside or outside the city center. Is it good policy to just ignore both the poor unplanned and the middle-class unplanned districts simply because these areas have poor roads and do not have sewer or water?  I find this to be completely wrongheaded, when regularization of tenure, upgrading or roads, extension of the water utility through relatively low-cost kiosks, and improvement of sanitation options in existing dense areas make a lot more sense than focusing just on new suburban developments for a small fraction of the anticipated urban population.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Corruption in the Water Sector: Do ‘Water Mafias’ exist?

Given the Hollywood treatment through the movie Chinatownwe see the California ‘water wars’ in action.  Conflicts between private landowners, municipalities, etc. exist to some extent or another, as does the general issue of sectoral (urban, agricultural, industrial) use and allocation.  While, there are varied perspectives on how this issue plays out (“whiskey is for drinking. water is for fighting over” ? ) on the large integrated water resource management (IWRM) level (‘Big Water’) [and I often defer to those with IWRM expertise, to people such as David Zetland at Aguanomics or one of my PhD supervisors (2008 Stockholm Water Prize Winner) Dr. Tony Allan],  this post focuses on what I like to call ‘Small Water’, or water at the level of the provision of and access to water.

At the level of household drinking water, water can perhaps be considered a (continuous, flowing) service if it is delivered though a utility service connection, but the reality for many in developing countries is water purchased in discrete units.  Many of us have seen the ubiquitous 20 liter jerry cans in which water is sold and re-sold in urban areas.

Since water is therefore a product, rather than a service, it is not unreasonable to look at corruption in water as a market imperfection and/or something that happens as a result of poor market regulation.  Water mafias have been documented in Nairobi, Delhi, Karachi, and many other places.  Water mafias aim to collude, control markets, restrict supply, and keep shortages high.

I will always think back to this failed water supply initiative in the Kibera informal settlements of Nairobi as a classic case of the water mafia.

“The attitude and behaviour of city godfathers [emphasis mine] was considered by many to be the greatest hindrance to private sector participation in Kibera. It has been difficult to pass decisions aimed at improving distribution networks, billing, metering and putting together a coherent and sustainable system involving the various interested parties. In addition to this, it is known that City Council workers collude with unscrupulous persons to frustrate officially recognised connections…

In Kibera, there are power structures within the community that benefit from the opportunities for rent-seeking associated with the existing water supply system [emphasis mine] . There are vested interests within the local administration, to some extent embodied in the positions of the village elders. Political parties have also contributed to the form of the current water system, and people’s positions on water issues are influenced by party affiliations….

water sellers in the settlement are often linked to these power
structures [emphasis mine]…

Since water vendors and kiosk owners are private enterprises, it can be said that there is private sector participation. However, the relationship between these private enterprises and local officials is not the kind of public-private partnership envisaged by proponents of private sector participation [emphasis mine]…

Viewed as a whole, the project did not work. The objectives of the project have clearly not been met. There has been virtually no improvement in distribution, and water prices have not fallen. What remains is a sense of failure and frustration that may well undermine future initiatives.[emphasis mine]…

It might have been better if the project had never been started. [emphasis mine]”

What does this mean in terms of practical purposes for any new water supply initiative?  The complete terrain of formal and informal participants in the supply, management, and distribution of water must be known and the government must be doing something to address any theft, control, or collusion. The Water Integrity Network (WIN) is a great resource for further reading in this area.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Sanitation and Hygiene Institutional Policies in Africa: Review of SEI Report on Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania

Rather than stay up at the 10,000 foot level of analysis of some of my previous posts, today I’d like to focus down on a recent report from the Stockholm Environment Institute that highlights some major concerns that exist in terms of the enabling environment in Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania for investments in sanitation and hygiene.

The report assesses enabling environments in each of these three countries in terms of institutional roles and responsibilities, legal frameworks, effective targeting of populations in need, service levels, environmental and health issues, and in terms of finances.

Institutional commonalities of all countries surveyed in this report include a general tendency towards centralized/ministerial policy development with limited local capacity.  Horizontal coordination across ministries was noted as a concern in all three countries, as there sometimes were confused roles and responsibilities.  Vertical coordination down to the local/community level was also identified as an issue.  There were some bright spots in the report, as institutional strengthening, decentralization, and a general movement towards community level ownership and operation.  Furthermore, each of the three countries have made recent moves to clarify policy through Sector Wide Approaches, or SWAps.

Perhaps the most salient point in the whole report was the recognition that in all three countries there was no clear separation between service delivery and the regulation, monitoring, & evaluation.  This is of critical concern, as the presence of separate regulatory bodies can, at least in theory, hold feet to the fire, so to speak.

On a related note, there was a noted disconnect in all three countries between stated targeting at the policy level and actual budget allocation.   The identified a lack of legal framework specifically focused on sanitation and hygiene in all surveyed countries muddies the waters further.

Lastly, the report correctly notes that technical specifications were often identified, without a particular focus on functionality or effectiveness.

While I have not worked in all three of these countries, much of this is quite consistent with what I learned while reviewing sanitation and hygiene policy in Tanzania last year with the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP)’s Scaling up Rural Sanitation initiative.   There, I saw a country that is making strides in terms of clarifying roles horizontally and moving towards decentralized responsibilities.

Reports like this that focus on the enabling environment in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are critical to the effectiveness any and all sector programming.  Global efforts that help countries improve sector coordination and implementation, such as the Sanitation and Water for All program, the Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-water (GLAAS)  program, and the Tracking Financing to Drinking-water, Sanitation and Hygiene (TrackFin) initiative, are critical pieces of WASH sector policy effectiveness.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

What is ‘Water Governance’ …and Why Does it Matter?

I tend to think about the concept of water governance quite often… in fact, I did a whole PhD on the topic. To me, it makes a lot of sense and, at least at the 10,000-foot level of analysis, can explain why some have access to water, others don’t, and why this matters to the challenge of increasing access to water, sanitation… or any other good or service, really.

In general, I like to think of water governance as being the political and institutional framework that essentially defines access. At the most basic level, ask yourself, “how do I access water?” For most of us, we access it as a service in our houses and buy it as a product in discrete units (gallons)… and even, tangentially, embedded in the food that we buy. For residents of countries with non-existent, barely or non-functional infrastructure, access to water is a high stakes game. It is arguably a function of affordability and accountability—either they can purchase whatever they need and/or they can nudge their governments to provide it as a service.

What governance looks like can vary greatly, and changes over time. One can find examples of water governance everywhere in history, from the dirgiste or top-down ‘hydraulic states’ that Wittfogel spoke of, where the ministers and presidents decide all (peasants be damned!), to the intermixed central government, local government, and private interests and conflicts in the American west (Cadillac Desert has great stories about this), or even the local-level dysfunction that I documented during my graduate work.

Does any of these mean anything beyond academic posturing? I’d like to think so. I often point to the 2004 World Bank World Development Report ‘Making Services Work for the Poor’ and the work of the Water Integrity Network. These sources provide numerous examples of how the water governance and the overall enabling environment can have a major effect on project effectiveness.
IIED has one excellent example from way back in 2002 that shows how entrenched interests sunk a project.

Actually, here’s an easier suggestion– just think about all the lack of accountability that has happened with the Flint water crisis…or watch the movie “Chinatown” if you want to think about water governance.

Water governance is too big of a concept to cover in one blog post, and I’d appreciate your thoughts on any of this.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Talking Shit: Translating Sanitation and Hygiene from Discourse to Details

It has been an on-and-off trend in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector to Talk Shit in order to move the dial forward in terms of access to sanitation.  In 2008, for example, The Year of Sanitation had this forceful message to use the word shit in order to spur change.  Same thing with the well-received “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.”

After the advocacy community is rightfully reinforcing the importance of access to sanitation and motivating donors and governments to budget more to the WASH sector, the time comes to acknowledge the complexity that’s necessary and translate from clear and concise advocacy messaging to muddy, wonky, and often intractable challenges that show up in design and implementation phasesThese include some of the difficult, grinding realities – such as poverty and/or lack of affordability, the lack of incentives to invest in sanitation, the lack of soap and water for necessary hygiene, unaccountable governments, market imperfections, etc.

As an example, Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) and other behavior change interventions are often paired with latrine building initiatives.  The perfectly logical idea is that once you build increased demand, you help build the supply to meet it and then connect the two.

In this regard, a really useful study on the effectiveness of such sanitation and hygiene initiatives came out of Plan International in 2013.  It showed that ‘slippage’, or reverting back to open defecation went from 13% to 92% once the criteria for slippage were changed from simply the presence of a functional latrine to include criteria such as a latrine superstructure and lid, the absence of excreta nearby, and the use and presence of water and soap or soap substitute.

 Reasons for failure/de-motivators were numerous and included:

  • Financial constraints (18%)
  • Lack of technical support (18%),
  • Inconvenience/discomfort (14%)
  • Repairs (13%),
  • Having to share facilities with others (12%)

Other barriers included:

  • Lack of land, material, or labor (32%)
  • Soil conditions (25%)
  • Lack of technical knowledge (13%)
  • Water availability issues (13%)
  • Poor construction quality (11%)

Without diving into any of the muddy, wonky, or often intractable details of any of these at this point, each one of these issues warrants serious consideration when designing interventions, it’s critical to acknowledge that the right translation to complexity be made at the project design and country-level planning stages.  Ignoring this prevents the sector from learning from its mistakes.


water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

“They come with their pens, but they don’t bring us water”

“They come with their pens, but they don’t bring us water”

Wazungu wote wanakuja na kalamu zao, lakini hawana kutuletea maji.”

Nearly a decade ago I was walking out of an informal settlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with a research assistant and overheard someone behind us say this.

Everyone is still trying to figure out water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) project sustainability

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about aid effectiveness in the water sector.  Failure rates are often quite high, and, although the numbers are wide-ranging, the statistics are shocking. For example, RWSN data shows handpump failure at 10-67%.  Improve International has even more depressing statistics.

When I try to wrap my head around a problem, I try to conceptualize what the factors are.  Surely, one has to consider ecology, hydrology, engineering, economics, institutions, etc.  As a lowly WASH consultant, I’m well-aware that I am certainly not the only one trying to think about this. Water First.org and Improve International have developed a really useful set of criteria for project sustainability.  USAID and Rotary International have their own sustainability assessment tool as well.  Also, IRC is constantly featuring these concerns in its WASH blogs. I’m particularly fond of the Water Services That Last blog.

On top of this, every year, for example, the World Bank pulls in experts from all over the world for conferences in WASH Sustainability for the purpose of sharing and advancing best practices.

We’re constantly going back to the drawing board.

Trends, frameworks, and themes in international development change more often than fashion and hemlines.Development professionals much, much more established than I have been struggling with this for decades.  More importantly, those who live this reality day in/day out truly struggle with this.

There’s an urgency to get this right.  It’s in this spirit that I hope to bring a more effective pen to this issue.