water, cities, political economy, governance, access to water

Apples and Oranges: Acknowledging Intra-Urban Complexity of Access to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

I recently read an excellent paper on comparisons of infrastructure within cities (as opposed to the more frequent between/among city comparisons that are made in both the academic literature and the policy world.  As someone who appreciates water policy discussions at the intersection of academia and the real world, this was an enjoyable read.

In this paper, Colin McFarlane, Jonathan Silver & Yaffa Truelove discuss some of the factors within Delhi, Cape Town, and Mumbai that drive access to infrastructure services.  Many of these factors come as no surprise to a human geographer- political connections, gender, religion, ethnicity, class, and income.  Inequality of access within a city is certainly what I saw in my doctoral research in Dar es Salaam. In fact, I have seen situations in my hometown of Everett, Massachusetts (Greater Boston) where the ability of local businesses to contest chronically overcharging of water and sewer bills is dependent upon favoritism and access to the right people in the city public works department.

So, what are the implications for the real world?  

I believe that water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) professionals should look to this “radical shift”  that was recently highlighted on the World Bank’s Water Blog that calls for the policy world to think about WASH within the context of urban governance and city-level service provision, address issues of accountability and transparency, improve supply chains, train city leaders, and provide clear roles and responsibility.  

This is, of course, not an easy endeavor, not only due to weaknesses in the factors above, but also since city-level leaders in many countries still operate in a very centralized power structure in which ministry/cabinet-level decisions dominate.  What I see, therefore is a disconnect- between the need for local accountability and transparency in service delivery and the decentralized and empowered municipal governments who would be able to do this.


I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this.




water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Urban Redevelopment and Water in the Boston Area: Giving a Voice to the Mystic River

As far back as Mesopotamia, cities have developed along rivers.  Water that once fed the industrial revolution has been polluted for over a century, but sparked by voices like Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, water and environmental quality have bounced back over recent decades.  Waterfronts and nature will always call humans to them, for recreation and for less polluting land uses, let us hope.  This is where urban redevelopment comes in.

What I would like to talk about is this tiny sliver of waterfront, the intersection of Boston and three of its suburbs – Everett, Somerville, and Medford.  These four cities meet at the Mystic River, a river that has brought the area economic growth, but has the pollution to show for it.

What I would like to suggest is that the cities ‘pay back’ the river for its service, to bring it closer to its cleaner past.


While each of these cities, to some extent or another has had its share of industrial growth, I would like to focus on Everett.   Everett, a 2.5 square mile, often maligned inner-ring suburb of Boston, is home to a largely lower income working class population that recently decided to allow the redevelopment of a large section of waterfront that was once the home of a Monsanto chemical plant.

While the redevelopment of polluted urban lands should normally be met with applause, this plan has been met with extraordinary, grinding resistance, largely due to two issues– first, the fact that this area will be redeveloped as a casino (Wynn Resorts) and second, that this, like any other development will have an impact on traffic in an area where the geography (a narrow bridge over the Mystic forms the border between Everett and Boston) already makes vehicular traffic difficult.  [The casino has just been given the go-ahead, but my feelings about this have not changed]

While I will not detail the excruciating and bitter, endless drama that this development has brought on (this would take forever), I am summarizing the categories of resistance and making an argument that the missing stakeholder from this discussion has been the river itself.

On top of the numerous and repeated referendums and the strict licensing has followed, the talk of this casino has been imbued by paternalistic moralism about gambling.  This has been the idea- largely from people outside of the City of Everett-that the presence of gambling is bad for the poor and vulnerable residents of Everett and that, others’ (non-residents’) paternalistic perspective on what is good for the people of Everett should override both the state’s and the city’s approval of the development.  This is a bit much, in my view.  Having said this, safeguards for some of the social and economic externalities of gambling are fine (resources for potential gambling addicts, etc).

The other concern is essentially a mixture of understandable mitigation and, to some extent plain old NIMBYism. There has been resistance to the project by adjacent cities because of traffic.  This is very understandable, and numerous adjacent city agreements and mitigation plans have been negotiated.  This is a good thing- this is cooperative planning.

What has been missing from this discussion of the redevelopment along the river is the voice of the Mystic River. Redevelopment that remediates polluted land and water is good, and this is a major opportunity for an economically disadvantaged community to improve the environmental health of its waterfront.  Otherwise, the land and water will stay polluted and dilapidated.  

In the management of cities and natural resources, rivers need to have a voice.  

They cannot speak.  Sometimes we must speak for them.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Seeing WASH Trends – Thoughts on the IRC 2016-2025 WASH Trend Report

As a WASH researcher who has read more project and program evaluations than I care to admit, I find it to be a rare pleasure to read a broad sector trends analysis document that can see the forest for the trees.  The IRC Trends Analysis, 2016-2015 report is such a report.  While I do have specific critiques of the report, it does a solid job of outlining major trends that will have major effects on access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services for the under-served world. Briefly noting trends in economic growth and inequality, urbanization, water scarcity, governance, the aid landscape, domestic finance, information and communication technologies (ICT), persisting service and access gaps, and service delivery models, this report both acknowledges progress and future needs.  Some of my criticisms are really not criticism of approach per se, but criticism of detail.  If anything, I believe that each section warrants its own analysis.

In terms of economic growth, I think it’s critical to develop further an emphasis on economic growth and inequality. Anyone who has ever lived in a developing country city has seen the stark differences between how the middle and upper classes live and how the other half (more than half, really) live.  What’s really needed is a discussion that goes beyond country-level statistics and Gini Coefficients and the identification of specific ways in which interventions that build wealth at the lowest rungs of society and reduce inequality can improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene.  Case studies of successful informal settlement upgrading and tenure reform are clearly relevant here. Research papers from Plan International and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) have noted the importance of tenure to sanitation, for example.

Urbanization is a clear trend that this report rightly identifies, as it is a pronounced trend in the poorest countries of the world.  While one can debate whether limited funds in a given country should be focused on the areas of lowest access (rural areas, generally) or towards the areas of most rapidly increasing need (urban areas), I think that the linkages between rural and urban areas can provide some insight.  For example, one perspective on household income and ability to improve rural household sanitation infrastructure (an idea I heard while doing sanitation sector research at the WSP last year) is the idea of harnessing urban-rural remittances– in the cases where children of existing rural households have moved to the city and can help their parents fund latrines or other sanitary improvements at their rural home.

I found the section of water scarcity to be a bit too simplistic for its usefulness.  Water at the scale of agriculture is quite different conceptually from drinking water.  The narrative of water scarcity is all too often mischaracterized at the level of most advocacy messaging.  The Malthusian notion of not enough water for too many people is misleading when the realities are more driven by inefficiencies, mismanagement, and misallocation.  Reliable access to water has more to do with effective utilities, accountable governmental provision, and affordability in public and private supply regimes.  Poorly managed water resource management at the national or basin level is another ball of wax.

The section on governance is one that I feel had some thoughts in the correct direction, but would need a whole lot more detail.  [I admit to being biased, as I did a PhD on water governance.]  I believe that one must start with the notion embedded in most basic conceptualizations of water service delivery models for the poor (the 2004 World Bank World Development Report, for example) that affordability and accountability are central to any discussion of water governance.  Simply citing a country-wide Democracy Index or even the more useful Corruptions Perception Index is way too simplistic.  I would make the argument that government decentralization and the effective regulation of the private sector are the most effective starting points when discussing what sort of water governance regime exists in a given country.  One great recent example of such a discussion is by Johanna Koehler at Oxford.

Additionally, I feel that the topic of information and communication technologies (ICT) can be linked to discussions of both management and governance, as the collection of data on infrastructure is step one.  Governments and other actors responding to these identified needs is the second step of any monitoring plan.

I believe that this report did hit the topics of aid effectiveness and utility finances pretty well.  The authors rightly pointed to an overall them of short-term goals and programming that often resulted in a lack of long term effectiveness.  Poor tariff collection and the difficulty to finance rural WASH initiatives are perennial challenges as well.

In summary, I find these sorts of trend analysis exercise to be useful.  I would love to see broad lessons in both individual program evaluations and sector analyses acted upon, but these are challenges of a much greater scale.





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

“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.