New Internationalist

The Decade Flows On

Issue 207

new internationalist
issue 207 - May 1990

The Decade flows on
In November 1980, the UN declared that the next ten years
would bring 'safe water and sanitation for all'. It hasn't happened.
Yet everyone says the Decade was a tremendous success.
Why? Brian Appleton and Maggie Black explain.

Every day in the 1980s, about 200,000 people gained a safe supply of drinking water, and 80,000 a better means of sanitation than a disgusting bucket or a walk in the fields. Faster construction of pipes, pumps, and pit latrines all over the developing world was the declared aim of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade - and it happened. The World Health Organization (WHO), the Decade's guardian of statistics, says that services were laid on as twice the rate of the 1970s.

Unfortunately, this advance is still well short of the lofty goal widely publicized when the Decade was launched: 'Safe water and sanitation for all by 1990'. The extra 715 million people with new saps and pumps have outpaced the 614 million population growth in the Third World - but the end of the Decade will see 300 million more people without sanitation than when it began.

Judged against its own performance criteria, therefore, it is easy to see why some will label the Decade a flop, particularly as the UN's then Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, announced at the time that the goal was 'eminently achievable'. When the UN General Assembly takes stock of the Decade's achievements in November, no-one will repeat the boast. One of the early lessons was that setting unrealistic targets is counterproductive. All the Decade players - donor agencies, project managers, technical experts - have been struggling throughout the 1980s to escape from the notion created by the hype that anything short of facilities for everyone would represent failure.

As things turn out, the high priests of the water and sanitation ('Watsan') creed are unanimous that counting up new installations isn't a fair way to evaluate the Decade. Most of the 'safe water supplies' referred to in the old statistics were out of order, in disrepair or abandoned. Installing many more of the same would hardly have been a great leap forward.

India provides a classic illustration. In the mid-1970s, UNICEF undertook a survey of the rural water-supply programme in which it had been investing heavily since the turn of the decade. With understandable horror, it discovered that 80 per cent of the pumps installed were out of action. This prompted a quest for a sturdier, less breakable handpump and for a system of maintenance reaching right down into the village byways.

Within 10 and a bit years, the rural water-supply situation has been transformed. Everywhere in the countryside the distinctive shape of the 'India Mark Two' now rears its pumphead. In 1980, just under a third of the country's villagers, or 162 million people, had a safe water supply. By the end of 1990, one and a half million India Mark Two pumps will have been installed, serving somewhere between 225 and 300 million people, or nearly two-thirds of Indian villagers.

Even more significantly, 80 per cent of the pumps are now in working order at any one time. This is not only a tribute to the durability of the Mark Two pump - nor even to the careful system of quality control the Indian Government has introduced, recognizing that orders for the pump are worth big money. It is also because local villagers have been trained in 'barefoot' mechanics and pump repair. The winning formula - appropriate technology, a standard pump manufactured in India, local maintenance, political commitment - is an extraordinary success story, and typifies many of the Decade's 'lessons learnt', as no doubt the participants in September's end-of-Decade Global Consultation in New Delhi will agree.

An expensive waste
The buzzword in the 'Watsan' sector - a buzzword borrowed from the environmentalist lobby - is 'sustainability'. Everybody now recognizes that past policies left a legacy of expensive and inappropriate water systems all over the developing world. And this has led to an era of unprecedented collaboration among aid organizations: the 'big four', the World Bank, the UN Development Programme, the WHO and UNICEF; government donors; and the voluntary aid agencies such as Oxfam and WaterAid. The symbol of the broken-down pump and the unused latrine has brought all these different members of the aid industry together in a way that makes for an interesting case study in itself, so unusual - sadly - is such a common sense of international purpose.

This collaboration has come about in an ad hoc way, gaining momentum rapidly during the later years of the Decade. It began in 1984, when GTZ, an official German aid agency, called a meeting to share ideas. Since then there have been many international get-togethers, leading to an astounding degree of agreement on the key ingredients for water and sanitation success.

In 1987, WHO and GTZ published a modest document entitled Global Sector Concepts for Water Supply and Sanitation. The concepts have no formal standing in any agency or government department great or small. Some contain elements of ideas that many experts and technicians would quarrel with. Controversy rages in such sub-areas of the field as whether water can actually improve health in a measurable way; whether water quality counts more than quantity; whether the thoughtless promotion of privatization can possibly help poor communities; and what kind of technology is truly appropriate, from the latest in geophysical resistivity meters to the ancient hand-dug well.

There are six key ingredients of success, according to the latest wisdom:

· Capacity to do what's needed. Public health engineering outfits must have the capacity - human, financial, organizational - to build and run systems; they need suitable training.

· Affordable and appropriate. Economically strapped governments cannot afford expensive repair bills; technology must be sturdy, simple and cheap, and its repair affordable by the community.

· Balanced development. Water - much more popular than sanitation - must go with latrines and hygiene education; investment must favour low-cost schemes not high-visibility public works.

· Community involvement. Schemes benefit enormously from community management, and women especially should be involved at all stages.

· Operation and maintenance. Systems must be designed with long-term maintenance and its cost to the community in mind.

· Co-ordination. Scattered responsibilities at the receiving end must be co-ordinated and there must be information-sharing among all parties.

Put all these ingredients together and you end up with a low-cost system that can be managed by the community and repaired locally - and, above all, is sustainable. The conversion on the Decade road is nowhere more clearly illustrated than at the World Bank where, amazingly, instead of concerning itself with high-technology urban filtration and sewerage-treatment systems, it took a leading role in a multi-million research programme to develop and test humble handpumps and latrines.

As the end of the Decade, the new technological solutions being promoted cost less than half, and sometimes a mere fraction, of those being installed when the Decade began. Many of these low-cost approaches were originally pioneered by the humanitarians such as UNICEF and Oxfam. It is mostly their thinking which is now dominating the international 'Watsan' crusade.

The juggernaut rolls on
As the Water Decade draws to a close, the international community, heady with achievement, still faces the challenge of how the pumps, pipes and pits are to be dug, drilled and laid in order to reach a new target: 'Health (and Water and Sanitation) for All by the year 2000'. Some Decade activists radiate the impression that it's a downhill roll from here on in, a simple question of 'we've got the tools and we've worked out what to do; now give us the money and we'll finish the job'.

In fact, the growth of the collaborative juggernaut has now become almost too much of a good thing, and fears are being raised in some quarters that it represents a power base from which 'the big four' UN donors can force their directives down recipient countries' throats. A newly formed Collaborative Council of 'External Support Agencies' embracing all the international partners is adamant that the opposite is true. Their efforts are aimed, they say, at articulating 'common approaches' so as to provide developing countries with sensible and co-ordinated help on request.

Those requests will keep on coming through the 1990s and beyond. For out there, in the neglected rural landscape and the squalid city perimeters of the developing world, many of the pumps, pipes and pits which must be constructed and sustained to bring 'Clean Water and Sanitation for All' are still on the far side of the horizon.

Brian Appleton is a technical writer specializing in water and environmental issues. He acted as rapporteur for the meetings of Water Decade donors in Interlaken, The Hague and Sophia Antipolis.

 

The long walk is over
The UN Decade is not all 'targets' and 'consultations'
- it has changed some people's lives utterly.

Mwanaisha Mweropia, a 23-year-old mother of six from Mwabungo village in the Kenyan district of Kwale, used to make seven journeys a day to a well some distance away. There was always a line at the well, even at dawn, and the rule was that no-one might draw a second bucketful without joining the queue again. Everyone quarrelled and women with large families - which was most of them - were constantly tired. Mwanaisha coughed perpetually and had chronic chest problems.

In 1984 her life changed when the Kenyan Water for Health Organization (KWAHO) installed an Afridev handpump in Mwabungo - part of a special project to drill boreholes and install pumps in more than 100 local communities. Rainfall in this arid coastal area is seasonal and most streams and traditional wells dry up. Women were trekking long distances to dig in dry riverbeds. The picture is a familiar one in Africa where 60 per cent of women engage in grinding strain and hours of labour to produce a few miserable bucketfuls of water - which are often unsafe to drink.

Not only is the Afridev handpump much closer to Mwanaisha's home and far less onerous to operate but the water is safe and her cough and chest pains have disappeared. The local KWAHO community worker, Mwanauba Omar. says that all water-related disease has declined. Before the project, schistosomiasis used to claim around 10 lives a year in Mwabungo alone and cholera was not unknown. Schistosomiasis, called tego, used to be blamed on adultery. No-one has died from it recently. And the number of diarrhoea cases has dropped by half.

The striking feature of KWAHO's programme, which has attracted much international attention during the Water Decade, is the degree to which it is focussed on women. The organization was inspired by women, is mostly run by women, and has fully involved women in the villages.

The Water Ministry drills the boreholes, which at up to 50,000 shillings ($3,125) each are the most expensive part of the pumps. KWAHO gives the pumps and knits people together. Each community collects money - a shilling (six cents) a week per family - for repairs and replacements. To Mwanaisha Mweropia it is a small price to pay for a better, healthier life.

Winnie Ogana / Panos

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