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(This debate is closed and is a read-only archive)
What is the best way to improve access to water in the developing world?
Hand pumps are not good enough
[10-Jul-2003]
'The solutions on offer do not address the causes of poor water access - the need for serious development.'
Ceri Dingle
director, WORLDwrite
It is a sad indictment of our times that in the twenty-first century, people in the developing world cannot access safe water and are filling bowls from streams, queuing at village pumps and defecating in 'free range ' toilets. The problem of piped water and sewage disposal in the UK was solved over 150 years ago. Even the Romans had a working sewage system and did not have to dig a hole in a field.

Depending on which doom-merchants you read, 1.1billion people (WaterAid) or 2.3billion (World Resources Institute) don't have access to safe drinking water. Water watchers predict that by 2025, 3.5billion people may lack access to safe supplies. One of the few resources that isn't going to disappear anywhere except down the toilet and out again is, we are told, going to be in seriously short supply. Given that we use less than one percent of the total water sloshing around the planet, it does seem bizarre to suggest we are faced with shortages. The issue is not water shortage, of course, but access to water.

Rather than spurring investment, badly needed infrastructural development, and technological innovation to solve the problem for the developing world, the urge is to consume less, preserve and conserve. Sadly, the purveyors of apocalyptic statistics and panics eschew science and the technology that could so easily solve the water access problem. Their advice is to steer clear of big bold schemes that offer developing countries modern Western-style water provision and comforts as this could make for even greater water shortages.

Yet developing countries lack access to safe water supplies not because of Western water profligacy, our love of swimming pools, garden hoses and bidets, or due to 'water stress' or depleted aquifers and ground water supplies, but because of underdevelopment and poverty.

At the Johannesburg Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002, which was supposed to address poverty, water was one of the few issues that world leaders could agree on. The summit agreed to 'halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water'. This has been praised by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for putting water preservation and management targets on the agenda.

But what do they propose? Small plot irrigation and treadle pumps, recycling waste water, and pit latrines. What great leap forward is this for the developing world? In 1990, the UN declared that the right to water is a human right - and promptly took up the promotion of hand pumps. It seems we have moved no further ahead and the solutions on offer do not address the causes of poor water access - in other words, the need for serious development.

It seems that many NGOs cannot envisage an end to global inequality. They cannot conceive of, or even aspire to, everyone enjoying Western levels of development and comfort. Instead, to address the lack of access to water they advocate, as UNICEF does, 'small, cheap and sustainable solutions that protect the environment'.

Western NGOs and UNICEF delegates of course do not queue to pump their water from a well and carry it home on their heads. They wouldn't dream of it, but are perfectly happy to advocate it for their global peers. WaterAid even boasts of the small amount needed to solve the unsafe water situation: 'for 15, WaterAid can provide a person with safe water, adequate sanitation and knowledge of good hygiene practices'. Clearly, 15 won't provide for piped water into homes, major reservoirs, flushing toilets, power showers or any of the basic bathroom facilities we take for granted. Who decided that simply getting 'safe water' should be an end goal?

WaterAid also provides voluminous technical detail on varieties of small-scale pumps which involve as little skill or knowledge as possible to ensure local communities can cope with them and don't need any skills. NGO aspirations are depressingly low for the developing world and often prescribe projects that we would never accept in the West.

Pathetic campaigns like Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All (WASH), set up by the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), together with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, are heralded as a great step forward. WASH, planned for 30 countries, involves a locally-made kiddies playpump, a WASH t-shirt, a 'Working for Water' environmental booklet on water-hungry weeds and a 'cholera roadshow' forming a low-cost awareness campaign to promote the simple acts of handwashing and weeding. This campaign, recently launched in KwaZulu-Natal province, was celebrated by the WSSCC as 'a landmark event, not just for this country but also for other nations which are plagued by the devastating impacts of the lack of adequate water and sanitation'.

Three million people die annually from water-borne diseases. Yet there are no plans for major international investment in water purification, and sewage plants. 'Small, cheap and sustainable solutions that protect the environment' can only mean the status quo for millions in the developing world. Grand schemes including desalination are written off as too expensive but are perfectly possible, as Israel has proven. The Three Gorges scheme in China is derided for the cultural artefacts that may be lost and the destruction of habitat for the Yangtse dolphins.

Big, it seems, is the new Bad, regardless of people's needs and the technological possibilities. Instead of investigating complete solutions, we are told that we should think small, feel guilty and consume less. WaterAid, for example, tells us that 'one flush of your loo uses as much water as the average person in the developing world uses for a whole day's washing, cleaning, cooking and drinking'. Even in wet Wales, the advice from the Centre for Alternative Technology is to fill your washing-up bowl only half full and use a 'dry' toilet.

In most Western countries we do not have a 'water access' problem. Our using less water will make no difference whatsoever to anyone's plight in the developing world. Adopting the prevailing low horizons, however, will have an impact. It is guaranteed to make things difficult for countries like China that are thinking 'big', and hold back the development that could so easily solve the water problem in the developing world.

Economists have pointed out that all the water problems in the world could be solved with what was spent on the war against Iraq. They have a point. Sadly NGOs and environmentalists who oppose warmongering share Bush and Blair's diminished faith in people, modernity or any future vision.

This is not rocket science. The problem is not water shortages and there needn't be an access issue. The real problem is the lack of will to replicate what works for us in the West.

Ceri Dingle is director of WORLDwrite, a UK-based education charity.

Archived list of responses

Debate home
The head-to-head
WaterAid
water provision charity
Ceri Dingle
WORLDwrite
Commissioned responses
Clive Carpenter
Nicandro Porcelli
Anthony Turton
Reader responses
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