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Report Emphasizes Need for Public Involvement in World's Water Problems

Pat Bonner of the EPA forwarded this interesting press release to me the other day. On World Water Day 2004, a new report was released from the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council WSSCC. The report emphasized that the world’s severe water and sanitation problems will not be solved by “business as usual” – delivering solutions from the outside to communities who have had no involvement in, or ownership of, the process. An important report in its implications for public involvement. Click below for the full press release.



Geneva, 17 March 2004: The main barrier to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene for all is not a lack of resources; it is a lack of willingness to learn from past failures and to listen to those who have pioneered new approaches, so says a new report from the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council WSSCC.

With half of the world’s poor suffering at any one time, lack of water and sanitation is the world’s number one health problem. This year 2.2 million children will die as a result of water-borne diseases, according to WSSCC. In its new report called “Listening”, launched on 22nd March, World Water Day, the WSSCC criticises the international community for the most serious failure in development in the last fifty years: despite decades of effort and billions of dollars, 2.4 billion people still have no access to adequate sanitation.

At the core of that failure has been the attempt to ‘deliver’ solutions from the outside – usually in the form of installing hardware – to communities who have had no involvement in, or ownership of, the process.

“Today the key issue in water and sanitation is not, primarily, the availability of resources. It is the willingness on the part of those who allocate those resources to learn the lessons of both past failures and current successes. That is why the WSSCC believes that, at the present time, the greatest contribution it can make towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for water and sanitation is to listen to, and if possible to amplify, the voices of those who have felt the frustrations of failure, those who have helped pioneer the successes, and those who have lived and learnt the lessons from both”, says Dr Jan Pronk, Chairman of WSSCC.

The new WSSCC report is titled ‘Listening’ because that simple but fundamental step is the key to ensuring that billons more dollars are not misspent in the name of development. All contributors to “Listening” agree on advocating a new approach: based on working with and trusting local communities, focusing on the needs of households and supporting the reform of local governments and institutions.

Decades of failure

Over the last three decades, billions of dollars have been invested in water and sanitation – to very little effect. From India to Bolivia, Kenya to Nepal can be found the ruins of now-defunct water and sanitation programmes that have never yielded more than a fraction of the benefits expected.“Listening” asks why, after decades of effort and billions of dollars of investment, so little progress has been made. In answer, the report offers the voices of 40 people from Latin America, Asia and Africa who have spent their lifetimes working on water and sanitation and know what’s been happening on the ground.“No progress is possible,” says Jockin Arputham, President of India’s National Slum Dwellers Federation, until the urban authorities stop trying to hand down centrally planned solutions. The urban elites are still clinging to the notion that they are the greatest experts in solving problems faced by the poor. It is an attitude which has led to literally thousands of failed projects.

Almost all of the contributors to “Listening” would agree that the old approach to providing water and sanitation services is fatally flawed, and that simply pouring billions more dollars into a cracked vessel will not lead to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals but to more years of failure and frustration. Similarly, increasing the funds available for further large-scale, delivery-oriented infrastructures will achieve very little without a re-think of how and for whom such funds are to be spent. There are now signs that the seriousness of past, failed approaches is being recognised. The UN Millennium Goals, adopted by the international community to focus development efforts for the years ahead, include a specific commitment “to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water and the proportion of people who do not have access to basic sanitation.” The UN has also asked for a doubling of the resources available to reach these goals, including a doubling of international aid.

The almost unanimous judgement of the contributors to “Listening”, shared by the WSSCC, is that the water and sanitation goals are unlikely to be achieved by more ’business as usual’.

Measuring ends not means

Finally, there is at least one other common and revealing indicator of a genuinely new approach; it is that progress towards water and sanitation goals must be measured not by counting the number of taps and toilets and dividing them into the total population served, but by recording changes in use, behaviour, maintenance and above all improvements in health.

What can governments do?

Non-governmental organisations can pioneer new ways forward with a limited number of communities. UN agencies and aid programmes can bring to bear resources and international experience. But it is national and local governments – their priorities and policies, their attitudes and actions – that will determine whether known solutions are put into action on the same scale as the known problems. It is here that the battle of scale will be won or lost.

What has changed, in the view of most contributors, is that the primary action being demanded of governments is no longer the delivery of solutions or the subsidising of hardware. It is the facilitating of community-based action.

The first and most often-stated suggestion is summed up by one of Nepal’s leading campaigners for water and sanitation, Umesh Pandey: “If the primary concern of government were meeting the Millennium Development Goals and improving public health … it would be listening hard to all the good approaches being generated by the sector. And it would be taking a lead to form a more genuine plan of action.”

The wider potential

Sustained success in water and sanitation programmes depends on catalysing real demand and real participation. But the kind of demand and participation that is insistent and organised, the kind that punctures passivity and summons up self-confidence, the kind that liberates community determination and resources, is equally relevant to every other problem of poverty and community development. “Listening” makes it increasingly obvious that what is being discussed is a proposal for a new way of addressing not just the problem of water and sanitation but the problem of poverty itself.

The apparently mundane task of working towards improved water and sanitation can become nothing less than a platform for community development.

All contributors to “Listening” agree that this is an approach for which, by definition, there is no single formula for success. But it can be done. “Listening” provides details of where, why and how it has, and is, being achieved. It is about trusting local communities, their organisations, and those who work with them. It is about creating space and building local capacity by providing the kind of support that does not undermine confidence or take away initiative. It is, from a traditional top-down perspective, diffuse and ‘unmanageable’. But these very considerable demands and difficulties are balanced by the potential rewards. For both individuals and communities, it is an approach that offers more than taps and toilets. It offers dignity, pride, and hope.

The Water Supply and Sanitation and Collaborative Council (WSSCC) is a leading international organisation that enhances collaboration in the water supply and sanitation sector, specifically in order to attain universal coverage of water and sanitation services for poor people around the world. WSSCC was set up in 1990 through a mandate by the United Nations General Assembly to maintain the momentum of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-1990). Numbering over 1800, its members, comprising professionals from over 140 countries are working to make safe water and adequate sanitation a reality for everyone. The WSSCC Secretariat is located in Geneva and is headed by its Executive Director Mr. Gourisankar Ghosh.

WSSCC launches “Listening” officially on 22nd March, World Water Day, in London, Dakar, New Delhi, and Islamabad as well as on 26 March in Pretoria during the South African National Water Week.

Note to Editors: Hard copies of “Listening” will be available at the briefings and official launches; electronic copies will be available on 18 March on the WSSCC website www.wsscc.org/listening. Pre-order your hard copy of “Listening” from Cora Cipriano at: ciprianoc@who.int

For more information, contact:
In Geneva: S Bauer, WSSCC, +41 22 917 8674, bauers@who.int
In London: Tina Micklethwait, +44 20 7798 8934, consultingtina@hotmail.com In New York : Eirah Gorre-Dale; +1 914 309-5491; Eirahgd@aol.com In South Africa: Jay Bhagwhan, +27 12 3309042; jayw@wrc.org.za In Paris: Michel Aublanc; +33 1 69 286 286, michel.aublanc@wanadoo.fr In Bombay: Darryl D’ Monte; +91 22 2642 7088, darryldmonte@hotmail.com In New Delhi: Arun Varma, + 91 11 2468 2100, arun@teri.res.in

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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