Why don't more NGOs work on water? Guest post from Dan Yeo, WaterAid

Daniel Yeo, Senior Policy Analyst at WaterAid (twitter handle @yukinosaru), indulges in some outrageously blatant lobbying about why Oxfam should do more on Dan Yeowater. A few weeks ago, Duncan posted his reflections on Oxfam’s discussions on water. As pleased as I am about Oxfam’s interest, it begs the question, why haven’t more development NGOs dived into water already?  We can all relate to water – and any traveller can tell you about bad water and poor sanitation, and water shortages cause problems even in developed countries.  Having the runs may make for a few embarrassing holiday anecdotes, but it’s no joke that diarrhoea is the biggest child killer in sub-Saharan Africa. Preventable diarrhoea associated with dirty water and poor sanitation kills more children than AIDS, malaria and TB combined.  And it’s not just kids – water is fundamentally a gender issue. Women and girls bear the biggest burden of WASH poverty – walking long distances in rural areas, queuing in line for hours in urban slums. Poor water, sanitation and hygiene undermines maternal and child health and nutrition. In education, 443 million school days are lost to water related diseases. Girls are more likely to stay in schools with separate female toilets. These failings in human development impose a cost on the economy, through lost lives, school days, work days and burden on health systems. The UN estimates that every $1 invested in water generates $8 in wider economic benefits. [caption id="attachment_7570" align="alignleft" width="199" caption="credit: Daniel Yeo"]credit: Daniel Yeo[/caption] Without water we have nothing. And that’s just water for drinking and health – water is also an economic resource – vital for food (70% of globally available freshwater is used for agriculture) – and livelihoods. It is a critical ingredient for industry – almost every manufacturing process needs water. Finally, it’s intertwined with energy – and not just through hydropower. Thermal power stations need water for cooling and for the steam needed to turn turbines. But water can also be a destroyer – witness the floods in Pakistan and drought in the Horn of Africa. The impacts of climate change will be felt through and on water – too much, too little and the wrong type (e.g. salty rather than fresh). All of this is not to say that having safe water is the silver bullet – but countries will make increasingly limited progress on health, education and economic development without commensurate investment in water and sanitation. So if it’s so important – why is water so often ignored? As with many things, it’s about sex and money. First, sexiness. Shit doesn’t sell. Water and sanitation engineers are seen as techy and boring – most people have limited personal experience of them and they are undervalued in comparison to teachers or doctors. (Declaration of interest: I’m an engineer by training! Although I’d prefer to think of myself as an engineer in the classical sense – a solver of problems, but that’s for another post…) Value. There is no money to be made in providing water – there are limited rent seeking opportunities. It’s not worth a lot of money and most people don’t pay enough for their water. Even in the UK only about a third of the population have a water meter. But it’s also about visibility. We in the North don’t think about water in the way that millions elsewhere do. We turn the tap, it flows. We don’t even think of it as something we pay for. Our water supply is so assured that we don’t even notice, so it’s hard to get people to think of it as an issue. You don’t see people dying of thirst, instead the tragedy of WASH poverty kills invisibly, mainly through diseases like cholera, where you literally shit yourself to death. Finally, it’s complex – water is linked to so many agendas that there’s often no focus and competition between water ‘sectors’, rather than making a case as a whole. The good news is that low cost, sustainable solutions exist, so it’s not a lack of technology – what’s missing is the recognition by politicians of the centrality of water and the capacity of governments to deliver sustainable basic services. To tackle the first issue, we need to make water visible. Fortunately, the wind is in our favour. Water is “cool” at the moment. Business and the media have begun to pick up on water – but as an economic resource, and largely driven by attention to climate change. There is a risk that the human dimension is again forgotten here, but we have an opportunity to use the oxygen of this attention to drive home the centrality of water to human development. Secondly, we need to work with governments to build a sustainable sector. The potential for change is huge if done right – the Liberian [caption id="attachment_7571" align="alignright" width="199" caption="credit: Daniel Yeo"]credit: Daniel Yeo[/caption] government, working with Liberian community representatives and through the Sanitation and Water for All partnership (SWA) have developed a credible national plan to deliver exactly this through the able leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The hope is that donors and NGOs will work to this common plan to make the most of their resources and drive a step change in eliminating WASH poverty. What could Oxfam do? It has the opportunity to contribute to both of these goals – to raise voices about the injustice of a solvable problem that, together with poor sanitation, is the biggest killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa; and more importantly to deliver – working with a range of sector specialists, like WaterAid, to create a step change in progress. Duncan’s reflection looks at Oxfam’s potential programming and work around water (in addition to their existing work) – but rather than ‘do WASH’, Oxfam should do what it does best – speak up for the voice of the poor in global scarcity. You’re already halfway there with the GROW campaign – food, energy and water are linked by the same dynamic, a focus on scarcity rather than solutions to secure access for the poor. Oxfam could also work with others to drive change that takes the energy that exists around scarcity issues and uses it to drive real change for the poorest around the world. Oxfam’s breadth means they are well-placed to act as common ground and to help others cross boundaries: between professions (humanitarian/development); across sectors (water/health/education/livelihoods); within sectors (WASH/Water Resources). And, lastly, Oxfam needs to push its advocacy weight behind the global End Water Poverty campaign and give the same priority to water as the poor do. What all of this can do is to deliver what really matters – whole solutions that work on the ground to make people’s lives better. So what are you waiting for? C’mon in, the water’s warm… For further information, WaterAid has published the ‘Off-track, off-target’ report and launched the Water Works campaign. ]]>

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


9 Responses to “Why don't more NGOs work on water? Guest post from Dan Yeo, WaterAid”
  1. Leslie Morris-Iveson

    Hi Dan
    Thanks for this interesting post. I agree that the enormity of issues related to lack of access to WASH creates space for competent and experienced NGOs to be involved in the WASH. At Oxfam Reflects we saw a really interesting timeline which showed how Oxfam has been working in WASH for over 50 years. It was really impressionable to see the range of work taken place over the years – from working on irrigation and well projects for smallholders in Jordan in the 1960s, to low cost and sustainable WASH innovation and product development along the way (everyone in the field knows the Oxfam bucket and Delagua kit) to leading in developing technical standards for the sector in emergencies such as SPHERE. Since I’ve started this post I’ve been amazed at the range of cases which demonstrate innovative solutions on the ground. In fact just the other week Oxfam and WaterAid launched the publication “Managing Water Locally” (http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/managing-water-locally-an-essential-dimension-of-community-water-development-165794_) which was pioneered by Oxfam in Darfur and Niger – a great example of how communities can influence water resource management and improve water security through their own actions at the local level. Really interesting example in there about how a local women’s gardening group in Niger were instrumental in driving local response to drought.
    After the Oxfam Reflects meeting there was a clear consensus that Oxfam will continue to innovate on the ground and advocate for solutions – and that WASH will be a key area which Oxfam sees as defining poverty in coming decades in all 3 areas where Oxfam works (advocacy, humanitarian and development).
    You mention that we need to join our voice to End Water Poverty – I agree! As you know Oxfam is leading the WASH consortium of NGOs in Liberia which you mention, which has been instrumental in improving capacity to deliver plans to increase access to WASH. Some of our staff from the consortium and myself will be involved in the EWP planning meeting in December. But the lobby is noted… we will see what happens next!

  2. A different question. Why don’t more NGOs work on sanitation? Why is it always water first and then sanitation? Some of the world’s poorest are on track to have sanitation in 200 years. 2211? Is that right?
    And yet, as Daniel mentions it diarrhoea is the biggest killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa.
    Whatever you work on in development sanitation is still critical. Girls in school? When I worked on education I turned up to a school in Kenya after they eliminated school fees and millions came to school. Still in this school – no toilets, no girls.
    Vaccines? Repeated exposure to rotavirus can render the vaccine ineffective.
    Nutrition? Daniel’s right. OXFAM’s GROW Campaign takes on the complex. The expertise is there. But talking about food and nutrition and not talking about sanitation in a bigger way is more than a missed opportunity – it’s a massive blind spot. Hard to see how good nutrition can happen when cholera and other WASH related diseases mean children literally shit themselves to death.
    Water may be sexy now – but Daniel is right – its complex. Sanitation is just as complex because it touches everything in this way.
    To its credit WaterAid, Freshwater Action Network, The Water and Sanitation Collaborative Council, WASH United, the World Council on Churches and a few others have also stood up and talked shit to heads of state and other decision-makers. Sanitation and Water were finally acknowledged to be human rights.
    I respect OXFAM – and there are few better placed to join with those already wearing that giant poo costume and take on an issue of this complexity in a big way.
    Remember when some NGOs didn’t have an advocacy component? I want to look back and remember when some NGOs didn’t talk seriously about the largest killer of children in the poorest countries in the world.
    Full disclosure, my NGO doesn’t work on sanitation. But they obviously know what I think about that.
    And just for the record, I also know some pretty sexy water engineers. Just saying.

  3. David Taylor

    As Daniel says water is sexy at the moment, which makes this the perfect time to honestly explore the role of large scale NGOs in solving the water delivery problems being faced in the developing world.
    This post raises several interesting points which I think are worth exploring further. Firstly, is it really all about sex and money, about recognition and capacity? WaterAid and others have done a great job raising the profile of water and sanitation in the last few years and the climate change movement has provided even greater opportunities to wave the flag of taps and toilets in ever higher spheres of national, regional and global government. And what has happened as a result? More meetings, more workshops, more action plans, more money and generally more people in ever increasing positions of power standing up, joining hands and agreeing that ‘Yes, actually it would be a really good thing if everyone did have access to safe water and a safe place to go to the toilet’.
    If it really were about recognition then surely, by now, we should have seen an impact of this higher profile on the ground and in my experience this simply isn’t the case. Why is this? I would humbly submit that it’s because agreeing that it would be better if everyone had access to safe water and sanitation is not a contentious thing to do, it’s a lovely, heart warming thing to do and it makes us feel good that by agreeing that it’s important that we’ve done something to solve the problem. Standing tall and announcing that your dream is for all people to have access to safe water, will not put a drop in a glass for a single person who needs it. Developing countries often have small armies of public servants dedicated to these things. Lobbying the leaders of these countries to recognise water or sanitation of as a human right will not make these people any more effective in delivering these services.
    Water and sanitation is not like the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign where lots of people making a lot of noise and making themselves heard can bring about a dramatic policy shift bringing instant change. The vast majority of people, and this does include people in positions of power in the developing world, know, agree and would love water and sanitation for their populations. Standing up and saying it, however, usually only leads to another round of meetings and more talk.
    But, “It may lead to increased funding,” I imagine I hear you cry. And again I have to ask, Really? Tanzania’s Water Sector Development Programme (WSDP) is an interesting example of what can be done in a developing country, with donor support and supervision. It’s a good example because it involves a commitment of $1.2 billion dollars over 6 years and, although the problems in the sector are substantial, by any reckoning, that kind of money should be enough to have a quantifiable impact. A recent blog post did some analysis of a project under the WSDP which has spent $300 million on rural water supply and which looks on track to supply water to around 1 million people. This may be expensive but you could still look at that and say “Well at least 1 million people now have access to safe water”, which might provide a moment’s solace until you read the next line and learn that, in that same 5 years, the rural population of the country has increased by 2 million people.
    So, huge amounts of money do not guarantee quality results. It also requires that holy grail of development ‘Human Capacity’. The WDSP is implemented by the Tanzanian Ministry of Water and backed by the World Bank, KFW, DfID and a number of other donors. Tanzania takes a sector wide approach and holds a Joint Water Sector Review every year to consult with NGOs, CSOs, service providers, government bodies and other stakeholders. Amongst these there are smart, dedicated, educated, experienced people who spend hours in offices and in the field trying to supply people with better water and sanitation. With a consultative environment, money and qualified individuals how then do we end up in a situation where so much money is being spent and so little achieved?
    Which leads me to addressing the elephant in the blog post ‘There is no money to be made in providing water – there are limited rent seeking opportunities’. Again, I’m going to have to say, Really? Firstly lets look at the idea that there is no money to be made in water. Although for most rural water schemes cost recovery is a far off dream there are cases where reasonable returns can be made by small scale private operators. WaterAid published a really interesting paper, in which they detail small scale private operators making profits of over 1.9 million shillings (over $1,000) a month. This scheme is, unfortunately, an outlier in two significant ways. The first is that it’s operator is making a profit, the second is that is it a real private operation with no interference from local government or village committees. I’m not suggesting that all private schemes could make this much money but it is a model which most NGOs and donors shy away from and do not invest in.
    It is easy to see why people could have a strong negative reaction to the idea of someone in a village making, $1,000 a month from their fellow villagers. But, these scheme do seem to have one huge advantage over classic, NGO style ‘Community Ownership and Management’ and that is… SUSTAINABILITY. It is often thought that having a safe, clean supply of water would be incentive enough for people to organise themselves into a fully functioning cooperative capable of proper financial management, book keeping, procurement of parts to keep schemes running and enough technical skills to maintain a water scheme. This myth, lovely as it is, cannot be born out by the real world, or by the thousands upon thousands of “community owned” water points abandoned every year because they are not properly maintained. Private operators, making money from supplying water in rural areas, simply have a much bigger incentive to keep the extraction scheme working than the community management team who can always think of other things which the money could be spent on. If private operators can provide water which is both sustainable and affordable why are they so often ignored by NGOs. Surely providing a proper regulatory environment for them to work in would be a much more productive use of resources than training another Village Water Committee which will have far stronger incentives to use the money collected from the water scheme to pay for a new classroom for the school, hire a doctor for the clinic or pay for the funeral of the Committee Chair’s sister. The reality of many of these rural communities is that the eventual breakdown of their water pump is a far distant concern compared with the pressing needs of today. Why should a village be expected to have the skills to run a miniature water company after a cursory attempt at ‘capacity building’ would that seem a reasonable thing to ask of a village community in the UK?
    Secondly, ‘there are limited rent seeking opportunities’. With water programmes worth $1.2 billion around where are the lack of opportunities for rent seeking? Why should water be immune from such an endemic problem? For any project of this magnitude, procurement of supplies alone could provide enough opportunities to ‘eat’ to buy a fleet of new land cruisers! Just because someone recognises water as a human right doesn’t mean that they’re not going to ask for their 10%.
    More money and more recognition are only going to have an impact if they are used in the right way and so far I’m not convinced that NGOs are going to be the drivers of real change operating as they are. The simple fact is that the people who should be delivering these services are the governments of the countries which are suffering from the problems. NGOs and donors can increase aid, change spending priorities and even reshape how countries policy environments. What they have so far failed to do is learn from their own mistakes, seriously address corruption in the sector, properly monitor the huge amounts of money that are thrown into the sector, ensure that communities can hold the service providers and governments accountable and properly engage with the private sector.
    Until these issues are addressed all the sex and money in the world aren’t going to address these problems.

  4. I think your final message is interesting here Daniel, but you could have been clearer on the real problem when you talk about WASH being not sexy enough… it’s more that the long-term political negotiation and institutional development are not sexy enough compared to building photogenic new water systems (obviously this is covered in the full report you link to).
    Stef Smits had a good discussion on this: http://waterservicesthatlast.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/is-the-water-sector-sexy-enough/

  5. Mtega

    My frustrations with WaterAid’s continued inability or unwillingness to see and address the real challenges of water supply are only reinforced by this post.
    If you listen to what WaterAid says, particularly when targeting a Western/Northern audience, the problem is just about money – spend more and more people will get water. Sometimes they’re asking people to give that money to WaterAid, other times they’re asking donors to allocate more money to the sector, but the basic message is the same: more money more water.
    Of course there is an element of truth in that, but it hides a reality that is far more complex – as David Taylor describes in his earlier comment. In particular, politics are key, in terms of how developing country governments allocate resources, how they manage funds, how they report to their citizens on their work, and how citizens are able (or not) to lobby for new or improved services. And yet WaterAid has always shied away from a more political approach.
    In Tanzania, the massive Water Sector Development Programme has fallen a long way short of its potential despite the huge amounts of money pumped in. Why? Because donors and government both have an interest in keeping the money flowing, in making decisions behind closed doors, and in keeping a lid on bad news. And because there has been almost no media coverage or parliamentary discussion of the programme, (and little from civil society), which allows business-as-usual to carry on far longer than should be the case. In short, anything that smacks of politics has been kept of the WSDP, leaving the engineers and planners largely unaccountable. Surprise, surprise, the result is a mess.
    Credit to Oxfam for recognising the importance of politics to development long before most of its peers, and focussing serious efforts on public education in the global north and on empowerment in the global south. Shame on WaterAid for continuing to drag its feet on this.

  6. Great to see the reactions to this piece.
    Leslie – I’ve been a bit glib in implying that we don’t work together, of course we do and the CBWRM work is a great example of that. I guess my two main messages for Oxfam are:
    – You do great work on humanitarian WASH, but why isn’t WASH integrated into health and education programming? We’d love to work with you on that 🙂
    – Why aren’t you making a bigger noise about the centrality of water to development?
    Kolleen – Agree, but sanitation is on the rise!
    David – yes, I agree with you that change on the ground is what counts. I obviously wasn’t clear enough that by “political will” I don’t mean yet more pronouncements, but politicians putting their money where their mouth is and allocating time, attention and resources to WASH as part of their national development plans.
    On the rent-seeking/money-making point – I agree that a thriving domestic private sector is a key part of change (and we need to do more on this), but I was referring more to rent and profit opportunities for politicians and their support bases. Rent opportunities in getting water to the poor pale into insignificance in comparison to large infrastructure (water or otherwise).
    Finally, on the role of government, I totally agree that it is their responsibility, which is why NGOs should do more to build capacity on all the things you say (monitoring, accountability) – happy to talk to you more about these areas.
    Stephen – thanks for the link, interesting reading.
    Mtega – Thanks for the feedback. It’s a bit worrying to hear that the advocacy message that’s coming through from WaterAid is only about more money. This is explicitly not the case. Of course there’s a need for more public finance, but our advocacy focus is on the politics and delivery of water on the ground – how existing finance is better targeted and delivers results, which is why we work on both building the sector capacity and on lobbying for greater priority for WASH. I don’t say anything about spending more money in my post. The key point here is that we need to improve capacity and planning – which involves addressing the underlying politics. I don’t know the Tanzania context in great detail but would agree that politics is central to change – particularly on transparency, monitoring and accountability. I would agree that WaterAid, and all development actors, need to think about the political-economy of WASH in our work, but we are already doing some good work on this front (such as in Liberia). In fact, the whole SWA partnership tries to take a political-economy approach by bringing in the powerful actors and speaking their language to get them engaged in WASH. WSP recently published a good report on the political economy of sanitation that highlights some experiences in this area.
    Thanks all for your responses and your contributions to the issue (although it would be good to have more non-WASH people engaging…) – and thanks to Duncan for inviting me to blog and being such a good sport. Blogging is about generating debate after all 🙂

  7. Laura Hucks

    I am disappointed to see the unhelpful responses to your blog, Dan. Having worked for WaterAid in Tanzania, I know that an enormous amount of work has been done to engage critically with the Water Sector for the past 10 years, both at a local and national level. While WaterAid doesn’t always get things right, we have successfully managed a complex relationship with the Government and donors whilst trying to engage and support the efforts of local organisations. Mtega says that politics have been kept out from the Water Sector Development Programme. I say, open your eyes! Politics run through the WSDP, and staff at WaterAid in Tanzania are well aware of this. As for ’empowerment’, let’s get over ourselves shall we, and maybe credit the people of Tanzania with some agency and initiative?

  8. Mtega

    Thanks Dan and Laura for engaging with my earlier comment. I would like to clarify one thing in response.
    My intention in citing Tanzania’s WSDP was to give an example of what can go wrong when political accountability is kept out of water programmes. It wasn’t intended as criticism of WaterAid Tanzania in particular, as the avoidance of politics was led by the Ministry and the programme’s big donors rather than WaterAid Tanzania, which does recognise the importance of politics and has tried to go against the flow and promote accountability.
    I do still disagree about politics and Tanzania’s WSDP, however. Media coverage, parliamentary and local council engagement, and attempts to promote popular awareness of the programme have all been minimal.
    My criticisms of WaterAid were intended primarily at the international level, in terms of the simplistic messages carried by both fundraising and advocacy materials (including this blog post).