The Battle for Water – Access to water pays double dividends in conflict-affected states

Guest blog by Nathanial Mason, a Research Officer in ODI’s Water Policy Programme

This blog has also appeared on Alertnet here – http://bit.ly/11r9AiG

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Maper, on the outskirts of Aweil Town in South Sudan, is a host community in South Sudan, under stress from the influx of returnees from Sudan. Women return home after collecting water (2011, Layton Thomas/Tearfund)

‘Who is the government? Who are they? I have never seen them. They have not brought schools or clinics to the village.’

Frustration expressed by a Chef de Village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the lack of government-led development. Instead he turns to NGOs for help. But his questions also challenge NGOs, as well as aid agencies and the governments they aim to support. Immediate needs in a war-torn country like DRC are vast, and urgent.

In the long term these needs – for drinking water, sanitation, healthcare, and education – can only be met by a government that is trusted and able. Similarly the benefits of a water point, latrine or clinic can be undone if the local, root causes of conflict and peoples’ vulnerability aren’t addressed.

So how do you secure the double dividend: meeting immediate needs while making a positive contribution to peace and stability?

At the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) we’ve been working withTearfund, an NGO willing to ask this difficult question. It’s not the first time it has been asked, but good answers are few and far between. The question is also back on the table in a big way, thanks not least to the peacebuilding and statebuilding Goals agreed by some of the most fragile countries.

Funded by Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), we asked the question specifically for water supply and sanitation, drawing on evidence on the ground in South Sudan as well as DRC.

Today is World Water Day – it’s theme is ‘water cooperation’. Our researchfound that water, and water services, can exacerbate tensions in communities: for example in North Kivu, DRC, resentment sprang up between host communities and the army about who contributed to the maintenance of facilities. But through careful negotiation, encouraging the army’s constructive participation, Tearfund’s staff were able to address this.

In and of themselves, water supply and sanitation are no cure-all. Meeting other needs, such as for education and rule of law, provide more obvious routes to supporting peaceful, stable societies.  But there are local windows of opportunity in the way that water supply and sanitation are delivered.

So, as Alertnet has urged, let’s get in the spirit of World Water Day with some ways water (and sanitation!) can help reinforce cooperation within communities, and between society and the state.

VISIBILITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY MATTER

A first window of opportunity is in thinking through who is seen to deliver services. NGOs need to brand themselves to be accountable to communities. But where expectations are building for the government to lead service provision, they too need to play a visible role.

We found this in South Sudan, where the people interviewed tended to point to NGOs as their first point of call when things stopped working, rather than local government. In countries like DRC, where the state may be seen as absent at best, and predatory at worst, this is an even tougher dilemma. Still, gradually increasing the visible role for the state can be a goal in many situations.

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Potential tensions and trade-offs can arise when NGOs and donors are seen as most visible in delivering services. Aweil Town, South Sudan (2011, Layton Thomas/Tearfund).

A second window we identified is around the scope for collective action and collaboration. In more stable parts of South Sudan, Tearfund has adopted a ‘Church and Community Mobilisation’ approach. The aim is to engage local people and church leaders to lead communities in finding solutions to their own problems. The research suggests this community-driven approach is working.

Again, we’re not talking panaceas here: these approaches take time, which may be of the essence in emergencies. The long term impacts, in terms of better services and stronger community relations, need to be tested further.

WHO IS INCLUDED?

A third window of opportunity is to carefully manage the thorny issue of who is included and who is not when services are delivered. People move around in the aftermath of conflict and disasters, and we found the challenge was especially great in areas where displaced people and longer-term residents are living side-by-side.

As one resident in the Apada returnee camp in South Sudan put it, ‘the government has forgotten the returnee communities’. This points to the need to plan as best as possible for different users’ needs, but to remain responsive to the fact these needs change over time.

Many NGOs and relief agencies have good practice principles to minimise negative side-effects of their work. But we also need to consider the potential for positive side-effects, for local cooperation and community relations. Humanitarian organisations are rightly cautious about the messy politics involved – engaging too much with the wrong type of government, or stepping into community conflicts, can lead to loss of legitimacy or be seen as mission creep.

But there will always be a murky space between responding to humanitarian emergencies and longer-term development efforts. Tearfund have attempted to shine a light on this space, and their own practices.

The lesson for ‘water cooperation’? There will always be places where water resources themselves are at the root of conflict and cooperation, but it’s often the human part – the way water, and sanitation, are delivered – which we need to address.

 

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