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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Flushing money down the toilet?

So Bill Gates has actually been flushing his money down the toilet – as the BBC reports here! In between addressing malaria, TB and other killer diseases, Mr Gates has been trying to re-invent the toilet – an endeavour that has received a good deal of media coverage recently, with good reasons too.

The current flush toilet doesn’t make a lot of sense –about 10 litres of drinking water are used when flushing a toilet and then the waste has to be filtered out. This is followed by the challenge to then clean up the water again to a quality that can be drunk – or flushed down the loo once more…

The competition stipulated that designs did not require running water and was especially aimed at countries where piped water to that volume is a constant challenge. The entries to the competition were quite something – with the winner being a solar-powered toilet that can generate hydrogen gas and electricity.

Sanitation, or lack of it, is a problem faced by over a third of the world’s population. The statistics about the lack of sanitation in the world are both well rehearsed and shocking – 2.5 billion people lack access to a basic toilet and around 4000 children everyday die as a result of poor sanitation from diarrhoea.

It’s easy to forget the human story behind every statistic but I was strongly reminded on my recent trip to Ethiopia. I met 30 year old Aeylech Tomas who lives in village, Kisho, about 300km south of Addis Ababa. She talked about the fears she experiences everytime she has to go to the toilet – ‘I am always afraid that someone might see me. If the boys or men see us they might attack or rape us. I feel sad; this is not a good life.’

I am pleased to see that in between reporting on the various toilet inventions the The Gates Foundation have highlighted the health impacts of the sanitation crisis and I hope that some positive public awareness comes from this. For people like Aeylech, it is not necessarily a toilet producing hydrogen gas and electricity she needs, but somewhere safe and clean that will provide her with dignity. Let’s hope that out of this competition, positive public awareness is raised and that ultimately, lives like Aeylech’s can be radically transformed.

Why dialogue on diarrhoea?

‘Oh Stephanie NO, not while we’re eating our dinner!’

This is how the conversation usually goes when my parents make the mistake of asking me how my job is going over a family meal. I have become so used to discussing this subject, I forget that for most people it is perhaps more of an unrefined issue – certainly not a suitable topic of conversation during a meal at least.

But it IS a subject that we need to talk about – in fact we need to ensure lots of people talk about it. Rather than being embarrassed to discuss this over dinner we need to be embarrassed that in the twenty-first century diarrhoea is allowed to prevail as one of the top child killers in the world.

In fact we should be horrified.

Horrified that each year hundreds of thousands of children die from diarrhoea when we know how to prevent it and we know how to treat it. In 2009 UNICEF and the WHO laid this out in a 7-point plan – that brings together both the treatment (rehydration solution, Zinc) and prevention (water, sanitation, hygiene, vaccines and exclusive breastfeeding).

As straightforward as it sounds, to prevent people from getting it and give treatment once they have it, when it comes to policies and – most importantly implementing those policies – it is often challenging. Countries need to coordinate effectively between and within government departments responsible for water, sanitation, hygiene, and health. Dialogue and, most importantly, action is needed to overcome these barriers.

This is why Tearfund and PATH gave their new report the title ‘Diarrhoea Dialogues: from policies to progress’.

The report examines how three high-burden countries are addressing diarrhoea –Mali, Ethiopia and Zambia. It analyses both the opportunities and challenges in diarrhoea control. It concludes with recommendations that the international community need to shout about this issue and catalyse political will to give this issue the priority it deserves. Countries also need to review their policies and improve coordination.

When UNICEF and WHO re-launch their 7-point plan in March 2013, we need to ensure that it doesn’t simply get lost or put on a shelf, but it turns into action.

If we want to see lives saved and this avoidable suffering stopped we need to make a noise about this issue… even if it does make for an uncomfortable dinner time conversation.