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Overcoming the Danger Zone

April 05, 2012

On April 20, Ministers of Water and Sanitation from around the world will meet with their Ministers of Finance in Washington D.C. as part of the Sanitation and Water (SWA) for All High Level Meeting. There, they will discuss sector goals and progress, and it goes without saying that the recent announcement that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for water supply has been met five years ahead of the schedule will be cause for celebration. Between 1990 and 2010, over 2 billion people gained access to improved water sources, and the percentage of world population without access is now just 11 percent.

Yet it’s worth highlighting to both sets of Ministers that reaching the final 11 percent of the world’s population will be difficult and expensive. Who are these 11 percent (or 783 million people) without access to water?

We know that 80 percent of them live in rural areas, and nearly half live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Typically they are low-income, and live in the most difficult and precarious places to extend services: in remote and dispersed rural areas, in fragile States—and for the other 20%, in new slums around big cities of Africa. Hopefully, the Ministers responsible for Water, Sanitation and Hygience will acknowledge the coverage challenge.

At the same time, we also need to make sure that those who received coverage in recent years don’t lose it. The Rural Water Supply Network estimates that about 1 in 3 hand pumps in Africa don’t work; in India, around 1 in 3 communities experience slippage in services. And in Ghana, the WASHCost project found that 75% of people with nominal water access received sub-standard service relative to national norms. We also hope that the Ministers of Finance will acknowledge and raise questions about this sustainability challenge.

Clearly, we need to outsmart these two main challenges. But how? At the IRC, we thought it would be useful to see if there are any patterns in the expansion of rural water supply coverage that could inform discussions at and around the SWA.  

With help from the JMP, we analyzed trends in coverage in water supply between 1990 and 2010. Here’s what we found: countries with relatively low rural coverage rates of 50-70% at a given point in time experienced, on average, the highest growth rates over the next 5 year period. This means that in worse off countries, most progress can be made by investing in developing water infrastructure like boreholes and hand pumps that increase coverage, typically through traditional aid. It’s worth noting that work by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) has shown that a shift in aid delivery from donor-driven projects to country-led programmatic approaches, even in least developed countries, can strengthen delivery systems more cost effectively than one-off projects in this segment of countries.

Yet, once countries reach coverage of around 80%, about one third of the countries start experiencing stagnation, and in some cases, declines in coverage. What’s happening here? Most of these are middle-income countries, where the ones already served are improving their supplies with higher levels of service, such as piped supplies on their premises—probably partially at the expense of extending to the ones not served. In addition, the rate of new infrastructure and rehabilitation simply can’t keep up with the failure rates of the existing asset base. We’ve seen this again and again in our work, and have taken to calling this the sustainability the danger zone.

To avoid the danger zone, reducing the failure rate of existing water infrastructure is a priority. This includes giving service providers direct support, and deploying mechanisms for financing capital maintenance. Funders of water services need to find ways to cover these costs, because they aren’t insignificant: research by Triple S and WASHCost found that direct support costs around US$2-3 dollars per capita per year. Current expenditure is often well below that. For example, in Ghana, it is US$0.70 per capita per year. If Ghana raised its expenditure on direct support to US$2.50 per rural inhabitant, it would need to allocate $30 million per year in its budget—a not insignificant sum, particularly when traditional aid gets routed to address the coverage challenge only.

Basically, we’re facing a Sisyphusian challenge: if we emphasize achieving universal coverage to the final 11%, we risk the sustainability of existing services. At the SWA, we hope both coverage and sustainability are discussed, because the solutions are financial as much as sectoral: funders of new water supply too often ignore the costs of capital maintenance and sector support costs that allow for sustainable services.

 It would be beneficial to everyone if Ministers and Donors called on governments, funders, NGOs, and communities to outsmart the coverage and sustainability challenges together through planning, budgeting, and supporting all of costs of a water service.

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