The challenge to scaling up sustainably

The challenge to scaling up sustainably

Speaking  from experiences of tackling sustainability and decentralization challenges in South Africa, Jean de la Harpe, Senior Programme Officer International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) shared the challenges of scaling up sustainability of services at the  second Ghana Water forum in October 2010. The gist of this speech was "What has been learnt, what has and not worked''. 

In the early 2000s our Minister of Water Affairs attended a ceremony to celebrate a recently completed rural water project.  While he was giving his speech he saw a woman with a small baby carrying water from the river.  Of course he wanted to know why she wasn’t using the new scheme.  “She can’t afford it” he was told.  It was this incident that prompted our Minister to investigate options for providing free basic water and sanitation services to the poor.  Ultimately we established a new Strategic Framework for the sector.

The Millennium Report of 2000 states that ‘No single measure would do more to reduce disease and save lives in the developing world than bringing safe water and adequate sanitation to all.’  The consequences of this crisis are devastating.  Every day nearly 6 000 people die from preventable disease caused by pollution, dirty water and poor hygiene.  Of these more than 4 500 are children under the age of 5. This figure is so high - it is difficult to comprehend –  the UN compares it to 13 jumbo jets full of children crashing every day. 

 Given the urgency of the water and sanitation MDGs - why are we still facing so many challenges?

We live in a highly unequal world.  If we look at a map of the world at night we see those areas with the most economic activity - and those with the least economic activity.  What does this mean for Africa? Either we can look at it as the Dark Continent on the map, or as a continent with tremendous potential for economic growth and development. 

Africa is the world's second-largest and second most-populated continent.  With a population today of approximately 1 billion, it accounts for 15% of the world’s total population.  Over the next 40 years, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is predicted to reach 1.5 billion - this is a phenomenal number of people – with needs, with aspirations, and with growth potential.

We all know that Africa is not on track to meet the MDG targets. Some predict that at the current rate of progress, Sub-Saharan Africa will not meet the water target until 2035, and will not meet the sanitation target until 2108.  Although rates of progress vary amongst countries, where for example Ghana is on track for the water target, the poorest remain most off track and investments are especially low in these countries. 

What are the barriers to scaling up sustainably?

There are many barriers we are all familiar with: poor planning, inappropriate technologies and service levels, poor aid targeting, a focus on infrastructure rather than services, poor decentralization, weak sector capacity and accountability - and the list goes on.  These barriers have kept the sector trapped in a vicious cycle of low priority, insufficient investment and service delivery failure.

One of the biggest barriers to sustainability is the large financing gap between the estimated resources needed to achieve the MDGs and current spending. WHO estimates that developing countries need 72 billion USD per year to achieve the water and sanitation MDG targets.  Spending is way below these levels.  The consequences of this financing gap are insufficient maintenance, deteriorating services, weak institutions, inability to extend services to those without access.

There are ultimately only three sources of revenue that can help to close the financing gap and these are the 3Ts: tariffs, taxes, and transfers.  Loans and bonds need to be paid back and mainly serve to “bridge the gap”.

Different countries are choosing very different ways to finance their water sectors.  Some are almost fully financed through tariffs such as France and Austria.  Egypt and Ireland mostly use tax-based financing, and in the poorest countries, such as Mozambique ODA plays as major role.

South Africa’s strategy to address sustainability is to fully subsidise basic services for the poor through major grant programmes.  These include a Municipal Infrastructure Grant, a Capacity Building Grant and what is known as the Equitable Share which is a grant to support the provision of free basic services. 

The MIG is a demand driven approach where:

  • All infrastructure grants are integrated into one
  • Infrastructure planning is done by municipalities themselves
  • Funding allocations are linked to Integrated Development Plans (IDPs)
  • Communities participate in identifying projects
  • Capital grant allocations are predictable
  • Service delivery is decentralised to municipalities

The Equitable Share is the main subsidy for funding operating costs. It is an unconditional transfer to local government, based on the levels of poverty within the particular municipal area.  It is estimated that ES covers approximately 16% of the total operating costs - the majority costs should be covered through user tariffs – however many municipalities are not able to cover their costs.

Despite these subsidies and South Africa’s relatively high per capita income compared to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is experiencing delivery failures in many poor areas, both urban and rural. 

Whilst the situation varies considerably across the country, with some municipalities providing excellent services, other municipalities, particularly those in rural areas, are unable to sustain their services.  During the post apartheid government of President Mandela, South Africa launched a major Reconstruction and Development Programme to mobilize resources to redress the inequalities of the past. Water and sanitation services were high on this agenda and huge investments were made in infrastructure projects.  However today, some 15 years later many of these projects have collapsed and are back on the project lists for basic services.  Increasing maintenance backlogs are leading to the collapse of services. 

The sector is now questioning whether we decentralized too quickly.

We can compare this to an enormous bucket with a growing population.  As fast as we invest in the bucket, it is leaking at the bottom - instead of benefiting communities the investment is wasted. Some estimate that if services had been provided sustainably in the first place, universal coverage could have already been achieved for whole countries.

A study into hand pumps across Africa found that on average 35% were not functioning at any one point in time.  If we can’t sustain our existing services, how are we going to sustain new services?  This is a challenge the sector has to address.

Benjamin Franklin once said: "When the well is dry, (then) we know the worth of water."  But for Africa, when the well is dry, it is too late – the loss of human life is too high. How do we ensure that the well never runs dry?

 Sustainability is often spoken about like a ‘silver bullet’ solution – but what does it imply in practice? 

I’d like to propose a 7 point plan for scaling up sustainable water and sanitation services.

  •  Develop a clear water and sanitation policy.  This policy should set targets, define levels of service, clarify roles and responsibilities and provide a framework for planning, financing, supporting, monitoring and regulating services.  The policy should be realistic and address vertical integration from national policies and programmes to the point of delivery at community level.  To use an analogy – in soccer FIFA sets the rules, but the teams play the game.  If the rules don’t enable the team to score goals we don’t have a game – if policy does not enable sustainability  – we don’t have services. 
  •  Ensure effective financing strategies.  Sustainability is about increasing investment in the sector, efficient use of resources and financial predictability.  This means putting in place multi-year plans based on the targets and ensuring sufficient recurrent income to cover operations and maintenance.  Where tariffs are insufficient, other sources of revenue need to be found to close the gap. 
  •  Planning to address the targets and planning for service provision.  Targets at national level need to be disaggregated into targets for the local level and translated into sector plans.  Where are the unserved, what are the affordability levels, what is the most appropriate technology, what are the provision costs and who will be responsible for  providing the services?  Appropriate technologies and appropriate service levels are fundamental to providing services that the community can afford.
  • Using the sector wide approach to build a strong sector based on collaboration.  Part of this approach is putting in place one policy, one investment plan and one programme for the sector. It is basically an approach to work together with strong leadership, political commitment, donor alignment and harmonisation and results based management.  We also need to ensure horizontal alignment where different sectors work together so that development is integrated, rather than development through silos
  • Effective decentralisation.  Decentralisation must be supported extensively both in terms of financial resources and access to the right skills.  Local government should be in the driving seat of services delivery.  But to what extent should both infrastructure development and service provision be decentralized to the local level?    Many municipalities lack the skills, expertise, resources and staff to implement a municipal infrastructure programme.  In some countries it might be necessary to look at other solutions for implementing capital programmes so that the local level can focus on the actual provision of services.  While municipalities are trying to address the infrastructure backlogs, maintenance backlogs are growing. 
  •  The right institutional arrangements to ensure sustainable provision.  The rush to meet the MDGs has put too much emphasis on infrastructure and not enough emphasis on  service provision,  such as ongoing operations and maintenance, revenue collection, asset management, customer relations, and so on. One of the most important decisions in the service delivery cycle is the choice of water services provider.  Who is going to be responsible for provision, what are the best arrangements to ensure sustainable services? Government cannot always do it all alone.  Partnerships can bring in additional competencies and in some cases additional investment.  The challenge is to find the best mix of sector capacity, be it public, private, NGOs, CBOs, or a combination. This decision needs to take into account a whole range of factors such as geographical location, the technology and levels of service, the size of the scheme, the tasks to be undertaken, and the costs.  Too often communities are left to manage their schemes with little or no support and ultimately the service fails.   
  •  The right support the right time. We know that the capacity of the water and sanitation sector as a whole needs to be addressed – but especially at the local level.  Technical and capacity support cannot be left to ad hoc interventions.  Monitoring, lesson and knowledge sharing, sector governance training, technical skills training, mentoring, institutional support and regulation need to be budgeted for and addressed as part of sustainable services. 

In conclusion the most important message I’d like you to leave you with today is about how we measure progress.  Progress should not be measured by the construction of new facilities but by the ongoing provision affordable, efficient, effective and sustainable services that people are benefitting from.   If we don’t focus on the service we are providing, the quality, the quantity and the reliability of the service, we will soon be facing a much bigger backlog – the maintenance backlog. We are already facing a water and sanitation crisis – let’s avoid a much bigger crisis and ensure that we are bold in sustaining the achievements already made while we continue to scale up.  This Ghana Water Forum is dedicated to sustainability – it is an ideal platform to break down barriers and make the right choices for the water and sanitation sector. I look forward to learning the results of the next few days and I wish you all an inspiring and successful conference.