Let us make water and sanitation a reality for all the destitute of AfricaBy JAMAL SAGHIR | Tuesday, May 1 2012 at 10:17
Dirty water and poor sanitation sicken and kill tens of thousands of people each year in sub-Saharan Africa, and impose a heavy economic cost on countries equal to 1.4 per cent of the GDP in some countries.
No one should accept this situation as destiny. We can change it.
Since access to potable water and sanitation was first recognised as a Millennium Development Goal in 2000, budgets for water and sanitation have grown in much of Africa.
But bigger budgets and more spending have not appreciably expanded access to services in most countries.
This is because the continent’s population continues to grow strongly, the extra public financing is not being effectively spent, too little is being done to maintain existing water facilities and infrastructure, and water systems in countries embroiled in conflict have been destroyed.
Recently, the World Bank and Unicef co-hosted a high-level Ministerial Dialogue on Sanitation and Water to take stock of the water and sanitation situation around the world.
This was a vital opportunity for governments, donors, civil society, the private sector, and other key partners to confront the stark truth that safe water and sanitation in Africa remain out of reach for the poor.
In a recent World Bank study of water and sanitation services in 15 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, we found that public spending still falls considerably short of government commitments and of international and national policy goals.
On average, governments spend $1.71 per person on water supply and sanitation. This corresponds to less than half a per cent of gross domestic product and is five times lower than what is estimated to be needed each year to meet MDG targets.
We also found that actual patterns of spending stand in stark contrast to the economic and social rationales behind such spending.
Too small a share of available funds is spent to expand poor people’s access to essential services and to address the health and environmental problems created by unsafe water. Too little is spent on maintaining the water supply infrastructure. Too little is spent on sanitation, which saves lives.
Too great a share of public funding goes to subsidise water for richer citizens who can afford to pay unsubsidised prices. Too great a share is wasted by inefficient utility practices such as over-staffing and under-billing, just to name several problems.
Targeting public spending to the poor will call for well-off citizens to pay for the water they use. Water and sanitation cannot develop sustainably until the wealthy begin paying for their services so that public financing can be directed to where it is needed most, to improve the lives of poor people.
Low utility tariffs are a major issue. However, before making changes to tariffs, utilities should improve efficiency by addressing low billing and collection ratios.
While many African governments have updated their water policies, they have been less effective at putting them into practice, with national and local governments unsure about what their duties should be.
Tanzania, a notable exception, has embraced a decentralised approach to water and sanitation where national government transfers to local governments reached nearly 40 per cent of the water budget in 2008, up from zero in 2005.
Only two thirds of water and sanitation budgets are actually spent. To improve budget execution, government capacities in project management, especially at the local level, will need to be strengthened to make well-intentioned plans succeed.
Fortunately, we found some positive examples. For example, Benin has combined reforms of public expenditure management, while developing new investment programmes.
Donors helped the government to improve its management and implementation capacity so that the allocated budget was actually spent within a budget cycle.
Between 2001 and 2008, the number of new water points built annually surged more than fourfold.
Meanwhile, better budgeting and greater transparency in public financing persuaded several donors to increase their funding to Benin.
Finally, we found that donor funds were often badly targeted and unpredictable, resulting in execution rates that are lower than those of internal resources.
Donors need to work together more closely and organise themselves behind a country’s water and development plans.
Mr Saghir is director for Sustainable Development in the World Bank’s Africa Region.
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