Our second guest blog for the STEPS Water Symposium is by Gourisankar Ghosh. Gourisankar is the CEO of FXB India Suraksha, a non profit company working for the vulnerable children affected or infected with HIV AIDS. Till recently he was the Executive Director of Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) at the World Health Organisation. He was the plenary keynote speaker on sanitation in the WSSD, Johannesburg and subsequently a member of the UN MDG Task force on water and sanitation. He was the founder director of the National Drinking Water Mission, India (1986-1991), and the main organiser on behalf of the Indian government for the New Delhi Consultation in 1990, when he also chaired the drafting committee of the New Delhi statement.

More than three decades have passed since the beginning of the first International Water Decade in 1980. This is a time for reflection and to evaluate where we stand. The past 30 years have seen a large number of international conferences, regular World Water Fora, and a mushrooming of initiatives from international agencies. What are the lessons from the way water has been handled over that time?

Sad to say, the collective action on water which came out of the International Water Decade has now almost disappeared in the international development scene. All the major international agencies try to pursue their own goals without a collective effort or common messages. In spite of many discussions, there is no common road map shared by agencies competing to capture donor funds for their programmes. International efforts have moved away from research, new innovations, and investment in technology. For more than three decades, the same methodology has been pursued by the different lead agencies without any tangible result on the ground.

The success of the first decade was in its agreed focus on finding low-cost solutions and technologies; the application of these at grassroots level through community frameworks; and a collective effort between the private and public sector to find solutions. Since that decade, the focus on technology has almost disappeared – yet therein lies the main tool and empowerment for the poor and powerless. Development and marketing of hand pumps was a wonderful effort of private-public partnership. Hand pumps helped to eradicate the guinea worm. They also, for example, empowered tribal women in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan in India to be “cycle army” volunteers; the KWAHO women of Kenya took their solution in their own hands; and in the Philippines, slum dwellers introduced improved sanitation in remote districts. But what happened to the numerous case studies as collected at a very high cost by the agencies – and how much have they helped to transform the policies in the respective countries? Do agencies need to change their own policies first before they start preaching to poor countries?

These question should be answered from the donor end. Are these lead agencies perfect or perfect enough to lead for the tasks given to them by the many UN resolutions? Are they competent enough to face the new challenges of maintaining growth with equity? Can they conserve the environment without the harsh impact of the degradation due to over exploitation due to increasing demand for growth? Have they answered the basic questions (which remained unanswered at the end of the 1980s) on financial and institutional models? What will be the exact roles of the private sector, and how can scarce water resources still be treated as a national resource? How can we mobilize extra finance in an imperfect market with high risk factors?

The water market is imperfect. The capacities of the lead agencies are further imperfect. The time has come to open the door to a much active role for academic and research institutions. In the future, private commerce, business enterprises and associations, local bodies and civic society must play a major role in decision-making and in protecting the interests of poor consumers. More research and models are required, and support is needed for financing, institutional reforms and decentralization. There is no alternative to a clear National Water Policy and Action Plan.

Water is life: sanitation is a means to life too, and back then in Delhi, the importance of education and youth and environmental principles were recognised. The issue of integrated water resource management was highlighted first in the New Delhi Statement in 1990. The only solution now is to create a mass movement for conservation of water sources and ecosystems, and an improved immediate environment and protection of this scarce resource for the poor.

Water has a wide influence in the spectrum of development. Neglecting it will not only jeopardize people’s health, but also economic growth. While the demand for water is ever increasing, supply is limited. The real challenge will be to sustain the ever-growing urban centres, to develop pollution-free disposal of industrial waste, to manage the solid and liquid waste in large habitats, and to preserve river basins. The more pollution there is, the greater the cost for its treatment.

We need a complete rethink to reorganize action and look for new technologies. Unfortunately, those working on water remain isolated and end up largely talking to each other. We never see any finance, health or social leaders at the big water events or conferences. So we need to open up the sector and make water a central development issue. It is also time to learn lessons from the reforms in the power and forestry sector. Domestic water supply cannot be in isolation from water for agriculture or water for industrial development. If we want real and lasting change, water needs to move beyond its traditional boundaries.

Other Water Symposium blogs

>> Erik Swyngedouw: Thinking out of the water box

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