By Phemo Kgomotso, IDS Phd Student

The editors of the IDS Bulletin titled ‘Some for All? Politics and Pathways in Water and Sanitation’, Volume 43, No. 2, March 2012 launched the publication at the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille, France on 15 March, 2012. In contrast to most of the Forum’s more formalised and rigid sessions, this was an effective, reflective and lively panel discussion.

It featured the STEPS Centre’s water and sanitation team members Jeremy Allouche, Lyla Mehta and Alan Nicol as well as prominent practitioners and thinkers in water and sanitation who also contributed articles to the Bulletin, among them Kamal Kar – the founder and chief driver of Community-Led Total Sanitation – foundation, Tom Slaymaker – senior policy officer at WaterAid, and Archana Patkar, Manager of the Water and Sanitation Collaborative Council’s (WSSCC) Networking and Knowledge Management Programme.

The session reflected on pathways in global water and sanitation discourse since the 1990 UN conference and New Dehli Statement- ‘Some for All Rather than More for Some’, the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE) held in Dublin in January and the June 1992 Rio Earth Summit. STEPS Centre panellists noted the significance of a three-year period from Delhi via Dublin to Rio, and how, during this short timespan, major shaping of water and sanitation discourse, policy and practice took place. The most significant step being a now notorious focus on the 4th Dublin Principle which proclaimed ‘Water as an Economic Good’.

The session reflected that various interpretations surrounding this statement had in many respects polarised debates, overshadowed progress made towards the provision of basic water and sanitation services, and focused the efforts of powerful institutions on advocating application more market-led approach to service delivery, including greater commoditisation of water as a resource.

This chimed with wider development trajectories in the 1990s during which state-led development was pared back overall and market-driven, private-sector options were given greater emphasis. With the observed failure of the private sector to engage effectively from the 1990s onwards and to support greater service provision, today over 2.6 billion still lack improved sanitation and nearly 900 million rely on unsafe drinking sources.

Panellists challenged the water and sanitation community to reflect on why the situation had not changed despite repeated global principles, declarations and targets. With the deadline for the 2015 MDG targets approaching, what the future may look like? Would the new global consensus on the human right to water prove a watershed in global citizens making claims on their governments to deliver on their rights? And with the MDGs as part of this emerging global consensus, whom do we hold accountable?

The panellists also reflected on the positive outcomes of the past two decades, in particular the increased attention to, and actions on, sanitation in global fora. This was also reflected at the sixth World Water Forum, with issues including menstrual hygiene on the agenda. The other positive development has been the declaration of water as a human right and discussion on whether the ‘Right to Sanitation’ should also be declared a basic human right.

The panellists highlighted the need to move beyond these achievements and successes and questioned whether the poorest of the poor and the truly marginalised are being reached, or if, in fact, there is still largely unequal provision. Should equity and sustainability be given far greater emphasis in the coming period, perhaps over the achievement of ‘numbers’ with access to water and sanitation?

The discussion reflected on the process of coming up with solutions, but in a critical way, and emphasised the issue of sustainability. As the forum focused on solutions and targets, the IDS team questioned what should be done next in the area of water management, and whether targets can bring about more sustainable solutions – or whether sustainability targets were in themselves now required. They posed the question of how we could achieve ‘Some for all’ in the next period, arguing that a focus on equity would be essential in combination with more integrated thinking if we are to really address the core problems of water supply and sanitation access.