With diarrhoea the biggest killer of children in Africa, the urgency of the water and sanitation crisis on the continent is hard to question. But while
some NGOs are calling on African governments to make water and sanitation integral parts of their national public health strategies, and fund them accordingly, the African Development Bank (AfDB) announced this week that closing the continent’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure gap requires new investors and paying customers.
Leading a special session on “financing instruments in water for growth and development” at this year’s Africa Water Week summit, the bank said that an estimated annual $45bn-$60bn (£28bn-38bn) is needed to improve Africa’s water infrastructure – of which $11bn (£7bn) is flagged for the continent’s drinking-water supply and sanitation needs.
“Financing from official development assistance [ODA] and national budgets is clearly not sufficient to close the financing gap in the water and sanitation sector,” said the bank, which is urging governments and water sector professionals to make their countries and their programmes more attractive to other investors.
In the run up to the UN summit on the millennium development goals in New York in September, the UN estimated that the total amount of overseas aid to developing countries will fall by around $108bn (£68.5bn) in 2010.
What’s more, the optimism that once accompanied ODA (the official term for aid) has faded fast in the years since the 2005 Gleneagles summit, when G8 members projected that aid to Africa would double by 2010.
“Africa will receive only about $11bn out of the $25bn increase envisaged at Gleneagles,” said the UN.
To fill the shortfall, the AfDB believes money can be tapped from greater user contributions, savings from utility reforms, private sector investments and contributions from private foundations.
They also point to micro-finance as a possible mechanism for funding water services at a local level, along with climate adaptation funds.
Commercial finance, says the bank, can help to fill the gap between demand and the resources available from government budgets and aid, and is “perhaps the largest untapped source of finance for water”.
Meeting with African governments, civil society organisations and representatives from the private sector in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week, the bank released two new reports on water and sanitation on the continent.
The first – a hefty, two-volume, 178-page report on “Water sector governance in Africa” – signals weak governance as a main reason for poor water and sanitation services on the continent.
“Over 25 years have passed since the water decade and the truth remains that adequate cost recovery is still one of the major obstacles to maintenance and expansion of drinking water supply in developing countries,” says the bank, adding that charging for water was the only way to make infrastructure and services financially sustainable.
Human right issue
In July this year, the UN general assembly declared that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right.
But the bank argues that it is a “misconception that rights entitle people to free water; instead, water and sanitation should be clean, accessible and affordable for all. People are expected to contribute financially or otherwise to the extent that they can do so”.
The issue is getting the prices right, not about whether or not a price should be charged, it seems. Instead of subsidising water for the poor, service providers should offer cheaper options, such as public toilets and bathing houses.
The bank states that subsidising water supplies and services distorts a customer’s understanding of the value of water and leads to waste.
But placing a price on water has a contentious history in Africa, as it has across the developing world.
Ten years ago, the World Bank-sponsored privatisation of the municipal water supply in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, prompted a series of mass demonstrations, later labelled the “Cochabamba water wars”. After months of protests, the government declared a “state of siege” before promising the repeal of water privatisation legislation, while the then World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, insisted that the public subsidy of water services only leads to the waste of resources.
In her book, Earth Democracy, Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva argues that it is a myth that people only value water once it is priced on the market.
“Women who walk 10 miles for water do not waste a drop, even though their water is not provided through market transactions.”
Meanwhile, South Africa’s experience with the privatisation of water services sparked widespread protests over the human cost of placing a price on clean water.
In 2000, a cholera epidemic broke out in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, infecting some 120,000 people and claiming the lives of 265. Local authorities in the province had previously set up a system of prepaid water meters to collect user fees. But the institution of the meters and the fees meant that many went elsewhere in search of water, with tragic results.
“Those who cannot afford to pay for water in advance from communal meters or have been cut off from services for not paying rising water bills are forced to seek sources in polluted puddles, rivers and canals that carry disease,” reported the New York Times in 2003.
“Privatisation is a new kind of apartheid,” added Richard Maholo, leader of the South African Crisis Water Committee.
“Apartheid separated whites from blacks. Privatisation separates the rich from the poor.”
According to WaterAid, 80% of African countries are off-track for the MDG target on sanitation. Half of the African continent is set to miss the target on drinking water. And every day 2,000 African children die from diarrhoea. It would be hard to deny that something needs to be done.
However, there will inevitably be concerns that the AfDB is using the urgency of the water and sanitation crisis in Africa to push through an agenda for the commodification of water and the privatisation of services. Is the stage being set for new water wars in Africa?