States v Markets: Understanding Tajikistan’s Post-Soviet malaise through its drinking water

February 6, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

I don’t do much on water (as my pal Henry Northover at WaterAid never fails to remind me) but last week, I was in Tajikistan to help tajwss logoour team think through their water-related work. They already run the Tajikistan Water Supply and Sanitation (TajWSS) network, which combines a high level ‘convening and brokering’ approach to finding solutions to the country’s dire water situation, with a more hands-on Water Trust Fund that co-finances (with local communities and government) water supplies for some 40,000 consumers.

That’s a drop in the ocean (sorry) in a country of 8 million people, but allows us to pilot the kind of ideas that emerge in the wider network discussions, such as a ‘technical passport’ for local systems, which acts as proof of ownership and inventory – gold dust in a world of very vague property rights.

Now we’ve got some water-related funding from the World Bank’s new Global Partnership for Social Accountability, so I was in Dushanbe to help us think through its underlying theory of change (more on that tomorrow).

Water provides a pretty good way in to understanding Tajikistan’s wider development challenges. First, the Soviet hangover: not just the lack of cash, but a legacy of big, top down construction and accompanying standards that prevent improvisation or low-cost innovation – water engineers and administrators cling to the old ways, even though they can no longer afford them.

That is part of a wider narrative of decline. Everything was better in the old days. Even the Government thinks so – its job adverts say preference will be given to those qualified before 1992. ‘If you want a solid engineer, you want someone educated in the Soviet system – but they just think about pipes, not people.’ It’s distinctly odd hearing the Soviet Union held up as model of effectiveness.

25 years on, what remains is a vaguely post-apocalyptic squalor of crumbling infrastructure, electricity and water for only a few hours a day, towns full of rotting apartment blocks patched with plastic and blankets. And some truly indescribable toilets.

At an institutional level, the water system is paralysed by the overlapping mandates of regulators and operators and competing tiers of government. It’s often not even clear who is the legal owner of a water system.

I realize there are issues of equity of access to think through, but I came away convinced of the potential progressive impact of introducing market forces and individual water meters: the villagers welcome them because in the prevailing institutional anarchy, introducing metered fees per household creates a form of mutual expectation and accountability – a big shift in thinking that I think is more likely to get water to poor people than seeing water as an essential service that should be funded through general taxation.

‘Before, water was free and no discussion. People had no idea where the pipes came from. Now we have to pay, and be involved on accountability. It’s a massive culture shift. In cities people are starting to understand, but in rural areas, people still think it’s a gift from God.’

The best results come when a single village has a single system – any multiplicity (more than one village or system) leads to doubt, suspicion and abstention. Elsewhere, willingness to pay for services is intriguingly varied – farmers will pay for vets, but not for agronomists (more immediate returns, clearer attribution of impact).

ParvinaAs for why all this matters, here’s Parvina Rahmonova (left), a villager who recently got a household water connection through TajWSS:

‘Now we don’t have to cart water – it’s the best thing ever. The kids used to carry it. Now they can work in the kitchen garden and attend school properly. We sold the donkey because we don’t need it any more. What could be better? Nothing!’

She pays around US$2 a month for a home connection and 8 cubic metres of water.

‘Before we had to carry it for a kilometre by hand or sledge in winter. It took over 2 hours each trip, 2 or 3 times a day, and I have a small family. So I save 4 hours a day – what do I do with it? Sew dresses and embroidery for sale – I get orders. We’ve been able to have a proper kitchen garden for the first time – before we just had to rely on the rain.’

Then there’s a bigger picture – Tajikistan, with its huge mountain ranges and glaciers, has water resources that are the envy of the rest of the region (and potentially the source of conflict between upstream and downstream water users, like the Nile countries in East Africa). But climate change means the glaciers are melting, as we reported back in 2010.

Tomorrow: the perfect field trip and an exercise in village level power analysis.

February 6, 2014
Duncan Green