What should Oxfam be doing on water?

September 2, 2011

     By Duncan Green     

A typical water engineer.....[/caption] other wonks shut themselves away to talk through a thematic issue that is confusing the organization and needs a bit of kicking around. This one was on water – trying to cover both Oxfam’s traditional specialism in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), especially in emergencies (think Indiana Jones engineers getting clean water flowing within 48 hours of an earthquake) and broader concerns about long term access to water, whether for personal use or agriculture. I won’t bore you with a conference report, but after battling through a blizzard of unfamiliar acronyms and concepts, here are some random (and very superficial) highlights and impressions. First the problem analysis: (Relatively) good news on water, terrible news on sanitation. The number of people without access to clean water is down to 900million, but we’re now up to 2.6 billion people (one in three) who lack access to decent sanitation. Probably no accident that with sanitation as the most off-target MDG, the health targets are next worse. Stand back, and water is one of the pinch points in a resource constrained world – it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to find enough to grow the crops to feed the world, and a global water crunch is well advanced, with climate change as an accelerator. Then the obvious point that (even poor) people in rich countries are far more water secure than those in poor ones, but as always, any sense of history is weirdly absent – how have now-developed countries achieved water security? Surely there’s a case for some examination of the roles of state, private sector, civil society, war/other shocks, technology etc in water take-offs? References welcome. One new and alarming fact on North v South – the extraordinary differences in rainfall variability, which is far higher in poor countries than in most rich ones and takes a large chunk out of the economy, according to work by David Grey (one of the profs). Potential for a bit of geographical determinism there, I fear. What is Oxfam already doing? Much more than I realized, and not just on emergencies. True, most WASH spending is humanitarian (about ¾), but we still spent £16m on non-humanitarian WASH last year. In terms of numbers of people, I was a bit baffled by the numbers, but we seem to be reaching upwards of 6 million on humanitarian, and 2 million with some degree of long term support. Blimey, that’s a lot of people. There was also an unusual degree of self-congratulation on innovation in longer-term WASH work (I’ll cover that in a separate post). Another post is in the pipeline on some fascinating work in Tajikistan, where Oxfam has functioned as a convenor, brokering discussions between all the players, rather than a lobbyist, with some spectacular results. tapstandIt wasn’t all positive though (self-doubt is our product?). There was the usual lament about the divide between emergency work, long term development and advocacy, and the difficulty of bridging it (Indiana Jones hasn’t always got a lot of time for participatory processes…..). But has any organization overcome that and if so, how? Are there not genuine reasons for such a divide (such as the kinds of people you need)? When I asked this, the examples people gave of organizations that move across all three were all national civil society organizations (rather than international players) – interesting. Worth comparing the received wisdom on access to water with those on health and education: there seems to be much more of a need to prove competence on the ground before trying to engage government or private sector. In fact it is debatable whether the distinction between programming and advocacy makes sense in water – influence happens as much through conversations between engineers (theirs and ours) as through traditional campaigning. There is also a much greater acceptance of a role for private sector and market mechanisms. That’s particularly true of domestic companies, as foreign investment has largely failed to materialize (or been a disaster, as in Cochabamba). It would also be interesting to cross fertilize between thinking on water security and food security. And finally, what could be Oxfam’s niche? A lot of agreement in the room on seven areas: work in urban areas, not just rural; develop approaches based on recognizing that water insecurity is more often long term and/or cyclical than one off (e.g. floods in South Asia, droughts and floods in East Africa); design programmes that foster innovation; think about multiple use systems (eg the same well providing drinking water for people and cattle); focus on advocacy both at national and global level; water resource management in agriculture and finally, concentrate on addign gender equality and women’s rights to an often gender-blind debate. I found the complexity mind-boggling – grow more food; generate more energy; use less water; emit less GHGs. How is it going to happen? There were a few discourses in the room: technology as a get out of jail free card; trust in markets – prices will sort it out; avoid generalizations and do it one place at a time – context specificity as all; or just try harder to become more benign and omniscient planners. The first two ignore equity, the third just ducks the question and we all know about planners. What’s the alternative? Concentrate on social mobilisation to redistribute power, so that all four solutions are more likely to benefit poor people? Don’t panic, no decisions were made (hey, this was an NGO meeting…….), and Oxfam won’t suddenly start building thousands of wells, or [caption id="attachment_6669" align="alignright" width="300" caption="water use in the Arab Emirates"]water use in the Arab Emirates[/caption] go large on water campaigning. Change in a big organization happens more subtly (and slowly) than that. This will all be chewed over at length before being swallowed/spat out. Still, it will be interesting to see what happens next. Finally, my top recommendation.  A global campaign against water-guzzling golf courses in Kenya, the Philippines, pretty much anywhere (except Scotland, no shortage of rain there). Just think of the punning potential – teed off about golf? Join the club……. And here’s a bit of traditional WASH work in action – getting clean water into last year’s cholera outbreak in Haiti ]]>

September 2, 2011
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Duncan Green
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