Why chemistry is essential to conquering the politics of water

March 22, 2020

The recent Coronavirus outbreak has brought to the fore, yet again, water as a weapon. If you have access to water, you have the best chance of protecting yourself and other immunocompromised individuals you may come into contact with. If you don’t, possible risks and negatives outcomes are magnified. The latter is the reality for the estimated 790 million people, in sub-Saharan Africa, without access to an improved water supply such as a house connection, a stand post /pipe, a borehole, a protected spring, collected rainwater or any water disinfected at the point-of-use. Every first message on Covid-19 stresses hygiene. Prevention of runaway infection with this world pandemic assumes that, at the bare minimum, we have unrestricted access to clean water.

To put World Water Day in context, let us consider that many of the international days seek to highlight issues whose impact would be lessened by providing access to water. World Health Day, World Toilet Day, International Day of the African Child, Menstrual Hygiene Day, International Day for Maternal Health and Rights, and so on. In marking them, we acknowledge that in most parts of the world, women and children especially continue to bear the burden of labor for water, yet suffer the worst economic, safety, and wellbeing outcomes

Decades have seen aid and philanthropic grants dedicated to boosting government efforts in middle and low-income countries to get both potable and recyclable water to those most in need. It is not uncommon to hear during joint WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) convenings that water continues to take the lion share of budgetary sector allocations. National, regional and international policy instruments are also sufficiently advanced in their recommendations which, if operationalized, access to water would result in economic benefits to society. For instance, with reduced incidences of preventable, infectious diseases, people would spend less on health care services; economies would not suffer the loss of able-bodied manpower; women would spend more time in gainful employment and children in schools. Overall, these groups would have a longer and better quality of life

So what are we not getting right in the advancement of the cause to leave no one behind in accessing improved water supply?

Over the years, funding and implementing agencies have self-identified access to water challenges, postulated solutions, budgeted for interventions and only then, began reaching out to different stakeholders for on-the-ground support and ownership. A longstanding complaint across the board is that most projects are crowded in given regions, a testament to the poor or lack of a coordinating mechanism for development actors by relevant government ministries. More than ever, we need projects that see as many stakeholders as possible present at the design stage. Governments are not just endorsing partners at the pressure of funding withdrawal; neither are communities supposed to fall in line and ‘own’ alien concepts. Partners and sub-grantees should not have to tailor their proposals to fit an already predetermined foreign model with theories of change that do not depict realities on the ground either.

Investment in getting the right data means that research also has to consciously engage existing systems, working to either strengthen them or improve them for continued tracking and evaluation, to inform policies and strategies. Open governance and water point mapping, for example, were real, but missed, opportunities for Kenya to get state and non-state actors to begin re-imagining knowledge sharing and partnerships.

Access is politics. Who gets what, when and how. We need to get it right. Move it from paper to active power and system mapping, outreach, resourcing, action, monitoring, and evaluation at all levels. Institutions like the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW), and Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) are important in that they not only work closely with governments but also a host of constituents working in specialized categories, such as financing and research. These can work in harmony to create an effective implementation order in the sector. This way, we can mindfully move to achieve SDG 6, while ensuring interventions on water are spread out to cover even the traditionally hard to reach, sparsely populated arid and semi-arid, as well as the densely populated informal, urban areas. Only then would we disarm hostile situations that thrive when humans lack water.