26 Apr 2010

I'm in the right club

(via DL) Yesterday, Asit Biswas (winner of the Stockholm Prize for his work on water issues) said this about the Millenium Development Goals for water:
"If somebody has a well in a town or village in the developing world and we put concrete around the well – nothing else – it becomes an 'improved source of water'; the quality is the same but you have 'improved' the physical structure, which has no impact," said Biswas. "They are not only underestimating the problem, they are giving the impression the problem is being solved. What I'm trying to say is that's a bunch of baloney."


Biswas will also tell the Global Water Intelligence conference in Paris that water problems are caused not by physical scarcity of supplies but by poor management, including corruption, interference by politicians and inexperience. Such comments will be controversial in an industry dominated by companies providing technological solutions to "water stress" or "scarcity" – a lack of reliable supplies for average daily needs – which experts estimate affect more than 1 billion people around the world.


He is calling for politicians to be removed from water management, well-paid experts to be appointed to run water authorities and more public outcry when supplies are too bad to drink.
In 2008, I said this at Freakonomics:
The goal being measured and pursued (improved drinking water sources) is not the originally proclaimed goal (sustainable access to safe drinking water). This discrepancy is no accident. Rather, it reflects the difference between the ambitions of development activists (safe and sustainable) and the realities of development bureaucrats.

Since “safe” is hard to measure, bureaucrats use the presence of “improved drinking water supplies” as a proxy for water quality — and they quantify that by counting pipes, pumps, and faucets.


We know that thousands of well-meaning people will be spending billions of dollars to install pipes, pumps, etc. Will those pipes deliver safe and sustainable water? We can’t be sure about that result — since it’s not being measured — but we can be sure that projects that deliver pipes will get funded, bureaucrats who deliver 100 percent pipe coverage will be lauded for helping the poor, and outsiders are likely to confuse 100 percent pipe coverage with 100 percent access to “safe and sustainable” drinking water.

Bureaucrats will declare victory, outsiders will applaud, projects will wrap up, money will disappear, and those unlucky enough to have pipes with unsafe and unsustainable water will be left to their own devices.

So has the international development community tried to avoid such an ineffective and wasteful outcome? No. Instead, it has pressed for enough money to install pipes everywhere...

Is it possible, however, that money spent on pipes will help? Perhaps yes but probably not. Effective water management requires good institutions — i.e., a framework for the formation and enforcement of local rules and norms that will deliver safe and sustainable local supplies. After all, how useful is a well without a means of allocating its water or maintaining its flow? How safe are pipes when they carry water of unknown quality? How sustainable is supply from an overdrafted aquifer?
I am glad to be in such good company (even though I've never met him :)

Now, will they listen to us? Or are they going to continue ignoring what works and keep doing what suits them, not the poor.

Bottom Line: Aid that does no good is not just wasted, it's inhumane.


  1. Hi David. Check Angry Bear for a re-posting on coal. This one too if willing.


  2. As you point out, the pipes can do something. But is the local community is unable to control, maintain, and allocate their supply, little good will come. Depending on the society, governments, marketplaces, or (worst case) supervising NGOs may be the cultural force to make the infrastructure useful. Places run by criminal dictatorships, places where outside capital is afraid to invest, places in anarchy, will seldom have decent water no matter who builds what for them.


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