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More energy into water

Published on: 21/03/2014

Last week it was World Water Day 2014, with the topic of "water and energy". I see obvious issues coming by on the water-energy nexus (which by the way is one of those development sector buzz words that I start disliking more every day. I hope the next buzz word is a bit more, uh, sparkling), such as the pros and cons of hydropower, or how to reduce the energy footprint of water utilities. Though all interesting topics in the broader water picture, they are not directly relevant for my current work on rural water supply and sanitation, and didn't inspire me. But talking it through over the breakfast table this morning with my wife (one of the advantages of being married to another water nerd), I actually came to see it in a different light: energy is very relevant to rural water, and we need more of it, much more.

As in many rural areas handpumps remain the norm, the main form of energy used to obtain water is human. And, women spend lots of it on walking and carrying water; girls spend their precious time and energy on pumping or lifting buckets. Even if handpumps meet all the JMP standards (so they are within 500 m and provide some 25 liters/person/day), probably still at least an hour a day of a family's time is wasted on such a menial and tedious task. There are surely better ways to put people's talents to use than to lift buckets or swing a pump handle. There is nothing romantic about such water supply unplugged. So, flick the switch and bring in the amplifiers. I hope and expect to see in the coming decades a big shift from labour to capital in this area. Instead of putting human energy into obtaining water, households, communities and governments will opt for installing motorized pumps to lift the water and distribute it to people's houses. We see this already happening. In Ghana, boreholes are equipped with motorized pumps and small distribution schemes. India wants to make the complete shift towards piped supplies in the next ten years or so. My colleague Christelle Pezon found that in Burkina Faso, it also makes lots of financial sense to shift from handpumps to small piped supplies. In many parts of Africa the start of a groundwater boom is foreseen, as farmers buy small pumps typically to lift water for multiple uses: for domestic and production. It will be a chronicle of a death foretold for the communal Handpump, as discussed recently at IRC. Sure, there will remain some niches for handpumps, e.g. as a family affair where people have handpumps at their premise, or in the most remote and dispersed rural areas. But, as countries are becoming richer and rural settlements grow into small towns, users will prefer to buy the energy over using their own.

But also at sector level we need more and above all, renewed energy. And then I don't only refer to bringing more young professionals into the water sector, as for example through the interesting Young Expert Programme (YEP) of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, managed by the Netherlands Water Partnership. I know water professionals as committed and hard-working people, with lots of passion and energy for their profession. But that energy needs to be streamlined, to counter the entropic forces. One could argue that the MDGs have given us the framework to put our energy for the last decade or so. Our Director, Patrick Moriarty, often uses the metaphor of an exothermic reaction, to describe changes in the water sector. First lots of energy is put into creating a movement of changing, showing the need to change, lots of talking and meeting. But then once a certain amount of energy has gone into it, the sector starts to react and releasing heat: the reaction continuous of its own. One could argue this has happened to the MDGs: after lots of talk and struggle they were agreed upon, monitoring indicators defined and commitments created. And then it started to roll on its own, releasing lots of positive energy within the sector. But now, its momentum has withered away and the fire behind it has died out. Those of us who work on rural water supply have maybe becoming complacent as the water MDG was reached, or see other challenges than just increasing coverage with the most basic of services. And in spite of all the energy that went into sanitation, the global situation remains dire. I sincerely hope that the new post-2015 sector targets will provide us with a new momentum, to focus our energy on some over-arching targets ahead. And personally I hope these are framed as reaching everyone with WASH services, and ensuring that these are forever. That is at least a target and a slogan that would energize me.

Happy World Water Day


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