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The real water bucket challenge

Published on: 29/08/2014

If you want to take on the real water bucket challenge, donate to government!

As the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge became more and more trendy, the water sector started to respond. The social media are now full of pictures of women carrying buckets of water, with captions such as "the real water bucket challenge". And everyone gets the message that about as many kids die of water-related diseases in a day than people from ALS in a year. And it seems odd to spill buckets of clean water, while women across the World often spend an hour or so every day to fetch water to their homes. This cartoon, which I posted on my Facebook and Twitter got more likes, shares and retweets than I ever got for anything I posted. And no one nailed it better than the actor, and co-founder of Matt Damon. In his challenge, he took some water from his toilet bowl to mix with the ice before he put it over his head. In the mean time he explained the plight of those without access to water and sanitation. I don't want to argue that people should donate to water charities, instead of to ALS (though some interesting articles about the sense and non-sense of donating to ALS as compared to other causes are found here and here (the latter in Dutch)). I was asking myself whether it would be good if indeed people would start donating more to water charities.

And I would honestly be a bit hesitant if it were to come to that. The main reason is not because there is no need for more money into improved water supplies, but because the model of charities or NGOs providing water is not a sustainable one. NGOs can do a good job in putting new water systems in place: drilling boreholes, putting in the pipes, establishing a tariff system and training communities to do the operation and maintenance. But inevitably communities will encounter problems they cannot solve themselves: the tariffs they charge are not sufficient to cover major repairs, there may be conflicts with neighbouring farmers over water resources they share, or the trained water committee members have left. Addressing all these issues requires the involvement and often the lead of the public sector. Governments can provide subsidies to cover expensive repairs; governments can lead processes of water allocation between different users; and governments can retrain committee members.

But governments, particularly local governments, have limited capacity themselves: few skilled staff to do the kind of support work described above and limited financial reserves to cover the costs of a major repair. And as more and more people are getting access to improved water, a bigger part of governments budget would need to be set aside to cover the recurrent costs. Yet, government often doesn't get a cent to do all this work from the charities and NGOs who are putting in new water systems. The result is all too well-known and rehearsed on these web pages: communities stop being able to manage their systems after a few years, broken pumps remain unrepaired and wells run dry.

To stop that cycle, more public funding needs to go into the continuous provision of services – next to investing in new water systems for those who don't have access yet. No country has achieved full access to sustainable water supplies, without massive public finance. The real bucket challenge is one of bucks, bucks from and for government. But with a call for more money for government, comes, at least in my view, also a call for stronger accountability by government over how it is using those funds. And that is where individual citizens and organised civil society have a key role to play. 

The real bucket challenge is one of bucks, bucks from and for government

So, if you want to contribute to addressing the bucket challenge, the first thing to do is your taxes and your water bills, and above all holding your government to account over how those are spent. If you live in a donor country, your government should publish what it spends on different sectors, including water and sanitation, all nicely compiled here. If you think that your government is not spending enough, lobby your parliamentarian or campaign not only for increases, but above all for ensuring that money is spent well. Donor money that only goes to putting in new pipes has the same perverse effect; and particularly bilateral donor money can do a lot to improve government capacity to address the recurrent cost challenges. If you live in a country where the government is still fighting the bucket challenge, part of your water bill, may help subsidizing the water bill of someone who cannot afford it. Both donor and recipient governements have started making high-level commitments under the umbrella of Sanitation and Water for All, not only for more funding into water, but also for ways to improve how that money is spent. Again, check for your country, whether your government is living up to that commitment, hold it to account and if the commitments are only half-hearted, lobby for stronger ones.  

If you want to do more, you can of course still donate to a charity or an NGO, but ensure that it is doing complementary work to government, for example in innovating with new technologies or approach, and in campaigning for increased accountability by government over how it spends it water budgets. But ideally, on top of every Euro, Rupee or Dinar you donate to the NGO, you should donate at least ten percent of those Euros, Rupees or Dinars to the government of the country where that NGO works, every year. This to make sure that the services that are being built last. Ok, the ten percent rule may differ a bit from one country to another depending on the existing government capacity. Another rule of thumb is that it costs about 2-3 dollar per person per year for government to adequately support rural water supplies. Check to what extent government is already providing that, and consider the difference when making your donation. 

In summary, if you want to take on the real water bucket challenge, here is what to do:

  • Take a bucket of water from an open water body that is closest to where you are. Keep it simple, don't get it from open sewage; water from a pond or stream probably has already as much contamination as what many people get in their supposedly safe water supply. Walk at least 500 meters with the bucket on your head. If you haven't spilled it all, and are not already soaked by then, throw it over yourself. If you live in a drought-struck area and don't want to waste any water, you can also throw a bucket of dry sand over you, as a friend of my creatively did to raise awareness on the water issue.
  • Pay your taxes and water bills, and check how much of that goes to improving water supply, and in what manner. If you are not satisfied with that, call your member of parliament or start lobbying your government to do better.
  • Donate to [charity of choice] as well as to the government of [country of choice] or the administration of [town or district of choice], where that charity works.

Good, let me start looking for the bank account number of the Ministry of Water of Moldova now. And in the meanwhile I nominate.... all the water experts attending the Stockholm World Water Week (above all to reflect on the roles of charities vis-à-vis public finance for rural water).


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