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Published on: 16/09/2013

In one of his previous blogs, Patrick Moriarty posed the concept of a danger zone, referring to the coverage level, at which countries that succeeded in raising first time coverage by constructing new infrastructure (capital investment) fail to maintain the infrastructure (due to lack of capital maintenance) or to operate it adequately to provide a service (due to lack of effort on recurrent expenditure and support). As a result, a country would experience stagnation in the trajectory of coverage growth. Using this concept, in a previous blog, I have tried to go deeper into the causes of why this danger zone may happen, and illustrate this for the case of Honduras. But does this danger zone really exists? And more importantly, is it inevitable?

Figures show that around a third of the countries that reach a reasonably high coverage of 80% in rural water supply experienced stagnation. But what happens in the other two thirds of countries?

To answer that question, I started off by playing with JMP numbers, and a first indication showed that indeed around a third of the countries that reach a reasonably high coverage of 80% in rural water supply, experienced such stagnation. The blog post that resulted from this (on Impatient Optimists), actually raised more questions. What happens in the other two thirds of countries – do they avoid the danger zone? Is the danger zone indeed caused by the increase in service levels for some, at the expenses for providing some for all? And is a danger zone also experienced in sanitation? In the paper 'Through the Danger Zone' (available below), we have tried to answer these questions and provide some further evidence for the existence of a danger zone, based on JMP data. These are some of our headline findings:

  • The data does not reveal unequivocally that a danger zone exists. JMP data is not finely detailed enough to test the concept with full confidence. However, it comes out more clearly for rural water supplies than in urban areas of for sanitation. However, if such a zone does exist, some countries can and do manage to traverse it and approach full coverage. However, the countries that have gone through the danger zone, are often middle income countries, that are thought to have enough funds to avoid it. As several low and lower middle income countries are reaching the danger zone for rural water supply, attention is needed to ensure that they are able to pass through the danger zone to achieve full coverage.
  • However, stagnation in the coverage growth trajectory for rural water supplies was actually much more pronounced in the lower coverage ranges. That is, it was found among countries that had very low coverage and were not able to break out of that. Many of those are fragile states.
  • Growth in piped supplies cannot be equivocally blamed for stagnation in the danger zone. Countries that grow primarily through non-piped supplies are the star performers in terms of expanding coverage. This reflects a common practice in the sector where, at lower levels of coverage, point-source based supplies are the preferred option to quickly reach growth in coverage. But our findings also show that as coverage levels approach the 70% mark, a balance is sought between growth through piped and non-piped supplies. This may in some cases lead to stagnation in overall coverage, but not necessarily so.
  • For sanitation, probably the most revealing finding is that as open defecation decreases, unimproved sanitation increases – particularly at the low coverage ranges. This means, people make the step from open defecation to simple, but inadequate, latrines, and only later take another step to an improved one, as per the JMP definitions. The sanitation sub-sector thus has a challenge in identifying ways of how to ensure that this intermediate step of unimproved sanitation can be skipped.

As you will see, many of the underlying data are not very clear-cut and it is not always clear why certain countries follow the trajectory that they do. We therefore welcome any feed-back on the paper, and help in interpreting the results.


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