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International WASH cooperation – past and future: an insider’s view

Published on: 21/03/2013

“After three decades of empty promises we might finally be making some progress in water co-operation, but don’t hold your breath”.
Piers Cross

Piers Cross has been around long enough in the water sector to witness several generations' attempts at water co-operation.  On the eve of World Water Day 2013, a day devoted to celebrating water co-operation, Cor Dietvorst caught up with Piers in Johannesburg and asked him what he had learned about international co-operation in water. He stroked his white hair and gave a potted personal view of the history of WASH co-operation.

In March 1977, thirty-six years ago to the day, participants at the United Nations Water Conference in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, committed themselves to “increased international co-operation” and called on UN agencies to increase mutual co-operation and better support governments. 

“Sounds familiar?”

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation. Piers wryly notes: “It’s the latest verse in a very long refrain”. 

The plan of action committed to on that day in March 1977 called for: “(a) increased awareness of the problem; (b) commitment of national Governments to provide all people with water of safe quality and adequate quantity and basic sanitary facilities by 1990, according priority to the poor and less privileged and to water scarce areas; and (c) larger allocation to this sector from the total resources available for general economic and social development.”

“It could have been a UN resolution in 2013, or might even be a sneak preview of the text for a 2015 post MDG pronouncement”.

“Creating change through international co-operation is a tricky business. But reflecting on why past attempts, also lead by some smart people, haven’t really worked is essential to guide future efforts.”

The trouble began in the 40s 

Whilst the specialized agencies for health, agriculture and education were established in the 1940s, there was no UN agency for water.

“With hindsight this was a major missed opportunity. The failure to create one accountable water agency is why water cooperation has had such a chequered history”.

Established in 2003, UN-Water is a co-ordinating mechanism that has the unenviable job of achieving coherence amongst 55 UN and multilateral agencies.  

“All of these agencies have a mandate for some component of water; and all guard their children with a mother’s passion. There are a lot of mothers in the water sector”.   

The 70s: is technology the solution?

Seeing the vast gulf between the well-served in European and American cities and the rural poor in developing countries and the quite inadequate resource flows and inappropriateness of traditional water, sewerage and wastewater technologies for the poor in the developing world, pioneers in UNDP, UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank placed their faith in finding a technological fix to bridge this divide. Large global research programmes in the late 1970s focussed on finding affordable service levels: low cost latrines to break disease transmission, a hand-pump that could last, solar water purification, low-cost hand-washing aids. “Mar Del Plata gave us resolve to work more closely together”. 

This gave birth to the sector’s pre-eminent sector knowledge programme, in what is now the Water and Sanitation Program.  The WSP Council, created much later, in 2000 during Piers’ tenure as Global Programme Manager of WSP is still a “significant global forum for interagency collaboration and joint action”. 

The 80s: a decade should do it

Implementing these new approaches at scale would take time. Recognizing the enormity of the task, the United Nations declared the decade 1981 to 1990 to be the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (IDWSSD). This provided a real focus for the international community.  Water and sanitation programmes blossomed from a myriad of agencies. More donors entered the sector, new NGOs started up, governments started new water programmes.

“But in hindsight one can see that all these well-intentioned initiatives were running in parallel without a shared focus. IDWSSD was over-ambitious, its targets are not properly defined, resources insufficient and no-one was accountable to achieve its aims.  It was a PR effort, which captured the imagination, motivated a generation, but didn’t do enough to create real change”.

“Seeing projects duplicating each other and the in-country mayhem with agencies tripping over each other, several lead bilateral donors came together in 1987 to create a collaborative mechanism”. 

One of the outcomes of the Delhi Global Consultation on Safe Water at the end of the IDWSSD in 1990 was that the UN Agencies and other bodies would strengthen sector coordination through the creation of new permanent Collaborative Council for Water Supply and Sanitation. 

“So the agency with the longest acronym in the water sector was born – the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) ”. WSSCC evolved as a member-based agency, “but in some ways it had the wrong members”. In the end only a few donors continued their support and government participation declined. Many of the institutions with the biggest investment funds – the World Bank, the development banks, stayed away. The WSSCC has since played a pioneering role in sanitation advocacy and hosts the Global Sanitation Fund, but it is also a testament to the failure of co-operation in the water sector.

The 90s: the WASH sector in disarray

Devoting a decade of global attention with so few results was dispiriting. In the 1990s the WASH sector was in disarray and inter-agency co-operation at a low ebb. But the quest to improve water co-operation continued. The United Nations sets up its own coordination group, the Inter-Secretariat Group on Water Resources set up under the Administrative Coordination Council (ACC) of the UN for multi-lateral agencies. This was the fore-runner to UN-Water. Piers Cross remembers colleagues returning from many bad-tempered meetings at this time and its hard to identify what was achieved in those years of failing sector coordination.

It's the private sector, stupid

Despondent with the slow pace of public sector roll out of water investments in the 1990s, the gap between investment flows and needs ever widening whilst on the other hand seeing the spectacular achievements of the telecommunications industry, many in the sector were drawn to seeing the private sector as the sector’s main hope. It was conflict on this – and on the heated discussion on dams – rather than co-operation which dominated the sector.

No effective lead body for water co-operation? Create one’s own!

With no effective sector coordination, yet increasing recognition of the role that water played in society, the economy and the environment, many organisations set out to create global water initiatives. The Global Water Partnership (GWP), the World Water Council, Stockholm’s World Water Week, the first Global Water Forum in Marrakesh leadership all started in the 1990. The GWP initially set out to provide overall sector co-ordination with “Associate Agencies” leading subsectors. In this the WASH community became more integrated into a larger water dialogue. But as a co-ordinating forum GWP also failed. It was difficult enough trying to gain traction on the concept of Integrated Water Resource Management, let alone herd all water sector agencies. Many GWP partners were also pretty much competitors funded by the same group of donors, and without clear decisions by the donors on leadership and coordination, this further inhibited cooperation.

The new millennium: external pressures start to count

It has been initiatives outside the water sector that have had the greatest impact on water co-operation. The designation of a specific MDG for water and then the World Summit agreement on an MDG for sanitation have probably driven greater co-operation than internally generated effort. The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness started to give more shape and rationale to water sector funding. This was reinforced when the British and Dutch governments launched the Global Framework for Action for the water and sanitation sector in 2008. The goals or “five ones” of the framework are: one global annual report; one global high-level annual meeting; one national water and sanitation plan for each country; one water and sanitation coordination group in each country; and one lead UN body in each country have at last given a coordinating framework for lead agencies in the WASH sector.

The Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) Partnership and Post 2015

From 2009 leading WASH partners, supported by the British and Dutch Governments took this framework a step further by encouraging the creation of a new global WASH partnership. Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) has been designed trying to overcome many of the pitfalls of prior efforts. Firstly its has a strategic focus on three areas which all partners agree are critical to moving forward and which no one single agency can achieve on their own. These are: (a) political prioritization, (b) improving the evidence base (global monitoring) and (c) supporting country-led processes. 

Furthermore, rather than proving yet another platform for grandstanding, SWA’s emphasis is on accountability for goals and commitments by real leaders. So rather than only having dialogue with internal leaders, SWA targets Presidents, Ministers of Finance and global development leaders. SWA also takes governance seriously and has set out to be partner-based not agency-driven. Only a few years on, SWA has attracted a growing base of over 90 partner organisations drawn from 7 different constituencies and hosted a couple of global meetings that have attracted considerable attention. The largest group of SWA partners are developing country governments, which places the onus where it needs to be. WASH is essentially a public-sector issue and having a motivated national leadership provides an environment in which water and sanitation service providers can do their job: plan and build systems, encourage investment, collect tariffs, maintain and operate services, invest in research, train the next generation and build viable institutions are the essential recipes to meet global goals. 

What chance does SWA have of succeeding? Well history is not on its side. But there has been a deliberate effort to reflect on what might work. A return to the theme of water co-operation is timely. Going into the post 2015 dialogue the WASH sector is better positioned now than it has been for a long time. Piers is irrepressibly optimistic about WASH’s future. 

Piers Cross is a Senior Advisor in Water and Sanitation and a member of IRC’s Supervisory Board. Over a 30 years career working in water supply and sanitation, he has become a leading international spokesperson/strategist on water and sanitation issues. Piers, a South African with a background in social anthropology and public health, worked for the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) for over 20 years, rising to Global Program Manager, but also worked as Principle Regional Team Leader in both South Asia and Africa. He was founding CEO of the Mvula Trust which, in the Mandela years (1990s), helped South Africa rapidly scale up rural water and sanitation delivery. Piers now advises and works with many of the world's leading water and sanitation agencies.