29 Sep 2010

Water and the daily war of life

This is the English translation of Maji na vita ya kupigania maisha, published in Mwananchi newspaper on September 28th, and posted here yesterday.

Siwema faces a daily challenge to access clean and safe water. She lives in the village of Godegode in Mpwapwa district, but the nearest clean source of water is over 5km away in the neighbouring village. Each day she has a choice. She can either walk all that way, spending over two hours on the simple task of collecting water. Or she can collect water from a hole dug by hand in the dry riverbed, which is horribly dirty. There is a borehole in the village, but it broke down a few years ago and was never fixed.

What can be more important than water? No life is possible without it, and for those who don’t have access to clean and safe water, life is a daily struggle.

But this is nothing new. So why is apparently so difficult for the combined efforts of the Tanzanian government and donors to bring about change?

Let’s look at some figures. In 2000, the National Bureau of Statistics estimated that 46% of rural households in Tanzania had access to clean and safe water. NBS also estimates that by 2007 this number had actually dropped, to 40% (figures from Household Budget Surveys). There are around 62,000 waterpoints in rural Tanzania, which in theory should be enough to serve around 20 million people. But in fact only 12 million people in rural Tanzania have access to clean and safe water because less than 60% of rural waterpoints are working (figures from WaterAid Waterpoint Mapping surveys). Even very new waterpoints are struggling - a quarter of 2-year old waterpoints have been found to be non-functional.

Unsurprisingly, when residents of rural Tanzania are asked about their top priorities for government action water supply repeatedly comes out on top. In 2008, an Afrobarometer survey found that 44% of rural Tanzanians said water supply was among their top three priorities for government action, more than any other issue. For the same question, 33% named roads, 31% named agriculture and 15% named education. And only 39% said they were happy with government efforts in rural water supply, compared to 64% who were happy with government efforts in health services and 80% in education.

But these figures are all at least two years old, and since 2007, there has been the Water Sector Development Programme (WSDP) investing almost $1bn into the water sector. So perhaps the situation has changed? That’s what w hope, but it is too early to say with certainty, as we need to wait for more recent survey data.

But the WSDP is not exactly working very smoothly. A plan to fund new water schemes in 10 villages in every district is on-hold because so much money was spent on contracts to engineering firms to design the schemes that there won’t be enough money left to spend on construction work. Perhaps only 4 villages in each district will get funding.

And even that money is not guaranteed. The big donors quietly suspended their funding for the programme earlier this year until the Ministry of Water and Irrigation improves its performance. The WSDP is currently being restructured to try to resolve these problems. One suggested change is to reduce the number of villages involved in the programme from 1320 to 460 and to get local government more closely involved in implementation.

Changes like this mean that two thirds of the villages that have already been mobilised to expect new schemes will not receive anything. What will happen to the money already spent on design works – will that now proved to be wasted money? And how will the four villages in each district be chosen? Citizens have been mobilised and had their expectations raised, how will they react to a change like this?

In the meantime, Siwema and many more like her will continue to face an ongoing struggle for water. What will happen to the broken down waterpoint? Do Siwema and her fellow villagers understand their responsibility to oversee maintenance of waterpoints as per national policy? And where will Siwema decide to collect her water while waiting for the repair to happen?