1 Oct 2010

A car crash in slow motion? The Joint Water Sector Review, 2010 #Tanzania

The past two days have seen Tanzania's fourth annual Joint Water Sector Review, the biggest annual discussion and consultation event in the water sector. In the past it has not been a perfect event by any means, but it has provided some valuable space for useful discussions on the direction of progress in the sector. In particular, it has proved the best opportunity for civil society to contribute ideas.

But this year has been disappointingly different.
The opening speeches of the Minister of Water and Irrigation, Professor Mark Mwandosya, and the German Ambassador to Tanzania, Guido Hertz, immediately made it clear that this event was going to be different. These were conducted in the seemingly gentle but actually deadly language of diplomat-speak. Some examples:

Ambassador Hertz:
"We do hope that this water sector review will result in decisions which allow the DPs to release committed funds to the water basket. Further damage to the reputation of the WSDP and the water sector should be prevented."
Minister Mwandosya:
"I submit that, my dear development partners, the glass is half full."
The elephant in the room, which (aside from the Ambassador's speech) was barely mentioned (and carefully ignored here), is the donors' very real threat to withdraw funding from the Water Sector Development Programme. The World Bank and the German Development Bank (KFW) in particular are both extremely frustrated by the poor quality of reports being produced, and at the slow pace of efforts to improve the situation.

On its part, the Ministry is barely acknowledging the real possibility of funding being formally ended. (It has already effectively been suspended, though not officially, since April 2010.) But occasional statements from ministry officials reveal that they are concerned. Contrast, for example, the Minister's promises of increased funds mentioned in this Daily News article (and echoed yesterday on the President's twitter feed), and these two statements from one senior ministry official:
"We are not scaling down. We have raised hopes in 1300 villages and we will follow through on this."
"The so-called 10 villages per district will definitely have to be reduced, to 4 or 6, since it seems the funding will not be available."
The development partners were no more coherent:
"The original target was 41,000 waterpoints, after restructuring it is 14,000. [...] We are not scaling down, we are cutting the cloth to fit our size, to fit the resource envelope available."
"Funding has not been suspended, but we are not able to disburse any funds at present."
By a simple calculation, if 10 villages per district becomes 4, this means that six villages in each of 130 districts, 800 villages in total, have been mobilised and are expecting water projects imminently, but will almost certainly not now get them. Many of these communities have already made their financial contributions to the capital costs. Assuming a population per village of two or three thousand, that's around 2 million people that will not get access to clean and safe water.

There's no doubt that the development partners do have good reason to be concerned by the quality of reporting coming out of the ministry. Audit reports have found very significant discrepancies, for example.

But it would not be fair to put all the blame for this breakdown of relations on the ministry or on the Tanzanian government. The leading donor agencies have also disappointed. For example, the quality of reports may not be great, but it is improving and these improvements are not being recognised. Meanwhile the threats from the donors just get stronger. Shifting to a sector-wide approach and massively increasing funding for the sector is not a simple matter, it takes time for changes to bed in, for people to understand and become comfortable with their new roles, etc. I would be the last person to say the Ministry has done a good job with the WSDP, but I also think the donors are not being entirely realistic or reasonable in their demands.

Perhaps the Minister and President Kikwete have plans to finance water sector development from tax revenues, without needing donor support. They've certainly invested a lot of their own money in one-off projects in the past, most notably the Lake Victoria-Kahama-Shinyanga project. And other donors such as DFID and the African Development Bank, though also frustrated, seem more willing to work alongside the Ministry to help solve the management and reporting issues.

But I can't help feeling that the recent years of substantial funding for the sector is very unlikely to continue. The consequences of this for the millions of Tanzanians who continue to go without access to clean and safe water do not bear thinking about.