15 Oct 2010

Water supply in #Tanzania is political not technical, so where's the politics? #uchaguzitz

The challenge of making clean and safe water accessible in rural Tanzania is political rather than technical or administrative. As this blog has discussed a couple of times in the past (see here and here), deciding where new water supply infrastructure should be built as well as keeping that infrastructure functioning are political challenges. We'll take this argument further in this post, in the context of Tanzania's current general election campaign, but let's begin with a brief recap of why water supply is a political issue.

First, someone has to make a decision over which villages get priority for new projects. That's a political decision, as evidenced by the fact that in practice it is generally villages that have some kind of political influence over decision makers that get priority. Many of these villages already have relatively good access to clean and safe water, but that fact doesn't carry much weight when decisions are made. (See TAWASANET's Water Sector Equity Reports for 2008 and 2009 for more detailed analysis).

Second, the best available data on rural waterpoints (handpumps, standpipes, protected springs, etc.) in Tanzania suggests that only just over half (54%) are functioning. The system for keeping them functional has itself broken down, with much more attention given to the more exciting task of constructing new schemes than is given to keeping existing schemes working.

Unless the two decision-making challenges of targeting new projects where they are most needed and keeping existing waterpoints running can be solved, progress in rural water supply will continue to be slow. In 2007, a national household survey found that only 40% of rural Tanzanian households had access to clean and safe water, down from 46% seven years earlier. Even if funds are available (which remains uncertain), without solving these two problems, access will not improve.

Unsurprisingly, when rural Tanzanian citizens are asked about their priorities, water supply regularly comes top of the list. The 2008 Afrobarometer survey, for example, found that water supply was rural citizens' top priority for government action, and water and sanitation services had lower satisfaction ratings than other key sectors (see figure below).

Which brings us to the main point of today's post. If access to clean and safe water in rural areas is so low, and if citizens are prioritising water supply above other sectors, why has the current general election campaign paid so little attention to rural water supply?

The debates have raged about education policy - on school fees and on the quality of education in particular. Roads and transport facilities have been the subject of multiple promises. Health services haven't had quite as much attention, but have been the subject of promises (e.g. from Dr Slaa.) But on water supply there's been almost nothing. This list of promises from the three main party's presidential candidates doesn't mention water even once, though education, health, transport, agriculture, governance, electricity and mining are all included, most of them several times.

This is nothing particularly new. A review of campaign manifestos in the 2005 election found only one party mentioning water supply - the uncompetitive Sauti ya Umma (SAU). And during the whole process of bringing in the private sector to manage Dar es Salaam's water utility, only a single question was asked in parliament about the issue (see here for the source for both statements).

Perhaps by looking at national campaign promises, we're looking at the wrong thing, that water supply is by its nature a local issue. After all, water supply does come pretty regularly as a campaign issue at more local levels, with candidates for local council and parliamentary seats promising to bring water projects to their constituencies.

To some extent that's probably the case. But the same can be said for a lot of the promises on the list mentioned earlier - they are local issues. The list includes particular local airports, boats, coal mines, islands and even a ranch, all mentioned by name.

I don't have a conclusive answer. Perhaps politicians are wary of making expensive promises (though that's hardly held them back in other sectors.) Perhaps water is a women's issue, and doesn't get a look in when politics is so male-dominated? Or perhaps the 60% of rural citizens who don't have access to clean and safe water and the 44% who put it as their top priority for government action live mostly in safe seats?

Or perhaps you have a better suggestion?

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Part of the reason behind this particular post is that today is Blog Action Day, for which the theme this year is water. (Thanks to Pernille for pointing this out to us.) For an organisation like Daraja, where water is one of our major areas of focus, and with our very own blog, how could we ignore this opportunity.