14 Nov 2011

The politics of water supply are coming to the boil

Mohammed Dewji helps out. Photo from wavuti.com
This blog has long argued that the major challenges in the water sector are more political than technical. We have also highlighted the fact that the political nature of the challenges has not been matched by political attention. Water supply was largely ignored in the 2010 election campaigns, for example, not featuring in the major campaign promises of any of the big three parties' presidential candidates nor gaining much attention in election media coverage (here and here).

Now, four separate developments in the past few weeks point to a change in the politics of water supply in Tanzania. So what are the new developments, and what is the change that they point to?

This blog documented the first of the new developments just last week - that villagers in part of Ludewa district reportedly turned to violence in anger at the slow pace of progress in the national 10-villages programme. They made compulsory community contributions (10,000 per household), nearly five years ago, on the basis that a "World Bank" project (actually part of the multi-donor Water Sector Development Programme, or WSDP) was coming soon. They're still waiting, and are likely to be waiting for a long time yet, given the mess that the 10-villages programme is in.

Second, the Njombe North MP, Deo Sanga (known locally as "Jah People"), asked a question in parliament on when the long-promised new water projects in his constituency were to be constructed. The answer- that 656m/- (around $400,000) has been set aside in the 2011/12 budget - is also linked to the 10-villages programme. The villages mentioned are among the ten that were selected for Njombe district back in 2006/7. Similar allocations have been made in the current year's budget for all districts - Njombe's is slightly higher than average as it has a higher than average population. (But note that similar allocations were made last year and no funds were disbursed.)

Third, the Singida Urban MP, Mohammed Dewji, has stated that he spent 500m/- on water projects in ten villages in his constituency (reported here and here). Given his personal wealth, this is certainly possible, but it's worth noting that the 10 villages mentioned by Dewji are the very same villages that were selected for Singida Urban under the 10-villages programme. Either he is presenting public expenditure as his personal expenditure, which would not be unusual for a politician, and would anyway mean he has done very well to get these projects funded well before the equivalent projects in other districts. Or he too lost patience with the 10-villages programme and decided to use his personal wealth to keep his constituents happy after their expectations were raised by their selection in the 10-villages programme.

Finally, as this blog noted a few weeks ago, Chadema has spotted an opportunity in rural water supply and are doing what they can to exploit it. Their benefactor, Mustafa Sabodo, is spending $1.5m on water projects in mostly Chadema-held constituencies.

What do these cases tell us? Well, first, they show again how the politics of water supply are local. In Ludewa these were protests about promised waterpoints in a sub-village of Lugarawa village. In Njombe and Singida, the MPs make a point of listing the villages involved. These are not issues of policy or law, but the very local, very practical issue of when a particular village is going to get a water project. Water supply is a naturally local issue, more often discussed as "when will my village get a new water project?" on a village-by-village or town-by-town basis rather than as part of a national conversation.

Second is the more pressing point that the politics of water supply in rural Tanzania are heating up. Violence in Ludewa, Chadema getting active, questions in parliament, MPs losing patience and taking things into their own hands - this all points to growing anger at community level, growing pressure on MPs to do something. Which is hardly a surprise. After all, if you were forced to pay for something five years ago, and hadn't received it by now, wouldn't you be angry?

And these politics are likely to get hotter. Remember that people made financial contributions to the cost of water projects in 10 villages in every district, but that funds are only available for an average of 3 of those villages in each district. People in the other seven villages per district have waited five years already, and are going to have to wait several more years before they see any water flowing. In most cases, they haven't yet been told that they're going to have to keep waiting. I wouldn't want to be the person sent to tell them. Yet surely they have the right to know. And if they want their money back so that they can go it alone, or just so that they stop losing out to inflation and bank charges, that sounds pretty reasonable as well.

My guess is that with people having to wait longer, the protests and violence in Ludewa will turn out to be the first of many such cases. And that MPs will find themselves under more and more pressure to fulfil their promises.

My fear is that with so much control concentrated at the centre, where decision makers are isolated from the local pressures on village leaders, councils and MPs, little or nothing will be done to respond to the increasingly vocal demands of community members. Councils' hands are tied and few MPs can afford to spend their own money on solving the problem (and nor should they have to), but the Ministry and donors don't feel the pressure. There can be no accountability when decision makers are so divorced from ground-level realities. So instead of clear and decisive action to resolve the situation, we continue to drift deeper and deeper into crisis.