6 Dec 2011

Rural water supply in Tanzania since independence, and for the next 50 years

Photo from www.juliusnyerere.info
It is, quite rightly, the season for raising our eyes and looking up at the horizon. December 9th, 2011 will mark 50 years since the British flag came down on Tanganyika and the country's life as an independent nation began. So what better time to think a little further than the hot political issue of the day (which is usually forgotten within a week or two) or even most NGOs' furthest horizon - the 5 year strategic plan?

There are plenty of others who are better placed to assess Tanzania's past achievements and future prospects in political or economic terms, so I won't trespass on their terrain. But I can say something about rural water supply. In particular, I have identified two themes of change in the sector - covering the past 50 years and the next - that I think may be of interest.

First, for a little more than the first half of Tanzania's independent history, "free water" was the policy. In line with Ujamaa policies, or African Socialism, the government was to shoulder the costs both of investing in new infrastructure and of keeping that infrastructure running.

But politics and economics change. In 1991, a new National Water Policy signalled the end of "free water" and the adoption of a more market-based approach. Another new National Water Policy in 2002 cemented this change further.

Was the "free water" policy dropped simply because it was no longer in line with the national and international consensus on free markets? Perhaps, but it is also true that the policy wasn't working. Free water is great for those who have access to clean and safe water, but it means there is less money available for extending services to people who don't. And even for those with access, it means infrastructure is likely to be poorly maintained. In short, there was no money for investment, and no money for running costs.

Tanzania's rural water supply sector is still struggling to cope with this change, in two ways. The free water mindset is still widespread, often justified with the line that "water is a gift from God". That may be so, but God doesn't pay for rusted pipes or a broken down pump to be repaired or replaced. And the legacy of 30 years of underinvestment is a massive backlog of demand for new and improved services.

But looking forward, the more market-based approach looks to be the right one. The sector may not be making the progress we would hope for, the problem is more one of practical coordination at the centre rather than policy.

Second, perhaps the biggest theme of all is the challenge of keeping up with population growth, 50 years ago, Tanganyika was a country of around 8-10 million people, with over 90% living in rural areas. Today, Tanzania has around 5 times that number of people, and though there has been some urbanisation, still around 75% of Tanzania's population live in rural areas. 

This rapid population growth puts huge demands on water supply. Even the massive spending on rural water supply in the last five years - under the Water Sector Development Programme - is not currently keeping up with the pace of population growth. By the time currently planned projects are completed, an estimated 1 million people will benefit, but the rural population will have risen by 2 million people in the same period. 

Source: The Economist
And this is a challenge that is going to get bigger. By 2060, the UN estimates the population of Tanzania will be 172 million, nearly 4 times the current population. By 2100, the same source estimates that Tanzania's population will reach over 300 million, making it the world's fifth biggest country - see chart.

Of course, these are (unreliable) projections that will probably not happen. But there's no doubt that Tanzania's population is set to grow massively. Whether Tanzania's rural water supply sector can keep up (and catch up) with this growth is much more in doubt.

To do so, funding for the sector will have to continue to grow. More importantly, this money will have to be spent more efficiently than is currently the case. That seems unlikely to happen while decision making in the sector is so centralised. Centralised decision making is currently failing to cope with a rural population of 30 million, how can it possibly cope with 100 million?

Or perhaps the best hope for rural water supply in Tanzania is family planning?