Pro-poor water management: community participation and ownership

Water Justice report from World Water Week Day 4

24 August 2011

‘Pro-poor urban water provision’ was a big theme at World Water Week in Stockholm this year. But what is pro-poor water provision, in practice?

‘Pro-poor urban water provision’ is a big theme at World Water Week in Stockholm this year. The seminar on 'Pro-Poor Urban Water and Sanitation Provision: how can it be supported by participation, benchmarking and WOPs' attracted a nearly full room (200 people). The large turnout indicates an encouraging increased interest in public water management, after many years where market driven approaches such as Public private partnerships (PPP) were in fashion.

But what is pro-poor water provision in practice? Mary Kimani, vice chair of Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company, talked about the challenges in Nairobi’s informal settlements, where 20% of the city’s populations live. The public utility has introduced an ambitious programme in response to an important change in Kenya’s constitution. The new constitution under way in Kenya obliges water authorities to supply water to all citizens regardless of their ability to pay. The constitutional amendment follows of the two recent UN resolutions endorsing the human right to access to water and sanitation.

In a context of citizens in informal settlements being unable to pay, Nairobi Water has introduced a ‘social connection policy’ and works with residents in the informal settlements to lay water pipes to connect individual households as well as communal water points. While Nairobi Water is responsible for expanding the networks, community members contribute to the works with their labour and are trained to sustain the water systems.

Dinesh Mehta from India presented the experience from Meadi Nagar in India, where 90 % of urban poor have a household water connection and 87% have house toilets. According to Mehta, the success of this community participation project is not only due to the local governments’ political and financial commitment but also the feeling of ownership among the water users. Metha strongly recommended to aim to connect individual households to the piped water systems rather than building common community drinking water facilities and toilets. Why? Common facilities are expensive in terms of maintenance for public authorities, whereas if people get a house connection they will take care of maintenance themselves. Laying water pipes in slum settlements also means paving the streets. In Meadi Nagar community people started improving their houses. The pictures Mehta showed reminded me that access to water and sanitation is indeed not only essential for life but a matter of dignity. The investment in the project was funded by the local government and Mehta ended his presentation with a call to get rid of the ‘donor dependency syndrome’.

David Boys of Public Services International in his speech connected the previous presentations with a set of global policy demands. Criticising the emphasis on market incentives in international water policy debates, Boys stressed that the UN’s human right to water resolutions clearly affirm the responsibility of governments to ensure safe water and adequate sanitation to all citizens. This should lead to a new focus on how to make public water utilities work better through appropriate taxation and redistribution policies, social investments, international cooperation, etc.

About the authors

Satoko Kishimoto

She was an environmental activist and active in the youth environmental movement in Japan in the 1990s. She began working with TNI in 2003, at the time of 3rd World Water Forum held in Kyoto, Japan. TNI successfully organized a seminar on Alternatives to Water Privatisation, which was the starting point of the Water Justice Project. In 2005, the Reclaiming Public Water (RPW) Network was created with the contributors to the book 'Reclaiming Public Water'. TNI serves as the coordinating hub of the RPW network and Satoko is the coordinator of the network. The RPW network connects activists, trade unionists, researchers, community activists, and public water operators from around the world, and advocates progressive public water reforms and Public-Public Partnerships as the key elements for solving the global crisis in access to clean water and sanitation. 

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