Water is a right. The price is wrong! … HDR 2006 UNDP

UNDP HDR 2006Yes… another exciting gripping Human Development Report, 2006 … ‘Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and Global Water Crisis’ hits the web!

Take another look, HDR 2006 in particular addresses the the crisis that leaves 1.2 billion people without access to enough safe water and 2.6 billion without access to sanitation. In addition to the arguments one would expect: A drive to achieve water and sanitation for all through national strategies and a global plan of action; examining the social and economic forces that are driving water shortages and marginalizing the agricultural poor; and investigating options for international cooperation to resolve cross-border tensions in water management. It also presents interesting arguments in favour of privatisation of water supply.

A sharply analytical and hard hitting report, it highlights issues such as the 1.8m children who die from diarrhoea annually because local government cannot avoid the mixing of faeces and water! and identifies action needed. An interesting article in the Economist points out… not least it identifies that the simplest and most obvious tool to ensure effective delivery of services is often most neglected… Price.

Water is a right, however it has a cost of delivery that must be met, as the report points out, “Underpricing (or zero pricing in some cases) has sustained over use: if markets delivered Porsche Cars at give-away prices, they too would be in short supply”

The World Bank estimates that it takes approx $10 per household to supply subsistence water, Vivien Foster and Tito Yepes estimate that in Latin America 90% households could afford this paying 5% income. However in sub-Saharan Africa and India more than half would struggle to pay this amount.

Currently government subsides in water supply flow to the wealthy and middle class, the urban minority connected to water systems. Subsidy of water supply is neccessary, utilities private or government funded need support but to provide appropriate supply to those not connected to the water grid.

HDR praises Chile where the government covers 85% to 25% of water bills to those households that can illustrate need, of course the secret to success. For such a model to be effective and honest it requires both identification of those in need and water metering. However it also provides good data to enable planning and expansion of urban water grids, unusually with known income.

Of course the poor already pay a disproportionately large percentage of income on water through all sorts of small scale private sector such as vendors and freelancers selling from bowsers, drilling wells and laying pipes.

It is unfortunate that the best of intentions had led many to focus on an argument of public or private water supply, the HDR’s determined focus on practicalities and reality is refreshing. It would be marvellous if UNDP could translate this call for action into a concerted drive by its country offices to inform, monitor and shape government practice in support of appropriate private sector service provision.

For some thoughtful insights see
27.11.2006 ODI comments on the HDR 2006
02.12.2006 “Turning the tap off” by Alberto at Globalab