Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kevin and the flying toilet

A thundering piece on the right to clean water from "the boy Kev" (Kevin Watkins) in The Guardian today. It would be nice to know that the South African model and the new parternships in Senegal and Manila to which her refers are working as well as he implies, and really do offer a model/replicable kit with which exisiting and future campaigns can build.


Anonymous said...

The figures in these sort of articles are rarely if ever sourced and by my guess are exaggerated and depend a lot of exact definations of access to adequate water and sanitation but we all agree that further investment in this area, if it can be delivered reasonably well, is to be welcomed. No one is supporting subsidies of any kind to better off households in Nairobi or elsewhere so this is a straw man. The arguement is about whether we will make more progress with commerical companies providing and selling water or with state owned and operated free or subsidised provision. Just shouting that water is a human right doesn't get us anywhere. And just shouting for more investment doesn't get us anywhere unless that investment is going to go into a reasonably effective providers. It sounds like Kevin is essentially on the side of state provision and water as a right rather than a commodity. My personnel view is that this perspective will slow progress. If people are too poor to by water then give them income. This will be cheaper, better targeted, more effective and less wasteful than trying to give free or subsidized water to everyone. The same is true for sanitation. No one, including the poor, wants to use public sanitation facilities. They need to be owned and cleaned by individual family units. But there is nothing wrong with the chamber pot and public disposal facility concept. This has worked in Asia for centuries. But if someone wants to put in a full blown sanitation system in Nairobi slums then that would be fine with me but you would then have the ironic situation of children still malnurished and no access to schools but they would have a flush toilet costing more than their house and all their other assets. The opportunity cost of all these pleas for more investments need to considered. I suspect that a truck or cart based disposal system would be most cost effective.


Caspar Henderson said...

The UN World Water Development Report details the scale of the challenges. But less detail on solutions. See: Water policy 'fails world's poor'

S Slaughter said...

The "skeptical response" below has several major flaws. Avoiding his doubt on the figures (which are actually as reported by the UN Statistics group, as well as several other reputable sources), there are two major assumptions that he makes which are critical to address if we (the world) are actually going to successfully address these issues.

His first assumption is that access to clean water and sewage treatment is simply an economic transaction, without any social ramifications. For the past several thousand years, societies explicitly recognized that spoiled water supplies and overflowing sewers threatened the health of everyone in the community. (Great examples are the construction of the water systems in ancient Rome and newly-settled New York City.) Water treatment was seen as a major public health priority, particularly after the contagion modes of various water-borne illnesses were identified in the mid-1800s. Recognition that access to clean drinking water and treatment of sewage wastes is a basic societal concern, and therefore ultimately the responsibility of the government (provided either through private or public means), will be essential to mobilizing the needed resources and attention.

His second major assumption is that the only choices are either the "chamberpot"/"cart based disposal system" or the "full blown sanitation system" that, he implies, will be prohibitively expensive. Increasingly, there are technological alternatives that can provide basic water purification and sewage treatment without reliance on the large-scale centralized plant approach that has dominated developed countries and without the significant price tag both for the initial construction and ongoing operations and maintenance. Increasing the availability (and knowledge about) these alternatives could break the logjam that currently seems to be blocking major movement on these issues.