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May 04, 2012

Making water and sanitation a reality for all Africans

Africa|PROJECT|Project Management|Resources|Sustainable|Systems|Water|Africa|Benin|Mozambique|Tanzania|USD|Gross Domestic Product|Maintenance|Sanitation Services|Services|Systems|Water Systems|Environmental|Infrastructure|Jamal Saghir|Water|Sub-Saharan Africa
Africa|PROJECT|Project Management|Resources|Sustainable|Systems|Water|Africa|Tanzania||Maintenance|Services|Systems||Environmental|Infrastructure|Water|
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By: Jamal Saghir

Dirty water and poor sanitation sicken and kill tens of thousands of people each year in sub-Saharan Africa and imposes a heavy economic cost on countries that is equivalent to 1.4% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of some countries.

Since access to potable water and sanitation was first recognised as a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) in 2000, budgets for water and sanitation have grown in much of Africa. But bigger budgets and more spending have not significantly expanded access to services in most countries. This is because the continent’s population continues to grow at a fast rate, the extra public financing is not being effec- tively spent, too little is being done to maintain existing water facilities and infrastructure and water systems in countries embroiled in conflict have been destroyed or damaged.

Recently, the World Bank and the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef, cohosted a high-level Ministerial dialogue on sanitation and water, which took stock of the water and sanitation situation around the world. This provided a vital opportunity for governments, donors, civil society, the private sector and other key partners to confront the stark truth that safe water and sanitation in Africa remain out of reach of many, especially poor people.

In a recent World Bank study of water and sanitation services in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, it found that public spending still falls considerably short of government commitments and of inter- national and national policy goals. On average, governments spent $1.71 per person on water supply and sanitation, which equates to less than 0.5% of GDP and is five times lower than what is estimated to be needed each year to meet sub-Saharan Africa’s MDG targets.

It was also found that actual patterns of spending stand in stark contrast to the economic and social rationales behind such spending. Too small a share of available funds is spent to expand poor people’s access to essential services and to address the health and environmental problems created by unsafe water. Too little is spent on maintaining water supply infrastructure. Too little is spent on sanitation. Too great a share of public funding goes to subsidising water for richer citizens who can afford to pay unsubsidised prices. Too great a share is wasted by inefficient utility practices, such as overstaffing and underbilling, for example.

Targeting public spending on the poor will call for well-off citizens to pay for the water they use. Water and sanitation cannot develop sustainably until the wealthy begin paying for their services so that public financing can be directed to where it is needed most – to improve the lives of poor people.

Low utility tariffs are a major issue. However, before making changes to the tariffs, utilities should improve their effi- ciency by addressing their low billing and collection ratios. Promoting better maintenance of existing assets can cut spending on costly rehabilitation, thus increasing the budget available for expanding access.

While many African governments have updated their water policies, they have been less effective in terms of putting them into practice, with national and local governments unsure about their respective duties. Tanzania, a notable exception, has embraced a decentralised approach to water and sanitation, where national government transfers to Tanzanian local governments reached nearly 40% of the water budget in 2008, up from zero in 2005.

Only two-thirds of water and sanitation budgets are actually spent. To improve budget execution, government capacities in project management, especially at local level, will need to be strengthened to make well- intentioned plans succeed. More detailed planning and speedier pro- curement will decrease the number of abandoned works and reduce delays.

Fortunately, there are some positive examples. For example, Benin has combined reforms of public expendi- ture management, while developing new investment programmes. Donors helped government to improve its management and implementation capacity so that the allocated funds could be spent within a budget cycle. Between 2001 and 2008, the number of new water points built each surged more than fourfold. Meanwhile, better budgeting and greater transparency in public financing persuaded several donors to increase their funding to Benin.

Finally, it was found that donor funds were often badly targeted and unpredict- able, resulting in execution rates that are lower than those of internal resources. Donors need to work together more closely and organise themselves behind a country’s water and development plans. Donor funding is critical, as internal spending is not enough to fund improved water and sanitation. But donor funds are often fragmented.

One water utility in Mozambique, for example, had 19 separate donors in 2008. Donor funding commitments for the coming years are a good start. But greater harmonisation and pooling of their aid money are vital to avoid overwhelming a country’s ability to plan, budget, implement and report back to the donors on how their aid is being used. As a first step, development partners should consider forming a donor group for the sector to jump-start the necessary pooling, harmonisation and joint evaluation.

The World Bank review revealed a lack of efficient public spending and showed how better-off citizens end up capturing the benefits of public spending on water and sanitation at the expense of poorer people. The emotional argument for more expendi- ture on clean water and better sanitation will be greatly strengthened by improving the targeting and execution of public spending so that clean drinking water and healthy sanitation services become a reality for all Africans.


  • Saghir is director for sustainable development for the Africa region at the World Bank.
Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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