Monday, January 14, 2019

Reimagining rural drinking water supply

Have you ever thought about the differences between how international development agencies, social enterprises, and governments in developed countries view the same development challenge. Let me illustrate with the example of providing drinking water to rural areas.

The world of international development agencies view rural water supply in terms of providing hand bores or submersible borewells with delivery standposts (and often storage tanks). Accordingly, the multilateral and bilateral agencies spend billions of dollars annually in providing rural drinking water supply. There are also local variants, ranging from chlorination of local stream water to even local primary treatment based facilities. 

The world of impact investing relies on social entrepreneurs who have devised innovative business and delivery models and technologies to deliver drinking water to people in villages on a sustainable basis. 

Finally, there is the world of public service delivery in developed countries. Like urban areas, rural water supply in developed countries is provided by treating river/lake water and delivering them to a catchment of population through a network of pipes, storage tanks, and booster stations. How many developed countries, at any stage of their economic development, has had water supply in rural areas through bore wells?

I agree that in deeply resource constrained environments, piped drinking water in villages is a pipe-dream. But it cannot be also denied that all the other approaches currently being tried out are weak holding operations at best and deeply unsustainable ones too (how much ground water can you draw after all). And in at least the middle-income countries, piped water rural water supply is no longer an unrealistic pitch as Telangana is showing

I can also understand the perspective of social enterprises. They are after all very marginal, almost negligible, players in addressing the global problem. Much the same applies to the non-profits too engaged with the problem. 

The hold of this narrative is such that academics, philanthropists, aid agency personnel and others engaged with development are so consumed with such ideas as to be not able to view such first-order development problems in their true perspective. So the provision of rural roads and electricity supply and so on are evaluated for impact and value for money on a partial equilibrium basis. 

Lant Pritchett has talked about "kinky development", the process of "defining development down",
Across the board, rich countries are backing away from the national development goals of poor countries, such as broad-based prosperity and effective government—i.e. productive economies, capable states, citizen controlled polities, and modern social interactions—towards a narrow agenda of low-bar goals, such as reducing “dollar a day” poverty; “completing primary schooling” (with no mention of quality of learning or education beyond primary); accessing basic water and sanitation; or focusing less on health and more on specific diseases. This is what I have called the “kinky development” agenda, as it doesn’t attempt to raise well-being across the board in developing countries, but just “kink” the distribution at arbitrarily low levels... 
Consider in this context the “Power Africa” initiative announced by the Obama Administration in June 2013 to improve access for the 600 million Africans who lack electricity. The press brief claimed: “Power Africa will build on Africa’s enormous power potential, including new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas, and the potential to develop clean geothermal, hydro, wind and solar energy.” Of course coal—which in 2013 supplied 39 percent of all American electricity—is not mentioned, because both the US and the World Bank had announced a ban on funding coal plants. But then America’s 2014 Appropriations Act declared that Senator Patrick Leahy, whose state of Vermont relies on hydropower and who endorses hydropower for his state, was able to insert a clause to block support for precisely what Power Africa supports, and to do so with more or less political impunity. Perhaps promoting energy source diversification is why President Obama, while touring a power plant in Africa, thought it politically expedient to promote the Soccket ball. For those of you who still have not been introduced to this technological marvel, the Soccket ball is a soccer ball containing a battery that is charged by the kinetic energy of being kicked. This contraption is perhaps one of the best illustrations of the gap between development realities (the average Ethiopian consumes 52 kwh of electricity and the average American 13,246 kwh) and the “solutions” being proposed by the world’s elite: ban coal and limit hydro and if Africans want power, let them kick some soccer balls round.
There is something about the need to reimagine development away from what is the propagated narrative that has been foisted by external do-gooders. For far too long, the development narrative in India has been entrapped in what is peddled by international development experts. And rural water supply is but only one example. 

At this stage of its economic development, India needs to shed the narratives that international development agencies have long peddled. No more handpumps and motor borewells, the time for treated piped water supply is well past. It needs more like the Telangana's Mission Bhagiratha and not some World Bank funded piecemeal rural water supply schemes.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello Sir,

What are your views on micro-finance loans being provided to individuals to get connection to piped water or instituting hand pumps in their backyard; especially in hilly areas?