Thursday, 13 September 2012

Post-2015 Blog Week: 'So we've achieved the water MDG in theory, but what about in practice?' by Rob Waugh, Busoga Trust

Rob Waugh is Development Manager at Busoga Trust, and can be found on Twitter at

There is a scene in the film “The Great Escape” where Steve McQueen and Angus Lennie decide to escape from the prison camp by digging their way to freedom overnight. They achieve speed by simply burrowing like moles, filling in the tunnel behind them as they move forward. They don’t bother worrying about building the support structure behind  them to ensure that the tunnel doesn’t collapse because that would slow them down in achieving their goal; freedom. 

You may have guessed where this tenuous analogy is leading. 

There are many criticisms of the MDGs, especially when it comes to their prioritisation of water, sanitation (which didn’t even make an appearance in the original draft) and hygiene (which still isn’t specified, despite it being one of the most important public health interventions), but it is worth giving them credit for making the international community strive towards a goal. 

Unfortunately, in terms of water and sanitation, the pursuit of that goal has been all too similar to that of McQueen and Lennie; we have made achieving the goal our priority, without giving enough thought to whether a solid tunnel remains intact to allow others to use it

The UN-WHO JMP report which makes the claim that we have hit the “water target” also concedes that this doesn’t take into account the functionality or the water quality of protected sources and rightly notes that sanitation is well off track. So we’ve achieved the MDG in theory, but in practice?  We questioned this assertion but our voice is small. Then Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People, brought his guns to bear and shot gaping holes in the JMP report, citing surveys of functionality in Mozambique.

However, this is not an exercise in stone throwing. We all want to achieve full, sustainable coverage. We want to have full, sustainable access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. 

The Busoga Trust is a small organisation but an experienced one and we have learnt many lessons. Learnt, more often than not, through our mistakes and the mistakes of others. We have constructed a lot of water sources in that time, but a few years ago we realised that we could not be sure how many were still functional. This was an unacceptable situation in our eyes, though one which partly as a result of being at the mercy of donor priorities. We resolved to ensure that 100% of our sources are functional and now 50% of our monthly workload is in carrying out rehabilitations. Our strategy, is to look to the past, present and future of our work in Uganda;

Past:            Identify non-functional sources and rehabilitate them. Fully review and update our database.

Present:       Reinstate our comprehensive long term monitoring, evaluation and maintenance system.

Future:     Continue to provide water sources to communities but only as one part of an integrated intervention where sanitation and hygiene come first.

So the question which this whole article has been gearing up to ask in a circuitous way is;“What would we like to see in the successor to the MDGs?”

Leaving aside the issue of greater prioritisation of WASH within the MDGs/successor, because we assume this will be argued for by many others in this blog series,  we would like any future MDGs  to contain a clear and distinct provision for accurate reporting of coverage levels and consolidation of the work carried out in the last 15 years. 

We do not want the international community to pat itself on the back in 2015 on a job well done without first checking that the job has actually been done. Is the provision sustainable? Are pumps working? Is open defecation still polluting water from safe sources? Are aquifers being drained to serve a short term economic purpose? 
We found this derelict well on a village survey - the villagers had actually gone back to taking water from the traditional source. The well had only been installed about 3 years previously.

This should happen across the board, not just in the WASH sector; are DOTS programmes for TB experiencing full participation? Are cases of malaria being properly diagnosed and if so, is the full course of treatment being adhered to? If skilled birth attendants are trained and employed, are the transport logistics in place to actually get them to patients? 

Children drinking from one of our newly installed pumps in rural Uganda.
In the WASH sector, such work is already happening; in Uganda the Ministry of Water & Environment has produced the Water Atlas, a comprehensive mapping exercise detailing every rural water point and functionality levels. They also record reasons for water point failure. The question is whether that data can be kept current. The organisation Water for People also launched a macro-reporting concept model at World Water Week in Stockholm, pithily entitled “Reimagining Reporting”.  

Our point is that any successor to the MDGs ought to pursue accurate reporting and integrity of information as a goal in itself. Governments should be supported in developing their monitoring capacity, rather than purely chasing the donor dollar down unsustainable avenues. 

I doubt consolidation or monitoring is as easy to sell as a set of aspirational targets, but if we fail to do this then that tunnel will collapse behind us and the whole exercise of the MDGs will need repeating by successive generations.

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