State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Water, Development and Corruption: An Unholy Alliance

A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel highlighted some of the problems of building water infrastructure in the very regions where the Columbia Water Center is trying to work.  The article cited intense corruption, as well as other factors, as barriers towards building improved water infrastructure.  The most shocking point in the article is that “the U.N. spends $13 billion annually on third-world water projects, and yet the number of people worldwide without access to drinkable water has been stuck for a decade at more than 1 billion”.

three-gorges-dam1
The Three Gorges Dam (China Highlights, Inc)

Assuming this article, which quotes heavily from the Acumen Fund, is correct, what consequences follow?  What types of solutions might work, where others have long failed?  It is apparent that fresh, innovative thinking is needed in the water space.    At a minimum, big infrastructure projects, such as those now being attempted in China and India, need to be approached with caution.  Even in developed countries, large scale infrastructure projects often tend to be inefficient and riddled with corruption.  While these projects can  capture the public imagination, it’s not at all clear that they close to the most cost-effective way to provide water.

Workable solutions to the water crisis will need to involve more than building infrastructure.  Some effort must be made to empower individual users of water and to harness market forces.  The Journal-Sentinel article states that many users are completely willing to pay for water, even of questionable quality.  It’s just that corruption and political interference get in the way, driving costs up unfairly, while also diminishing the quantity and quality of water provided.  Viable solutions will need to find some way of harnessing people’s willingness to pay, while also making an end-run around institutional corruption.   A more detailed look at some  possible solutions will follow in coming weeks in this blog.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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Ujala Qadir
Ujala Qadir
14 years ago

$13 billion annually and not a dent in numbers of people with access to potable water! While that number is shocking, it reminds me of traveling the country side in Pakistan and seeing NGO funded pipe stands everywhere that no longer worked. When I asked people about it, they said they didn’t have the money for maintenance. On the other hand, where communities were well organized they collected user fees and maintained a fund for operation and maintenance. The solution has to come from the people who have the most to gain.

While the UN is committed to increasing access to drinking water, a lot more needs to be done to ensure effective utilization of all the money that is being directed toward this goal.

Joe Gautier
14 years ago

We’ve had the answer to the world’s water treatment problems for at least 5 years. Beijing, Bangalore, Manila and even D.C. have had access to this product since 2000. We have the solution. What we don’t have is a corporate conscience that allows the solution to drip down (literally) to the largest band of the population WITHOUT being pilfered by governments and white collar criminals. Water, like any other commodity, is NOT a human right in the minds of these groups as long as their greed is greater than their convictions. We cleaned up the water in Beijing prior to the Olympics, but the Chinese would not allow the product outside of the primary use, which was to make Beijing presentable to the world…while the people just 4 miles outside of the City were denied access to the water itself. In my experience, most NGO’s are in the business of remaining in business…much the same as the way the Cancer Industry refuses to investigate the procedures that work, but aren’t profitable. What use is it to say “shame on you.?”

Michelle Shevin
Michelle Shevin
14 years ago

There is a fundamental disconnect between public need, technological development, and political will. As the population grows and the world gets smaller, interdisciplinary groups will have to work with, as Ujala put it, “the people who have the most to gain.” Sort of sounds like the Water Center, I guess. 🙂

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