Who is accountable?

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This post was originally published on the CGIAR Development Dialogues 'Talking Science' Blog Competition.

Who are public water service providers held accountable to? To the politicians and policy makers who define their goals and allocate public resources to achieve those goals? Or are they accountable to the citizens, including the poor, to whom they are providing their services?

Women using a public water tap in Dhap, Nepal where the community manages the local irrigation system. Photo: Tom van Cakengerghe/IWMI Women using a public water tap in Dhap, Nepal where the community manages the local irrigation system. Photo: Tom van Cakengerghe/IWMI

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) strongly emphasize the latter: realizing human rights through transparency, accountability and participation. Unfortunately, the public sector’s current administrative set up of water services provision through many parallel, highly specialized single-use sub-sectors, or ‘silos’, either for irrigation, or for domestic uses, or for soils, or for fisheries, is not very helpful. Upward accountability, even in the name of professionalism, jeopardizes downward accountability to poor women and men: a paradox?

I met an irrigation engineer in Nepal, and one in South Africa, who told me exactly the same: ‘I always forbid women to take water for domestic uses from the irrigation canal. If I fail to do that and they fall sick, I can be held responsible’. This attitude is professional. Yet, the implicit message is: ‘it is not my job to find any better solution to meet these women’s water needs. As an irrigation engineer, I ignore that the UN has declared water for domestic uses as a human right’.

This is not an exceptional case. Across the world, I have found professionals’ reluctant to address a problem on their path that was seen as the ‘mandate’ and responsibility of another silo. Professionals respect other professionals’ expertise. They are careful not to step on others' toes. The bottom-line seems that professionals respect the public sector’s funding streams and the goals attached to those. After all, irrigation canals are paid by the department of irrigation, so that water should be used for irrigation. Professionals in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sub-sector claim that water supplies paid for in their silo are only for domestic uses.

The bird’s eye view

From the top, it looks neat. Politicians and policy makers allocate public funds from the top-down over a range of public service providers, or source tasks out to private service providers, each with different mandates, often around specific technical expertise. It makes sense at the top but fails on the ground.

For the rural and peri-urban poor, who depend on water for their diversified livelihoods, water is water. While service providers are entirely accountable to the policy makers in meeting their narrowly defined goals, communities have a very different view on accountability in water services: they need water for multiple domestic and productive uses. Accordingly, seventy percent of rural households use so-called ‘domestic’ water supplies for non-domestic uses as well.

Virtually all irrigation schemes are used for non-irrigation purposes. For women in charge of water for domestic needs, the irrigation canal is a better option than no canal. The water sector’s silos are alien to users.

Cutting across silos

The Multiple Use water Services (MUS) approach takes these multiple water needs as a starting point for the planning and provision of water services. Its implementation since the early 2000s has shown at least five sets of benefits:

  1. Multi-purpose infrastructure is more cost-efficient than infrastructure designed for a single use. The incremental costs of enabling multiple uses generate major incremental benefits.
  2. Multiple water uses improves many dimensions of human wellbeing, including health from safe drinking water, alleviation of time intensive domestic chores, and by extension improved food and income security.
  3. Communities are more resilient to shocks and disturbances on a single water source as a result of combining the uses of multiple sources of water, such as rainfall, run-off, reservoirs, wetlands and groundwater.
  4. Understanding communities’ priorities ensures ownership in water development and management and, hence, relevance and sustainability of services.
  5. Greater consideration and adaptation to local socio-ecological opportunities and constraints results from understanding communities' priorities.

These benefits are not rocket science; communities have been managing their water resources in this way since time immemorial. Yet professionals used to forbid or ignore such people-driven, non-planned uses and their benefits, blinded by silos and concentration on upward accountability. They, at best, claimed this was ‘not their job’ when asked to accommodate these uses on an ad-hoc basis.

Embedding accountability

Multiple Use water Services implementers found two ways to better combine accountability to service providers, governments and users.

First, policy makers and senior managers of service provider organizations maintain their sub-sector’s goals as a priority.  However, they expand upon them to promote a wider range of water uses for broad human development outcome.

Thus, irrigation professionals ensure that domestic water needs are also met, respecting this human right. The WASH sub-sector provides enough water to also enable small-scale productive uses.

This fills the current gap that no policy maker has taken responsibility of yet: to operationalize governments’ obligations as duty bearers, to respect and protect current water uses, and to support new water infrastructure development to meet the right to food and an adequate standard of living

The second way to improve accountability is to decentralize decision-making.  Service providers should enable a participatory planning process and commit funding to the outcomes. This aligns with the mandate of local government, which is the major partner for upscaling of MUS. Specialist expertise remains much needed, but becomes demand-driven. Engineers and hydrologists offer choices to communities through participatory design of multi-purpose infrastructure combining multiple sources.

Agronomists, health specialists, economists, and other professionals keep ensuring that water uses turn into health and wealth. This local and community-driven development approach is in line with the profound shift by global and national development, financing and employment generation policies since the 2000s towards downward accountability, participation, and transparency for better public service performance.

The SDGs emphasize the need to overcome sectoral boundaries for integrated, holistic approaches. MUS achieves such integration in a bottom-up manner, starting with the women and men whose problems and solutions are integrated. This is considerably more successful than seeking integration from the top down, for example through Integrated Water Resource Management, or pre-determined combinations of single water uses into ‘nexuses’. By tapping five new sets of benefits, MUS underscores both the merits of cross-sectoral integration and the improved performance of people-driven water development and management.

The MUS Group is a network of 14 core partners and over 350 members, and serves as the platform for learning, synthesis, and joint advocacy around MUS: www.musgroup.net