Today, I thought I should walk up the hill to my hotel which is not so far from the conference hall where the joint water and sanitation sector review is taking place. I should have heeded the warning not to do so. Now I pay the price for my stubborn choice and I get to enjoy the blistering heat of the Sahel sun. It is 40 degrees Celsius (102 F) in Niamey, Niger and I am not enjoying my walk at all but I must go on.
Up from the sides of the road to my right, someone puts a bucket of water on the tarmac. It is a young boy, possibly 10-13 years of age. He is on his daily errands and he’s had to climb up a steep slope to get to the road side. ‘I do this every day to help my mother’ he tells me when I ask how often he does this. A while later, he goes back down the steep slope to pick a piece of wood he also has to carry uphill. After a short chat he bids me farewell. ‘Au revoir!’ he says with a smile and he continues on his journey.
His right hand helping to balance the bucket of water on his heard and the piece of wood clasped in his left hand. Up the hill he goes crossing to the other side of the road after a few meters. He is now a master at crossing what I thought could be a dangerous road especially for a young person with that bucket on his head. He reminds me of my young brother and I in the mid-90s when we used to do almost exactly what he is doing. Except sometimes we had the luck of using a wheelbarrow. I can only imagine how much time this has to take from his school or studies but his cheerfulness endears me to soldier on.
Across my continent, Africa, an estimated 40 billion working hours a year are spent fetching water. In Kenya, a rural household may make up to 7 trips a day often by women and girls to get water. The time, the hard work, the opportunity cost, they are all enormous but it is the order of life in several places especially in rural areas. This should not be but it is.
I know that there is a well built and affluent community on the other side of the road from where I met the young boy in Niamey. The people there have water running through their taps and they don’t have to worry about the dark dreary path to the latrine in the night. They are part of the 76% that enjoy access to water in urban areas of Niger. The young boy and his family are only 14% in this urban area. This tells me one thing –we are nearly there! Soon everyone in urban places could have access to an improved water source. This is what it should be but it is not.
Take my young friend to a rural area in his country however; he suddenly becomes part of a bigger group. People and families like his who do not have access to clean water are 61%. I did not ask him about sanitation services that his family has access to. This is my guess –an informed one for that matter – his family is not likely to have access to improved sanitation services either. This is often because those with water services are also often the ones with sanitation services. Anyway for you to have a flush toilet that is working you need running water first, so it is a hand-in-glove kind of a situation! In 2012, a UNICEF and WHO report showed that in Niger only 38% of urban households had access to sanitation and only 6% had access in rural areas and 80% practice open defecation. There is a big chance my young friend belongs to these groups.
It is here in Niger that I get to start discussing with sector actors including the government, donors and NGOs about the state of aid in the water and sanitation sector. Again, I re-echo the point from yesterday that while aid is not the first and foremost panacea, it can go a long way to improve service delivery and sustain services. The case study for Niger which I expect to be published by the Water and Sanitation Program later will be more elaborate on the details, so for now I cannot delve so much into the details but will give you a snippet (literally in two paragraphs).
The government has developed a good plan for improving access to water and sanitation and they are keen to mobilize local and external resources to achieve the plan. A critical requirement for aid to be effective is for it to begin working through and support institutions that are responsible for planning, delivering and monitoring services. If these systems are by-passed, the state continues to have difficulties to be in the driver’s seat.
In Niger, there is growing interest to look into government systems and ensure that aid strengthens these systems and is positioned for effective and sustainable delivery of services. For this to happen donors and government need to coordinate more and better. Already there are good accountability and coordination platforms such as a bi-monthly meeting and an annual review of the sector. However more can be done to move towards full alignment which is when donors support and use national systems to deliver their aid. Look out for the case study to read more about this.
Soon the reality of running water within a households reach and the imperative of a toilet within the household could be a reality for all of us but for now we must work out the bottlenecks that stop this from being a reality for many. This is where good aid and good development resources come in. Aid effectiveness entails a whole range of good things, 1) following the lead of the country in terms of its development plans which are consultatively developed and ensuring that resources are not undermining this leadership, 2) ensuring that aid enforces the systems of these countries –this could range from boosting the capacity for the country to plan, deliver and provide oversight to supporting the development of transparent and accountable systems, 3) a reduction of processes that add undue administrative pressure on both the giver and the receiver which means a harmonization of processes and systems for disbursing, managing and reporting on funds, 4) a focus on accountability and lastly a focus on results.
Niger is indeed making some impressive progress in water supply, particularly in urban areas and to achieve all its goals more will still need to be done. So as a weekend activity I decided to meet with one of the Rotary clubs. Coincidentally they are interested in water and sanitation and they are planning some projects for the future. Actors like these provide a whole different dimension because they are close to the people and their work builds on experience they are gaining on the ground.
I am curious to see where private, national and external development resources can take us. For now, my mind remains stuck with my young friend. He needs to spend time in school and do his studies. Girls his age are also very much at the forefront of helping in fetching water services. If schools lack sanitation facilities they are less likely to attend all the classes. This should not be the case but it is. This can change and it albeit slowly. This must change and it shall with concerted effort.
Note from Sitali: Today, 08 August 2012. I am still stuck in Nairobi and now feel distraught. International flights have resumed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport which caught fire yesterday but there is no information about the route to my destination, Lusaka. I can barely wait to see my 11month old son and my wife. I feel desperately desolate!