We recently celebrated the World Water Day, also noted by IDS, namely in the insightful blog post by Lyla Mehta, of the Knowledge, Society and Technology research team (KNOTS). The blog post as well as the event organized by IDS and APPG for International Development, opportunely named “Universal access to water and sanitation: more than a pipedream?”, raised questions on whether having achieved the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on access to water really meant reaching the important milestone we aspired to. In the backdrop comes the March 6th 2012 press statement that MDG drinking water target was reached. The main question posed there was: how universal (emphasis added) was the provision of safe water? However, some of my fieldwork travels in Timor-Leste have brought me to question how safe is the water we are lead to believe so many people have now access to, thanks to the effort sustained under the MDGs.
But what was indeed the MDG drinking water target (MDG 7, target 7c) ? As it is stated, the goal was to “[h]alve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation”. Committed to this objective in Timor-Leste, following the Aid Transparency Portal are international agencies such as the Asian Development Bank and bilateral aid agencies from countries such as Japan, the US, Korea, New Zealand, Australia and regions such as the European Union. As a symbol of this commitment, the Australian Aid Agency, AUSAID, announced in October 2012 to have brought clean water to the Timorese district of Covalima. One cannot fail to notice a first nuance in the statement: it is not “safe water”, it is “clean water” that was brought to the district. But, nonetheless, “[a]s a result of the system, over 2,000 people in [the village of] Matai[, district of Covalima] have access to water just metres from their homes.” But was that really the commitment stated in the MDGs?
Following WHO guidelines, “[s]afe drinking-water, as defined by the Guidelines, does not represent any significant risk to health over a lifetime of consumption, including different sensitivities that may occur between life stages.” The importance of have safe drinking water can be seen in the depth of regulation put in place by law in countries such as Canada, the US, Australia and regions such as the European Union, and recommendations in countries such as South Africa or Brazil just to give some examples. Again, as an example it seems fitting to quote the Australian Safe Drinking Water Act:
“For the purposes of this Act, drinking water is unsafe if the water
(a) causes, or is likely to cause, harm to a person who consumes the water; or
(b) is the means by which an illness has been, or is likely to be, transmitted; or
(c) contains any pathogen, substance, chemical or blue-green algal toxin, whether alone or in combination, at levels that may pose a risk to human health (subject to any tolerance, condition or circumstance determined or agreed by
the Minister or the Chief Executive for the purposes of this provision); or
(d) is not otherwise, or may not otherwise be, reasonably fit for human
While on fieldwork, in the sites I conducted some of my interviews, I got the chance to see some of the water provision infrastructure built under some of these programmes.
The picture above depicts a pipe that brings “clean water” (Bé Mós, as it says in Tétum) to the small village/suco of Fatumasi, in the sub-district of Bazartete. The pipes are on open air or dug in the pathways almost at the surface, in constant contact with the elements. This particular one, in the photo, held by sticks dug in the earth is a clearly fragile “construction”. The joints are isolated with rubber tyres, that, though flexible cannot, in any way, assure that no water contamination will come to happen, foremost from the industrial rubber itself.
In the island of Ataúro, I saw one pipe being held on the top of a few stones, piled to keep the angle of it so that the water would flow properly. That pile of relatively rounded stones, polished by a river that passed just below had no hint of cement gluing them, making it fairly easy for a passing wild animal to accidently throw it down and eventually break the pipe. Some of the pipes in Ataúro have indeed bridged the distances to faraway villages, having been placed in the cliffs just by the shore, not high enough to prevent stormy seas to hit them with the waves nor protected from an eventual landslide to break them. However, their placement makes a maintenance or replacement effort a daring one.
In the village of Moro, suco Parlamento, Lautem district, I got to see a water collection facility. This was one of the many natural pools the village has. This particular one was, as the next picture shows, protected with fences so as to avoid any farm animal in the neighborhood (goats, pigs or cows walk freely in the village) to contaminate the water. The facilities do show the provision of a space where some water treatment may occur. However, this, I was told was only done for the pipes serving the bigger village of Lautém. The local community used water piped from the two other pools.
Those were inviting swimming pools and other than the slight sulphurous smell, their freshness made the delight of children and of those that washed their clothes there. The picture below shows a villager getting some water from one of such, unprotected, pools. A pipe is visible, coming from the smaller pool where the villager collects his water. This pipe, I was told, is one of those that takes water to that village and others nearby.
One cannot, in all fairness avoid to be concerned about how safe this water is. Yet, infrastructures like these make Timor-Leste to be a country where 91% of the urban population and 60% of the rural population was said to have access to “improved water”in 2010.
And here the waters become turbid. The fact is, the celebrated achievement of the water MDG target does not state that the number of people without access to safe drinking water will reduce but the number of people without access to “improved water”. And what is this? This is the accomplished downgrading of an ambitious goal. Following the definition provided by the WHO / UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation, in charge of measuring the countries’ achievements regarding this MDG goal, “An improved drinking-water source is defined as one that, by nature of its construction or through active intervention, is protected from outside contamination, in particular from contamination with faecal matter.” It includes water sources such as piped water into dwelling, piped water to yard/plot, public tap or standpipe, tube well or borehole, protected dug well, protected spring, or rainwater.
However, as put by the participants in the IDS-APPG venue, one cannot be sure the water from a well does not get contaminated. In fact, with some of the infrastructures I could see, one cannot be certain even piped water into dwellings is free of contamination.
Let’s be clear on one thing. Having water closer to where people live is a good thing. Having it piped into school facilities, as the AUSAID BESIK programme has done, in some cases, is something to cheer. However, no one can claim this water is safe! And the fact is, Timorese people still have the general practice of boiling the water before drinking it (unfortunately not before using it to wash vegetables and other food).
If someone gets some diving lessons, she or he may learn that if you fill a balloon with air near the depths, as it goes to the surface it tends to become overblown and eventually may burst. The “success” of the water MDG may be one of this cases. In the depth of the challenges to reduce illness and foster livelihoods by increasing the access to water, some improvements were made. Those were, in many cases, quite simple, like the building of wells or introducing pumps. Others, as in some places of Timor, entailed the plumbing of water through kilometres of pipes. Yet, as the news of these improvements reached the surface, they were clearly overblown. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, the news of this success were clearly exaggerated, at least in Timor-Leste.
What is troublesome here is that this is not only an issue of maintenance, as correctly mentioned in the IDS-APPG venue. It is also an issue of ill construction and the lack of provision of proper construction supervision.
In the future, one is to expect the results of the access to water to be assessed. It is likely that, by then, the lack of maintenance will make these, already fragile infrastructures to meet early failures and prompt further investments and, maybe, further aid. It is troublesome to think that those that badly constructed the current systems may still get to profit from their replacement. Meanwhile, if I could, I would like to suggest a small reflection. If access to water is a human right, if we, in the “global North”, do not feel safe about water consumption without the heavy failsafe regulations we impose, how can we accept such weak systems to be propelled as an MDG success? These are but few examples in one country. The only hope is that these are not examples of what is found around the developing world. Otherwise, this “success” may make us sail through seriously unsafe waters as countries are measured against clearly downgraded targets. As Lyla said, “[t]he MDG definition of ‘improved’ sources does nothing to address issues concerning water quality and issues concerning operation and maintenance of the service,” and this allowed for clearly less that fitting water provision systems put in place. In the end, one cannot but hold strong reservations on how effectively these systems will prevent illness and foster livelihoods.
Ricardo Goulão Santos is a PhD candidate working on education and employability in a post-conflict setting within the IDS Conflict, Violence and Development of the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction research team.