Universal access to water requires stronger government leadership, say researchers

Study published in Water Resources and Rural Development wins Elsevier’s Atlas award

New York, June 27, 2017

Access to water is worse now than it was in 1990. The world needs a consolidated voice to protect water as a human right, and this will require stronger leadership from governments, suggests research published in Water Resources and Rural Development.

The lack of cooperation between NGOs, private companies and other organizations trying to improve access to water has exacerbated the situation, say the authors of the study, from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, the University of Malawi in Malawi and the University of Lusaka in Zambia.

Their work has been selected by an international scientific committee to be given Elsevier’s Atlas award, which recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world or has already done so. The committee selected the paper for its strong analysis that can convince governments and investors to implement long term intervention for universal water access.

The United Nations’ sixth Sustainable Development Goal is ‘clean water and sanitation’. Although this has increased attention given to the problem, access to water in Sub-Saharan Africa is worse than ever: there are more people without access to water now than there were in 1990.

“Women will be on their hands and knees digging scoop holes in the ground to try and find water; it's just inhumane,” said Professor Tahseen Jafry, corresponding author of the study from Glasgow Caledonian University. “When we were looking at this, we were convinced that something is not right, something is not working. Projects have been coming and going but have not been able to address the problem. We wanted to try and understand why.”

A family fetches water from a well in a rural community. © istock.com/brunoat

Because government efforts to improve access to water have failed, a number of social actors – NGOs, community and faith-based organizations, private companies and others – have stepped in. The result is a complex web of activity, which Prof. Jafry and her colleagues wanted to untangle.

Through interviews, focus group discussions and workshops, they analyzed the different approaches of these social actors, and looked at how they are working together to provide access to water in Malawi and Zambia. They uncovered a lack of strategic coordination and cooperation: every organization has its own agenda and approach, and while some overlap, they don’t all align strategically.

“Why is it that their approaches and their mechanisms and their ideas are not getting to the poorest and most vulnerable people, to those women that are having to dig with their bare hands in the ground,” Prof. Jafry said. “What we found was that in this complex mix, there is a need to come together and focus more clearly on providing water for those that need it. What we need is strong leadership from the government.”

As well as bringing the various voices together to improve access to water, Prof. Jafry believes we will only solve the broader problems of climate change by putting people at the heart of the solutions – through climate justice, equity and rights: “There’s a lot of rhetoric around climate change adaptation and mitigation, but I think what needs to be embedded in that conversation is issues around climate justice, or injustice, to highlight the human and social dimensions to the climate change challenges ahead. That should influence how we address these challenges, of which water is a key element.”

Read more on Elsevier Connect.

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Notes for editors
The article is "The role of social actors in water access in Sub-Saharan Africa: Evidence from Malawi and Zambia," by Ted Scanlon, Obinna Paul Uguru, Tahseen Jafry, Blessings Chinsinga, Peter Mvula, Joseph Chunga, Lilian Mukuka Zimba, Mwansa Mwape, Lucy Nyundo, Brian Mwiinga and Kevin Chungu (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wrr.2016.08.001). It appears in Water Resources and Rural Development, Volume 8, November 2016, published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Elsevier’s newsroom at newsroom@elsevier.com or +31 20 485 2492.

About Water Resources and Rural Development
Water plays a critical role in providing livelihood opportunities and sustaining the health and welfare of rural families around the world. Water Resources and Rural Development publishes papers describing the role of water resources in supporting livelihood activities in rural areas, with a focus on the impacts of water resources policy and management on rural livelihoods and household welfare.

About Elsevier
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