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Giving the world access to water

We need a consolidated voice to protect water as a human right

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

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

March 2017 winner

The role of social actors in water access in Sub-Saharan Africa: Evidence from Malawi and Zambia

Ted Scanlon, Obinna Paul Uguru, Tahseen Jafry, Blessings Chinsinga, Peter Mvula, Joseph Chunga, Lilian Mukuka Zimba, Mwansa Mwape, Lucy Nyundo, Brian Mwiinga, Kevin Chungu
Water Resources and Rural Development, Volume 8, November 2016, Pages 25-36

A heavily pregnant woman walks slowly along the road to the hospital in Malawi, carrying a 20-liter bucket of water on her head. She is in labor, and she stops frequently as it’s too excruciating to balance the water during contractions. But she has to bring it with her, otherwise she won’t be able to give birth in the hospital.

The sixth Sustainable Development Goal is ‘clean water and sanitation’. But despite the increased attention this has brought, 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.

In order to fix the problem – and make sure women don’t have to dig for and carry their own water to hospital – we need to understand what’s going wrong with our current approaches. That was the aim of an Atlas Award-winning study in Water Resources and Rural Development, by researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, the University of Malawi in Malawi and the University of Lusaka in Zambia.

“The thing that's underpinning the problems associated with lack of access or availability or supply of water is our changing climate, with climate variability being really significant,” said Professor Tahseen Jafry, corresponding author of the study from Glasgow Caledonian University. “And there are all kinds of sociopolitical and institutional bottlenecks that prevent particularly the poorest and most vulnerable people getting access to a resource that should be considered a basic human right.”

Current approaches to providing water have so far been ineffective. Because government efforts to improve access have failed, a number of social actors – NGOs, community and faith-based organizations, private companies and others – have stepped in to try and fix the situation.

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.

Despite the many actors involved, they discovered 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.

“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,” Prof. Jafry explained. “What we need is strong leadership from the government. I think we need to put the Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of the developmental policies, but also putting at the core of that a perception of rights and responsibilities amongst all the social actors. It's almost like creating a consolidated voice for water and making sure that that consolidation is heard not from top down, but also, more significantly, bottom up.”

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 a more people and social dimension to the climate change challenges ahead. That should influence how we address the climate challenges moving forward, of which water is a key element.”

Professor Cam Donaldson, Vice-Principal and Pro Vice-Chancellor Research at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), Professor Tahseen Jafry, and Professor Ole Pahl, Associate Dean Research, School of Engineering and Built Environment at GCU

A conversation with Prof. Tahseen Jafry

Access to water in Sub-Saharan Africa is worse than ever: there are more people without access to water now than there were more than two decades ago. Because of ineffective government interventions, a complex web of social actors has grown to ensure universal access to water. So why isn’t it working? We talked to author Prof. Tahseen Jafry to find out how these social actors are working together to improve access to water, and what needs to be done to improve the situation.

In this podcast, Prof. Tahseen Jafry talks about access to water from a social justice perspective, and explains why we need to put people at the heart of our climate solutions. Listen now

What is the problem with water?

Access to water is a problem that's more significant now than it was more than a decade ago. I think the thing that's underpinning the problems associated with lack of access or availability or supply of water is our changing climate, with climate variability being really significant. There are periods of significant drought or flooding, which also exacerbates the problem. The other problem is how the water can reach those that need it the most, and I think there are all kinds of sociopolitical and institutional bottlenecks that prevent particularly the poorest and most vulnerable people getting access to a resource that should be considered a basic human right.

What have some of the previous approaches been to improving access to water and why haven't they worked?

In countries such as Zambia and Malawi, which is where our research was conducted, I get a sense that provision of water is almost dependent on donors coming in to help bridge that gap and get water to people that need it the most. The way it's done normally is through technical fixes such as putting in boreholes for pumps or solar panels, but these are short term and have their own constraints and issues. We're looking at addressing the problem not with a technical fix but from a more social justice and a capacity-building need.

Why did you decide to investigate this area?

I'm looking at things from a climate injustice perspective. A just approach is about identifying a more transformative approach to tackling climate change and we consider that it's humanity's responsibility to address climate change and really look at issues of justice, equity, rights, and access for the poorest and most vulnerable people. Our interest in this area was to look at this problem and try to get a deeper understanding of why people don’t have water.

Women will be on their hands and knees digging scoop holes in the ground with their bare hands, to try and find water. It's just inhumane. 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. What is going on, really?

What did you do in your research?

What we wanted to do was to understand more about the role of social actors. By that I mean who are the stakeholders involved in the provision of water in Zambia and Malawi? It's obviously not just donors. It's governments and NGOs, the private sector, communities themselves and community-based organizations. We wanted to understand the interrelationship between this group of social actors to figure out what they are doing, and what it is that they're not doing where the gaps are in the provision of water to people. 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?

What were your main findings?

We did find that the provision of water is multifaceted; there are so many stakeholders involved. But what we found was this lack of strategic coordination and, I would say, cooperation in the sector. It would appear that every social actor has their own agenda, has their own ideas, has their own approach, to the provision of water. Some overlap with each other and some are at tangents with each other. What we found was that in this complex mix, the need to come together and focus more clearly on providing water for those that need it.

What do you think needs to be done to achieve this goal?

What we need is strong leadership from the government. I think we need to put the Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of the developmental policies to underpin the trajectory and the direction in which things need to be designed and developed, but also putting at the core of that a perception of rights and responsibilities amongst all the social actors and that ranges from the community's rights through to government. It's almost like creating a consolidated voice for water and making sure that that consolidation is heard not from top down, but also, more significantly, bottom up.


Atlas Advisory Board Commentary

“The article was chosen for being a thorough identification of stakeholders in water access. Strong analysis to convince governments and investors to implement long term intervention for universal water access.”

Further reading

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.

Elsevier Atlas

Science impacts everyone's world. With over 2,500 journals publishing articles from across science, technology and health, our mission is to share some of the stories that matter. Each month Atlas showcases research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world or has already done so. We hope that bringing wider attention to this research will go some way to ensuring its successful implementation.

With so many worthy articles published the tough job of selecting a single article to be awarded "The Atlas" each month comes down to an Advisory Board. The winning research is presented alongside interviews, expert opinions, multimedia and much more on the Atlas website.

We aim to showcase some of the articles that can make a real difference and hope you'll find this to be a valuable resource.

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