Everybody knows that water is vital and has no substitutes. According to Global Corruption Report (GCR) 2008, which is based on corruption in the water sector, there are nearly 1.2 billion people in the world without access to water and more than 2.6 billion without adequate sanitation. And in the coming decades, the competition for water is expected to become the world’s most degraded natural resource. Water scarcity already affects local regions in every continent, and by 2025 more than 3 billion people could be living in water-scarce countries.
The human consequences of a water crisis, exacerbated by corruption, are devastating and affect the poor and women most of all. In developing countries, about 80 per cent of health problems can be linked back to inadequate water and sanitation, claiming the lives of nearly 1.8 million children every year and leading to the loss of an estimated 443 million school days for the children who suffer from water-related ailments.
In Africa, women and girls often walk more than 10 kilometres to get water for their families in the dry season, and it is estimated that an amount equivalent to about 5 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) is lost to illness and death caused by dirty water and poor sanitation there, as well. When clean water is denied, the stakes are very high.
The GCR 2008 makes mention of Nepal’s Melamchi Water Project. It says that the 4 million people of the Kathmandu Valley have suffered from acute water shortage for almost two decades. The valley’s daily water need is around 250 million litres, while supply is less than half of that amount. The Melamchi Drinking Water Project was conceived more than 17 years ago to address this shortfall. The government attempted to divert water from the Melamchi River and bring it to Kathmandu through a 27-kilometre tunnel. This would have augmented the existing supply by 170 million litres per day. The project became bogged down by vested interests, however.
In the past, different phases of the project were funded by the World Bank and the ADB. The sheer size of the project, the related environmental issues and the parties generated considerable controversy. In spite of the vast amount of money already spent, there has been no tangible progress.
Controversy flared during the direct rule of former King Gyanendra, when the former prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and his cabinet colleague, Prakash Man Singh, were imprisoned for corruption in awarding the contract. The case was terminated when the Supreme Court designated as unconstitutional the agency responsible for the verdict - the Royal Commission for Corruption Control.
The Melamchi project again dominated the media when the incumbent Maoist Minister for Physical Planning, Hisila Yami, cancelled the contract awarded to a UK company Severn Trent in August 2007. Under a US $120 million loan, the outgoing government and the ADB had awarded the contract to Severn Trent. Minister Yami claimed that Severn Trent did not have a sufficiently strong international track record. After renewed negotiations, the ADB agreed to re-advertise the project.
India: Positive efforts
As a scarce commodity, water is prone to exploitation in India. TI India’s "India Corruption Study 2005", which sampled 14,405 respondents from 151 cities and 360 villages, found that water was one of the public services most clearly identified with corrupt practices. Although customer interaction with water departments was relatively low (only 12.3 %), the study found the most common perceived malpractices were the supply of water tankers (73 %), meter insta0llation (71 %), bill payment (43%), and new connections or restorations of water supply (67%).
Concerns raised during the study included the fact that 0highly subsidised water can lead to considerable waste, adding to stress on limited supplies. This is exacerbated by antiquated equipment and poor infrastructure, resulting in frequent breakdowns.
Various initiatives have been adopted to deal with these problems. In Gubarga district, Andhra Pradesh, a grading system has increased staff efficiency. In Mandi district, Himachal Pradesh, training camps were organised to educate officers about new technology, and increase their awareness of people’s needs and how to satisfy them. Delhi Jal Board, the city’s water utility, allows call centres to receive consumer complaints by SMS (Short Message Service), speeding up their registration. Toll-free help lines are available in Bangalore and Hyderabad for use by the poor.
Bangladesh: The irregularities
Reports indicate that public service officials have flouted financial rules in tender processes, while in many cases they have been inefficient or negligent of the public interest. Engineers and other officials have been involved in corruption in major development projects, such as irrigation, river-dredging and flood prevention. In March 2007, the ACC was investigating cases of corruption in different projects run by the Ministry of Water Resources, estimated to have cost up to Tk444 crores (approximately US $ 1.5 billion) during 2001-6.
Another category of rampant corruption in urban areas involves encroachment onto the lakes and rivers flowing through the cities, especially in Dhaka. Illegal occupation of the shoreline in Dhaka’s Gulshan-Banani-Baridhar Lake threatens the lake’s very existence. In one case of derequisition, 31 acres of the lake shore were due to be reclaimed from private land-grabbers. Powerful individuals with political links easily obtained court injunctions against the reclamation of their squatted land, however. In connivance with government officials, a well-organised syndicate of land-grabbers has long been active in the business of securing prime sites in the city by filling the lake shore with earth and building structures overnight.
The GCR 2008 highlights that corruption in water is a significant factor and a critical issue for global public policy. The impact of corruption in the water sector on lives, livelihoods, food security and international cooperation also underscores the many linkages to global policy concerns.
Corruption in water is a concern not only for the water sector. It also complicates the global challenge to confront climate change, and must be addressed in the building of a governance framework that updates and expands the Kyoto Protocol. Furthermore, corruption in water must feature more prominently in any debate on environmental sustainability. It also matters for a global security agenda that is concerned about the root causes of conflict, extremism and failing states. Finally, corruption needs to be recognised as an obstacle to the global resolve to bring development to all, most prominently articulated in the Millennium Development Goals and related policy initiatives.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)