Sandipan Mukherjee - WIN photo competition 2019

2019 water corruption and integrity highlights and what they mean for our work in 2020

The global impact of corruption in water and the way forward

The Global Impact of Corruption in Water

Estimates are that at least 10 per cent of water sector investment is lost to corruption and in some places is may be up to 40 or 50% This means that every year, more than 75 billion dollars – meant to protect rivers, keep clean water flowing and toilets running – vanish into the pockets of the few instead of benefiting the many.  The consequences can be devastating. In 2019, there’s been no shortage of cases of corruption and mismanagement to illustrate this.

A few examples: in the United Kingdom, the Water Services Regulation Authority imposed a £126 million fine on Southern Water for serious failures at sewage treatment and gross misreporting.

In East Africa, the highly-publicized arrest of Kenya’s Finance minister and other treasury officials over fraud charges concerning a multi-million-dollar project to build two mega dams, has already proven to be the tip of the iceberg of cases, and has triggered a wider discussion on the state of corruption in the sector.

Datadista’s investigative reporting on the Mar Menor crisis in Spain in October found that it was the product of decades-long build-up of dubious governmental practices which have led to overexploitation of underground water reserves, and eventually, the massive destruction of marine life. Earlier in the year, fish were dying en masse in the Murray Darling basin in Australia for similar reasons.

These are not isolated issues, nor are they contained in a handful of fragile regions. There are concerns of corruption in the water sector across the globe and the impact is severe. We cannot and should not dismiss this.


Leaving No One Behind? Not Yet…

Reports by the World Bank and WRI have highlighted that water quality and water scarcity issues are both seriously underestimated. The poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable suffer the most in relation to both. Importantly, as highlighted in the World Water and Development Report of 2019: “apart from derailing policy implementation, corruption also reinforces existing inequalities, since payments trickle up to those with more (discretionary) power.”

Policy and support mechanisms are not up to standard. Another World Bank report published in 2019 found that water and sanitation subsidies are disproportionately benefitting the better-off: across a number of low and middle-income countries 56 percent of the subsidies are captured by the richest fifth of the population, while only six percent flow to the poorest fifth.

Many communities are still consistently left behind or forgotten. As international attention shifts to the new theme of the year for water (climate), the timely reminders from SERI to consider the needs of disabled women in informal settlements or from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the Stockholm World Water Week on the importance of respecting the rights of indigenous communities and activists, must not be forgotten.


Women in Water: Continued Exclusion

2019 yielded much-needed additional research that shed light on the ways in which women are left behind in water, and how corruption and anti-corruption measures affect them specifically, also in the water sector.

First for example, the 2019 World Bank report on women in water utilities acknowledges that despite women being largely responsible for procuring and using water for household purposes, the sector is yet to fully appreciate the benefit from women’s contributions as water managers and providers. The report echoes the urgency of closing the gender gap in water sector employment in order to achieve adequate water and sanitation for all.

Second, Transparency International has started including survey data on sextortion for its Global Corruption Barometer. The first numbers from both Latin America and the MENA region, suggest at least one in five women experience some form of sextortion when accessing public services, including water.

There’s still work to do to mainstream gender in our work. This type of data is a helpful starting point.


The Changing Role of Civil Society

2019 witnessed a peak in attention on the vital role of civil society in holding governments accountable and the precarious conditions that burden civil society activism. The publication, in May, of a humbling evaluation of transparency and accountability programmes in health in Indonesia and Tanzania, made it necessary to rethink the purpose and outcomes of many social accountability initiatives.

We see citizen oversight in the water sector as a key barrier to corruption, it’s therefore essential that, in 2020, we follow the ongoing discussions on collective action and the ways to bridge growing divisions and distrust between governments and people.

It’s also important to put these discussions in context of the latest annual State of Civil Society Report by Civicus, which analyzes civil society’s response to contemporary major challenges. The report cites the growing power of anti-rights groups and the incessant attacks on civic spaces of excluded groups as some of the key trends that impacted on civil society in 2018 and continued into 2019. What’s in store for 2020?

The trends are worrying, especially as we believe more attention needs to be awarded to grassroots activism to further amplify community voices, especially this year as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the UN resolution on the human rights to water and sanitation. More access to information on water and sanitation projects must be granted to civil society actors to pursue accountability efforts in water sector planning and expenditure.

Echoing this sentiment, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace entered the new year with a report stressing the need to bridge the gap between technocratic NGOs in the field of anti-corruption and grassroots activists, recommending joining policy analysis with mass mobilization. And, End Water Poverty has already launched the #ClaimYourWaterRights campaign globally to mobilize people to claim their human rights to water and sanitation.

Can we make this happen for integrity? How can/is technology help(ing) these developments? And what kind of data and research will we need to make this kind of collaboration effective and to support accountability mechanisms? What information needs to be open? These are some of the questions we’ll be looking to in 2020.


Moving Forward in 2020

As a first step, the WIN team and partners will be focusing on supporting the development of better open government commitments for the water sector.  We’re working with a community of practice of organizations to strengthen input from water sector stakeholders into the Open Government Partnership processes. Join us to share knowledge and experience and take part in the development of an Open Government Declaration for the Water sector at a workshop in Brasilia Februrary 10-11, 2020.

We’ll also be working on the topic of water sector finance and how integrity measures can support creditworthiness of water service providers. For example, we’ll be focusing on mutual accountability in the build-up to the Finance Ministers’ Meeting of Sanitation and Water for All. How can we support utilities to be more accountable towards their users and government? How can we hold government accountable to support utilities, and even just pay their own water bills?

The key lessons we learn throughout the year will contribute to the development of our next Water Integrity Global Outlook, which will focus on integrity challenges and paths for action in urban water and sanitation. The Outlook will be published in 2021 and we welcome contributions, case studies, and partnerships as we develop the content this year.

We are particularly excited about the ongoing development of a integrity index, focused on corruption risks in urban water and sanitation. 2020 will see the development of the index methodology, and pilot testing in at least three cities. The index will draw on a combination of big data and questionnaires to reach those places and issues that don’t feature in the big data sets. Get in touch to share ideas!

We’re expanding the team to support the development of these new initiatives. Check our opportunities for more information.

We look forward to working with you in 2020!

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