top of page

How Corruption and Climate Change intersect in Water Scarcity Issues


By Huda Awan, Intern at WIN

locked, rusty water tap
Photo by Sagar J. Gondaliya - 2018 WIN photo competition

Water scarcity — a dystopian reality

Earlier this month, news outlets reported that Day Zero – the day that Cape Town would officially run out of water – will no longer fall this year. The narrative and tone of Day Zero-related headlines have indicated the onset of a rather dystopian reality, where the pushing forward of the day when one of the world’s major cities will completely run out of water is considered good news. First, Day Zero was pushed to April, then May, June, July, and now it has been moved out of the 2018 calendar completely — provided Cape Town’s inhabitants continue adhering to a stringent regime of water conservation and reuse.

What Day Zero and its coverage have ultimately demonstrated is that society is and will be changing profoundly in the coming years. Water, which is essential to all human life and activity is becoming increasingly scarce; UN-Water has stated that by 2025, almost one-fifth of the global population is likely to be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, while two-thirds of the population will most probably live under conditions of water stress.

How society adapts to such conditions as the pressure on water resources increases is a question that is becoming more pertinent by the day; it is a question that is already dominating domestic and international politics in drought-ridden regions of the world, and will continue to do so for years to come.

An equally important question, however, which remains unsatisfactorily answered and examined — is how do societies get themselves into the critical situation of water scarcity in the first place? Climate change is undoubtedly a central thread, given its effects on the water cycle, as is evidenced by the situation in Cape Town. But another less widely discussed thread is that of corruption.

A workshop hosted by Transparency International (TI) and the Water Integrity Network (WIN) aimed to address just that. In February, a group of twelve journalists gathered in TI’s Berlin office during their study tour with the Institute for Journalism in Norway. The tour was designed to give journalists a deeper understanding of pertinent societal issues. The workshop organized by WIN, TI’s Climate Programme and MiCT (a non-profit organisation that implements media development projects in crisis regions), focused on corruption in two seemingly niche, but vitally important areas; the water sector and climate finance.


Water scarcity is as much a corruption issue as it is a climate change one

“Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”

– Transparency International

Most people in developed countries probably take access to clean and safe water for granted, and may not necessarily put the words ‘water’ and ‘corruption’ together. The reality is that in many regions of the world, the water sector is highly prone to corruption for a number of reasons, and it can be attractive to exploit for personal interest by those working within it, when considering the large amount of public and private investment needed, for instance to develop water infrastructure. Compounding this is the complexity of the sector; water governance tends to be broad and dispersed across various agencies, and its management requires highly technical scientific and engineering expertise, meaning that a relatively selective number of people have a comprehensive understanding of and, by extension, control over the sector. Because of this complexity, it becomes harder for others who do not have this specialised expertise to identify when things are going wrong and to hold those in charge to account.

These are the key factors that WIN outlines as contributing to water sector corruption. Although there is a lack of comprehensive research on just how much money leaks out of the sector due to corruption, the water sector is a high-risk area for corruption, and corruption takes on many forms. There are countless cases of important water projects remaining unfinished due to funds being embezzled, arbitrary and unfair tariffs being set for water usage, funding being spent on inappropriate or poorly constructed infrastructure to ‘cut costs,’ bribes being demanded for water services, and facilities being subject to poor operation and maintenance (see the Water Integrity Global Outlook 2016 for more information on this).

Whatever form it takes, corruption and lack of integrity in the water sector has profound effects because it ultimately makes water services more difficult to access, and especially the poor, marginalized and voiceless are affected most. When monetary resources are diverted away from the development of sustainable water infrastructure, operation and maintenance costs, or inappropriately spent, the result is sub-standard service delivery, or sometimes even a complete absence of water provision. This seriously aggravates the problem of water scarcity.

Water sector corruption has been an ongoing saga in South Africa, and a report published by the South African Water Caucus last November on the state of affairs at the Department of Water Sanitation does not point to any improvements. Of the many issues the department faces, “poor financial management (including overspending, accruals and corruption allegations), considerable policy and institutional uncertainty and incoherence, major challenges to institutions that are critical for water governance, deterioration in … infrastructure due to lack of maintenance and investment and significant deficiencies in reporting, compliance monitoring and enforcement” raise considerable concerns about how transparently projects and processes are being managed, and whether those in charge are being held accountable.

But how linked are Cape Town’s current water woes to corruption? More nuanced writing on water shortages in Cape Town has made compelling cases that corruption has worsened what could’ve been an avoidable fate. For example, Dr. David Olivier, a post-doctoral fellow at the Global Change Institute, has argued that the water crisis has been driven more by politics than by drought, and an article published by The Atlantic last month also identifies the city’s issues as having been exacerbated by corruption.


Climate finance — adding fuel to the fire?

Acknowledging the role of corruption in growing water scarcity is important because too often the problem is examined only as a climate change issue. This is not to negate the importance of addressing climate change as a factor — but without a comprehensive understanding of how the effects of climate change are exacerbated by poor governance, solutions that are put forward for climate-related problems such as water scarcity may be rendered ineffective.

One such solution is climate finance, which TI highlighted at the Berlin workshop. Climate finance refers to money that is invested to help countries prevent global warming and adapt to its worst effects. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commits industrialised countries to channel up to US$ 100 billion a year by 2020 to support developing countries in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.

In a handbook TI has designed for journalists interested in covering climate finance corruption, it is stated that the “stakes involved in financing such programmes are high; how these funds are spent could save the lives of millions now, and ensure billions in the future are set on a safe path.” But they also warn that the governance structures involved in responding to climate change problems may not be strong enough to manage the threats effectively, pointing out that “some of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world also fare the worst on their Corruption Perceptions Index.”

A noteworthy example from TI’s research and investigations into tracking where climate finance actually ends is that of $3.1 million of national climate funding being used to build ‘climate resilient housing’ in south-west Bangladesh, in the aftermath of Cyclone Aila. Investigations by TI’s Bangladesh Chapter revealed that these ‘houses’ were not even built with walls; according to TI Bangladesh, this was so that the department responsible for carrying out the project could halve their costs and take credit for building more structures.

Water scarcity is more and more so being viewed as a climate change problem, a problem that will inevitably require climate finance in order to fund projects that make the water sector more ‘climate ready.’ In 2014 – 2015, around US$4.1 billion was given to the Water Supply and Sanitation sector globally, making up about 9 per cent of total climate-related development finance. Given increased levels of climate change-induced water scarcity, particularly in developing countries, it is probable that the share of climate finance the water sector will receive in coming years will increase.

However, as water sector corruption is in part motivated by the huge amounts of money the sector requires, committing further funding to the sector in the form of climate finance, without comprehensively considering where weak governance, transparency and accountability may be compromised and taken advantage of, could simply end up as money down the drain.


Connecting the dots — the role of journalists

What investigations into climate finance by organisations such as TI and GermanWatch bring to fore is that climate finance is not something that can simply be slapped on to climate change problems such as water scarcity. This is not to say that climate finance will not be instrumental in combatting these problems.

Rather as TI puts it:

‘we need to highlight corruption cases in climate finance to make climate finance work better, not because we think climate finance is a bad idea.’

The workshop organised by TI and WIN in February aimed to emphasise two main points; first, that some very pertinent and relevant societal issues are aggravated by corruption, and second, that journalists need to make that connection in their reporting so as to improve wider understanding of how these problems are being mismanaged, and what factors might hinder the effectiveness of their solutions.

From WIN’s perspective, investigations into the water sector are pivotal to revealing corrupt practices that affect water availability. Journalists can and should play an important role in breaking down the technicalities of the water sector, and communicating important investigative findings to the broader public. Moreover, journalists are a crucial means through which advocacy messages can be delivered, and a voice can be given to disadvantaged social group and stakeholders affected by water sector corruption.

TI’s presentation on climate change highlighted that ‘climate change communicators have done a good job of turning technical topics such as greenhouse gas emissions into a widely understood and recognised problem’; however, journalists need to bring the conversation further by shedding the same light on the solutions available for these problems, starting with climate finance.

Journalists have a huge role to play not only familiarising broader audiences with climate finance, but also in tracking funds committed to projects in the name of climate mitigation and adaptation. This is particularly important for money committed to the water sector, given the integrity risks that already exist within the sector.


bottom of page