Sunday, March 28, 2010

You say what, I say who, we say World Water Day

Around the 22nd of March every year World Water Day comes around. This year saw a laudable effort to advance the agenda on women, children and other oft-ignored faces of the global water crisis. Plus, National Geographic is offering nifty free access to their special April issue on water.

Last time, the 3rd world water report was launched in Istanbul. It had the rather apposite theme of analyzing the non-water sector factors that nevertheless influence water: in fact, those things which likely determine why water and sanitation continue to feature so low on developing country and donor agenda.

So who the culprits? Those who hold the purse strings to government budgets, prioritizing: Economic growth (dam here, dam there, dam everywhere; same goes for privatize this that and that). Macroeconomic stability (what, health education basic services need money?). The rare devastating but sexy issue, HIV in certain spots of the globe. And military expenditures tagging along for good fun.

Whatever it is, water and sanitation remain largely underfunded, underanalyzed and undercovers. No different in Afghanistan.

And what results? You end up with dismal situations where 1 in 4 Afghans have access to ‘improved’ water (about 27%). That's a source of water that has some sort of cover. 1 in 4, folks. That's more than 17 million people without access to drinking water (well, with some assumptions on the population numbers. But let’s not get started on those stats today.)

Sanitation stands a bit more complicated. If you ask my posse and me, it's at about 5%. But if you ask the WHO-UNICEF folk, the guardians of international data on such things, it may be as high as 30%. So what gives?

It's all in the definition. Mere semantics can be harmless sometimes. But here's a case in point where language-games prove deadly.

By the WHO-UNICEF design, an 'improved sanitation source' is one that separates the excreta from the human contact. In Afghanistan there's what's called the dearan or sahrah, a traditional toilet that captures said excreta, doing something like separating it from touch. But that's it. No further steps from there. So excreta sits in your home or compound until it dries up, and goes where? Into the air. Kabul holds the dubious distinction of figuring among the world's cities with highest fecal content. And that. Is. The. Capital. Of. The. Country. No wonder I find myself picking my nose all the time.

While the dearan/sahrah effectively meets the WHO-UNICEF criterion of hand-excreta separation, it doesn't really meet the bar for the intimated health gains.

Behind these aggregate country stats are more stats at provincial levels and behind those stats: well, not much. Just households. And maybe some people. And kids. Who, if they're lucky, make it to age 5. There are about 50 thousand each year that don’t. Because of diarrhea.

The double of Mr. Obama’s military intervention is the civilian surge for development, including platoons of engineers. This may be welcomed at this point. But decouple it from the military: don't militarize your aid.

Make sure, instead, to help Afghans make the needed changes themselves. Why hell, you might even find helping to build a sector of Afghan engineers, maintenance workers, and the admin people who support them will provide jobs. And what do jobs do in a poor country with a youth bulge that sets most of the world to shame?

It might give them a reason to not pick up a Kalashnikov.

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