Thursday, 16 March 2017

Is eWATER Really an Improvement on the Rural African Water Crisis?

In a recent article by The Economist, the author discussed a new technology that is intended to improve water access in rural Africa. The article entitled, Pay as you drink: A better way to provide drinking water in rural Africa outlines eWATER’s initiative to increase the functionality of prepaid water sources (which have traditionally been riddled with issues, all of which have prevented users from actually accessing the very water they are having to pay for in the first place!). 

A screen shot of the article.
eWATER’s plan is to set up the “pay-for” aspect as a mobile app, were credit can be purchased at local stores, and used in much the same way as phone credit works. The idea, in general, isn’t bad. The greatest aspect of this is that it’s all done using a mobile phone, which almost everyone has, and that reporting issues can also be done through the same fashion. This means a simpler and more user-friendly way of going about one of the single biggest problems with prepaid pumps. As the article mentions, in past initiatives surrounding these prepaid systems, there are usually large wait times for repairs (weeks, sometimes longer), whereas the reporting using eWATER’s app is streamlined, so that it should take approximately 3 days.

But, here’s the problem with not only eWATER’s plan, but the article itself – it’s claiming to be a better way of providing potable water in rural settings, without actually changing anything. This proposed ‘fix’ isn’t actually a solution to the already existing problem, but rather a reinvention of the same issue. An actual better way of providing water sources, would be to install functional water systems. And, while this might seem overly simplistic, it is, in fact, that only true solution to this continuous problem.

The thing is, the Right to Water is something that has been declared all over the world. It’s been a topic of much discussion in several UN agencies, global and national politics, and is really, something we should all recognize as a common sense issue. After all, without water, you cannot sustain life. Water, put simply, is life.

During my Undergraduate, and to a lesser extent, Master’s studies, I focused a great deal on water rights, its commodification, and more specifically, its bottled form*. The stories I have read about during this research were horrific, but especially whenever these prepaid pumps were mentioned, because they are costly and more often than not, those who rely on them are forced to choose between paying for water and paying for other things (food, shelter, and sometimes school and/or medical fees). And related to my first-hand experiences, I can tell you equally difficult tales, including one in the very area I will soon be working out of.

In case you aren’t familiar with this concept, let me give a quick recap. Essentially, when water access became a topic of concern in the African context by those not from within the continent, there were debates over how to bring water to the people, rather than having folks (generally women and girls) walk for hours and kilometers on end fetching water. One solution was to dig wells within communities. In theory this sounds great – it’s solving one very big problem, while providing an aspect of convenience that wasn’t previously found in many parts of the world. 

But, the real problems came in when it was determined how costly it was to maintain these wells. As a result, the private sector jumped on board and fixed the problem by installing prepaid meters on the taps of these wells. This means, that in order for a person to access the water found within the well, they would have to pay – usually at a fairly high cost. Now, I’m skipping over a lot of information, but this, at least, should paint a bit of a clearer picture for you. However, to give an example of how these work, let me use the case of South Africa.

South Africa declared water as a Human Right in 1994 following Mandela’s presidency, and as part of the post-apartheid legislation that stemmed from his win. As part of this declaration, it was determined that each person would be entitled to a certain amount of water – 25 litres**, to be exact. This means that the government covered the costs of the 25L/day, but any amount over that would have to be paid for by the individual. If you want to know how little 25L of water is for a full day’s use, I’d challenge you to try it. But, consider this – North American’s spend an average of 8 minutes per shower… which uses approximately 65 liters of water. So, you can see, it isn’t a lot.

When the UN declared that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) would aim to half the number of folks without access to safe drinking water, it placed a great burden on many of the countries eWATER is intending to support with its latest initiative. And while the African continent did see some improvement, it was certainly not across the board, and didn’t really tackle the underlying problem. In fact, it saw more influence from privatization than it did building infrastructure that would deliver potable water to those living in rural areas, where this type of access isn’t readily found.

And it’s for this reason that I am surprised and somewhat appalled that The Economist would publish this sort of garbage. I mean, the article implies that by developing some form of program for a mobile device that this issue is somehow solved. It even goes so far as to indicate that some households would be willing to pay a higher cost*** for this water is it meant that repairs would be handled quickly. Sure, it doesn’t say that this is the only solution, but regardless, the lack of knowledge applied to writing this article was quite obvious…

Look, I’m not trying to suggest that building water infrastructure is an easy task. It’s both capital intensive and costly to maintain. But there has to be something better than coming up with fancier ways to deliver water in a way that isn’t financially achievable to the majority of those who have access to these prepaid pumps. And sadly, the result of not being able to afford these costs is the hours and kilometers wasted to lug jerry cans of water home from a source that has a highly probability of being contaminated in some form. This is not a solution, this is a perpetuation of denial and white saviour syndrome. We, as a global society, need to find solutions that go beyond patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, and then going about our regular day.

So, The Economist – I challenge you, as a publication, and your writers, to think a bit more critically about the content you chose to publish and how you are portraying a situation.

-the Orange Canadian

*If anyone is interested in reading this, send me an email, and I’d happily send you a copy of my undergrad thesis on water commodification. 
**This amount is still contested and court battles on the issue continue to take place in the country.
***Which was indicated as pennies, which in Western terms isn’t a big deal, but from a purely contextual basis, these “pennies” can have devastating impacts on households already forced to choose between feeding its members or having a roof over their head...

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