Friday, 30 March 2012

What should the post-2015 MDG (on water and sanitation) look like, and how would we measure it?

By Elise Wach
IDS Bulletin 43.2

On World Water Day, I had the opportunity to attend the IDS STEPS Centre launch of the IDS Bulletin on Politics and Pathways in Water and Sanitation. The discussion focused strongly around the MDGs: it was recently announced that the target for water had already been met, but there are a lot of questions about what that really means and how it was determined that we have ‘halved the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water’.

The panellists all lambasted the fact that the goal says nothing about equity.  And while the word ‘sustainability’ is included the target, there are serious doubts about how that is actually measured.  Katharina Welle’s research, for example, revealed that neither the neither the method used by the Ministry of Water and Energy (based on infrastructure completed) nor the method used by the JMP (based on household use of water) accurately captures the access issues that people in rural areas are grappling with.

This resonates quite strongly with the work I’m doing with the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) to synthesize the learning streams for the Triple-S Initiative, which is attempting to completely transform the rural water sector.  And I have been asking myself, if we wanted another round of MDGs, and if we kept the same sector-based approach (both are big ‘if’s’ and there are more), what would we want the water sector goal to look like, and how would we measure progress towards it?

I essentially worked backwards through a simplified theory of change, starting with the end goal. Based on the principles of Triple-S, I went ahead and defined the end goal to be:

Everyone has sustainable access to safe, adequate, and reliable water.

Essentially, there are five core components here (the five words in bold).  While they are all intrinsically linked to one another, let’s attempt to look at just one aspect of this: sustainability.

How do you measure sustainability?  You could go back and see if water services are still there in ten years’ time.  That’s useful, and I think it should be done (and so does Water for People) but how do we know now if water services will continue sustainably in ten years time?   

Perhaps we’d want to think about what is needed to ensure sustainability, and try to measure that. According to Triple-S, one prerequisite for ensuring that water services last is to ensure that there is the capacity, financing, and planning for major replacements in the future (i.e. not just maintenance). And there are a variety of other direct and indirect requirements for sustainability: ownership, inclusion, accountability, transparency, government capacity, and coordination to name a few.

So a big challenge would be to agree on the requirements for sustainability.  Assuming we can overcome this (daunting) hurdle, we’d then need to assess whether these are in place.  But measuring these won’t be as straightforward as measuring the number of people who live within a certain radius of a borehole.  And there are other issues as well, such as the issue of Multiple-Use Systems, as Stef Smits discusses.

It will be, in a word, complex.   

But if the issues we’re trying to address are complex (and they are - read more about "complexity" in this ODI working paper (PDF)), then it isn’t surprising that measuring progress and achievements is complex as well. 

While the simplicity of the MDGs may have helped mobilise support for development, that simplicity comes at a cost.  As Lindsey Nelson discussed in her STEPS presentation on multi-modal discourse last week, there are consequences to basing your strategy on a bumper sticker slogan.  Something to think about as we discuss the post-2015 development agenda.