Listen to success, not repeat past failures

April 1, 2004
Why has so little progress been made after 30 years and billions of dollars invested in water and sanitation projects? In its recently launched publication "Listening," the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council explores lessons from past failures and documents examples of a new approach that has delivered excellent results.

By Pamela Wolfe

Start listening to the people who have pioneered successful water and sanitation projects instead of repeating the costly mistakes of the past is the simple, yet profound message announced by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) on World Water Day 2004.

Significant breakthroughs in low-cost water and sanitation programmes are being made by innovative, local organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America that contrast dramatically against the failures of conventional, large-scale centralised projects that have wasted billions of dollars over past decades in many developing nations. Yet these voices of experience — of success and failure – are not often heard in international forums.

On World Water Day 2004, the Geneva-based council made sure that these voices will be heard by launching Listening ( This publication includes contributions from 40 people who have worked for many years with communities in poor neighbourhoods in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Colombia, India, Kenya, Madagascar, Nepal, South Africa and Uganda. Some authors report huge successes; some authors offer insights on how to avoid failures. All speak from direct experience. All advocate an approach based on "working with and trusting local communities" that has been pioneered over the past twenty years rather than the "fatally flawed" conventional approaches.

Most contributors agree that government's primary role should be in facilitating community-based action instead of dictating solutions and providing hardware. "No progress is possible until the urban authorities stop trying to hand down centrally planned solutions. The urban elites are still clinging to the notion that they are the greatest experts in solving problems faced by the poor. It is an attitude that has led to literally thousands of failed projects," says Jockin Arputham, president of India's National Slum Dwellers Federation, in Listening.

The WSSCC report severely criticises the international community for its failure to fulfil promises to increase water supply and sanitation coverage in the past few decades.

Enormous frustration is felt by many who have worked in this sector and have seen millions of dollars wasted on ill-devised schemes that often benefit the wealthy minority, or result in inoperable systems. An estimated one billion people still lack safe water and almost 2.5 billion lack safe sanitation, and 6,000 children die every day from the lack of safe water and sanitation, according to the council.

Achieving the Millennium Development Goals will require support of a different approach. WSSCC Executive Director Gourisankar Ghosh advocates one that emphasises "decentralisation and empowerment of people and communities to enable them to take more control of their own lives and support them in achieving their own development goals."

Why is it so difficult to implement? Some attribute it to vested interests. Governments tend to prefer massive, centralised projects that provide a "quick-fix" to solve major problems instead of small, community-led initiatives that are less costly and more difficult to control. Ashoke Chatterjee reports in Listening that "High-tech, gigantic schemes requiring huge investment also carry opportunities for patronage, profit and electioneering. By contrast, there is no money to be made from local solutions."

Listening, however, offers many hopeful examples of how this successful approach can be used to provide safe water and sanitation. Rural women in water-scarce Gujarat, India, took action on their own by developing a massive rainwater harvesting scheme to secure water supply when the state failed to deliver water through a pipeline project. Chatterjee cites their work as proof that community-led initiatives work (page 30). Former city commissioner Ratnakar Gaikwad used his ingenuity to find unbudgeted money to quickly build more than 400 toilet blocks and 10,000 toilet seats in Pune, India within 18 months (page 22). Their insights and others included within Listening should be of great value to the thousands of politicians, bureaucrats, engineers and other professionals responsible for water and sanitation programmes around the world.

Pamela L. Wolfe, Managing Editor