No Water for the Thirsty

A mother and her four daughters, who fetch 20 buckets of water a day for their family

A mother and her four daughters, who fetch 20 buckets of water a day for their family

Tanzania is a casebook example of the dangers of water privatization. In 2003, the World Bank and IMF encouraged the country to privatize its public water system. Tanzania thus accepted the services of City Life water, a British company who purchased DAWASA (now DAWASCO), the municipal water corporation. Within two years however, the water supply had not improved, and the situation was so terrible that the government finally arrested the business leaders of City Life and sent them back to England as undesirable immigrants.

The most recent 2006 World Health Organization data for Tanzania show that a significant portion of the population has access to improved water sources (92% of the urban population and 62% of the rural population). However this number is misrepresentative. While public standpipes are considered improved water sources, i.e. “likely safe water sources,” they are not a sustainable solution. Many households must wait hours at public standpipes alongside herds of women, all hoping that the water will last until their turn to fill their 20L bucket, which they must then carry one kilometer or more back to their residence. If anecdotal evidence does not suffice, diarrhea remains the number four cause of mortality of children under five in Tanzania.

Buckets- the long line for water at the public spigot.

Buckets- the long line for water at the public spigot.

In addition to the obvious human rights issues, according to both the Tanzania Gender Networking Program and, water access problems have gender implications. Decreased access to water threatens the education of girls who must fetch water.  The Tanzanian Water and Environmental Sanitation Projects Maintenance Organization also shows how water access difficulties place an undue burden on already vulnerable HIV/AIDS-affected families in Tanzania, who need more water for proper disinfection of household items.

Instead of focusing on privatization as the solution, the World Bank and other international donors ought to focus on improving infrastructure. But in the mean time, perhaps big thinkers can rely on some forward-thinking engineering ideas to bring clean water to more people. The Cooper-Hewitt museum’s exhibit “Design for the Other 90%” highlights many water ideas, including the brilliant Q-drum. It is a cylindrical doughnut-shaped 50 L plastic jug that can be rolled instead of toted, thus making a water fetching much simpler. But with this solution, as with most others, “the problem,” says the inventor Piet Hendrikse, “is that those who need it, cannot afford it. And those who can, they don’t need it.”


6 Responses to “No Water for the Thirsty”

  1. adellinentatin Says:

    This is a very interesting and informative article that highlights one of the plights faced by developing countries. However, it is sad to know that City Life is taking international legal action against the Government of Tanzania to dispute the termination of the water contract. This most likely will divert crucial resources from the already impoverished people of Tanzania. Maybe in the end the solution to this problem lies in individuals, communities and NGOs carrying out little ventures at their immediate localities to combat the crisis. An example of this is the ICBD organization created by Margie Braband, aimed at building boreholes to help increase access to potable water in Tanzania.

  2. healthcarereformusa Says:

    This is the most amazing blog (great, simple, poignant narrative/links/AV resources)! You elicted quite an emotional response. For years I’ve worrried about supplying clean, safe water throughout the world. (I even invested my savings on companies working on this problem–though you’ve taught me I must be selective about this.) Water, air, food, and shelter–the most fundamental needs. Of the four, water seems the most challenging to ensure for all. Water quenches, but more importantly, it is the key to health. The single most effective action to erradicate disease is supplying clean, safe water. I know we must continue to push for water lines to every household, but the Q Drum is, as you say, “brilliant.” (I had never heard of it.) It has the potential of quickly improving the health and lives of millions of people around the world. Q Drum = Hope! You have succeeded in motivating me…I will donate to the cause of Q Drum distribution. I hope you get this blog “out there.” And when you do, please consider adding a direct link to a donation site–I don’t think any reader would mind. (I only say this because I wish I had added a direct link to support HR 3200 in my own blog.) THANK YOU! (Crossing my fingers that when I submit this comment it will not get lost in cyber-space like my last attempt!

  3. kbingley Says:

    One of the main issues facing Tanzania and many other African nations is water scarcity. While inadequate funding, corruption, inappropriate technology, and a lack of infrastructure are correctly a direct result of long water queues and the resulting health and education deficiencies, it is the absence of water that has plagued many rural African communities.

  4. ben Says:

    This just demonstrates how not to use privitization–as well as the “free market” works in some things, to give the water contract over to a private company who is a government-granted monopoly without serious oversight is a recipe for disaster. The role of privitization seems to be more in innovations like you described–if something is very effective, the government could fund distribution of the drums since locals might not be able to initially afford them.

    The other thing that really bothers me is the statistics the government reports like you mentioned. Where I am the numbers are similarly high, but NO ONE I know (expat or national, middle class or poor) drinks the water here, even in the biggest city. In so many places, there is just a disconnect between what the government wants to report and what the situation really is.

  5. dbuttke Says:

    This is an issue stemming from a long history of communal land tenure and undervalue of natural resources. It is an issue that is unfortunately hitting the most fragile and still developing areas the hardest but an issue that will eventually hit the developed areas as well, as seen in the Colorado river water rights issues. The free market approach is theoretically a solvent policy but as well have seen with the recent economic recession, capitalism is not the best policy for the poor, thirsty, and hungry.

  6. varshner Says:

    Access to clean drinking water should perhaps be a fundamental right of any human being. On the contrary hundreds of millions of people have no or limited access to safe water. This is one of the fundamental factors impacting health of a substantial portion of humanity living in developing and the developed world.
    You have highlighted several relevant aspects of this unfortunate and widespread problem. Thank you. Q drum is an interesting innovative solution to the problem of head and neck injuries and wasted time for women carrying heavy loads of water for long distances. Perhaps there can be further innovation that can purify water/ remove contamination while water is being rolled in Q drums.

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