Good governance is the key
“In most Asian countries, there is a separate ministry for water, yet their water is so poorly managed,” says Prof Asit Biswas, winner of Stockholm Water Prize for 2006. He contrasts this with the fact that many European countries have no separate ministry for water, and water is managed either by the Environment or Health or Agriculture Ministry. Yet these countries are doing a fine job of managing their water.The point to note is that without good governance and best practices, it doesn’t really matter whether water has a separate ministry, whether it is in the public or private sector, and whether it is centralised or decentralised. Governance has been but empty rhetoric in most of Asia with only a few islands of excellence such as Singapore, Shanghai and Phnom Penh.
There is no blueprint for good water governance. It is a complex process driven by hundreds of variables. The water sector cannot be looked at in isolation. It is a part of a much bigger political-social-economic-environmental picture and is affected by decisions made outside the water sector. The problem is that elected governments do not often see the linkages between various sectors (though integrated water management is a buzzword used freely at various meetings). They do not have a vision beyond the four to five-year period that they are elected for. Corruption is all-pervasive in the water sector as in other sectors, the extent of which cannot even be calculated.
While plenty of water policies have been formulated, their implementation continues to be poor. Reforms are urgently needed but where does one start from? According to Cordova “a reform programme will be successful if there is economic rationality in its design, political sensitivity in its implementation and close and constant attention to political-economic interactions and socio-institutional factors, so as to determine in each case, the dynamics to follow.”
High-level political commitment is absolutely necessary for water reforms to be successful. “Even though most reforms require technical input, the process itself is essentially political and thus involves political compromises, bargaining and negotiated outcomes,” says the recently released UN World Water Development Report 2.
The UN Report gives some practical suggestions about implementing reforms. Instead of too many reform objectives, they should be kept as simple as possible. Adequate compensation should be negotiated and provided to those who lose out, which is very important for avoiding clashes. Reforms should be given time because they need to be incremental rather than sudden.
It helps when a champion within the government or bureaucratic network is able to seize the moment and get things moving. The example of Cambodia’s Ek Sonn Chan is well-documented. As Director of Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, he transformed the defunct water supply of the city into a well-functioning one. He turned his organisation into an autonomous, commercially oriented and self-sufficient body.
Even in a chaotic set-up like India, there are shining examples of individuals who accomplished difficult tasks in a highly politicised environment. E. Sreedharan, Managing Director of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation succeeded in breaking the Indian stereotype of cost and time overruns to complete the commissioning of a world-class rapid transport system well before schedule. This has considerably eased the traffic woes of the city.
As Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder says, “All said and done, it is the creativity of leadership, its willingness to learn from experience elsewhere, to implement good ideas quickly and decisively through an efficient public service, and to convince the majority of people that tough reforms are worth taking, that decides a country’s development and progress.”