To achieve water security, we must see its human face

‘I am telling you, I am torn between my work and water.’

‘I cannot save water for myself while knowing that my neighbour has no water. I should give it to my neighbour.’

‘I cannot transport water on my own. However I can rely on others who have donkeys.’

These quotes from women in Konso, southern Ethiopia, reveal a lot about how people struggle to maintain water security on a daily basis. Ethiopia is not a water-scarce country, with just over 1500 cubic metres of total renewable water supply per year according to FAO, but this means little to people on the ground unless it is translated into accessible, convenient and reliable sources of water which meet their needs. Coverage statistics are improving in Ethiopia, thanks to government investment and prioritisation of the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector. However, a new research report by ODI and WaterAid, Voices from the source, which profiles these quotes, reveals that even in areas that have an improved water source, accessing enough water to meet vital needs year-round, is often a challenge. People make trade-offs – such as reducing personal hygiene (sometimes using less water than minimum standards used in humanitarian emergencies), foregoing agricultural work or extending working hours well into the night – when water access becomes difficult. They also draw on local social relations: pooling labour for water collection, borrowing and renting donkeys for water transport, and sharing water with neighbours, in order to cope.

The interviewees in southern Ethiopia reveal that convenience trumps other considerations; most prefer to use a nearby unprotected source (such as an undeveloped spring or pond) to a slightly more distant protected well or borehole. They also tell us that their main sources frequently fail in the dry season due to falling water tables and drying of seasonal ponds and rivers, a fact also documented in the recently published book Achieving water security, which summarises five years of research on water in Ethiopia. Because of this, and simply because they have many different water needs (for drinking, cooking, washing, laundry, watering livestock and other activities such as local brewing), people use different sources at different times. Yet coverage measures assume that having an improved scheme in the vicinity means that unimproved sources – which may pose a health risk – are no longer used.

This is what the human face of water security looks like: a complex set of trade-offs, coping mechanisms and social arrangements, all closely linked to the broader set of decisions people make about their livelihoods. Yet a lot of attention is paid to government (or donor) spend and the number of water points built, and far less to the actual patterns of functionality, access and use which follow, or to what these mean for livelihoods. The links with local resource management (for example, possibilities to maximise local groundwater storage to buffer rainfall variability) are also rarely taken into account in planning, as water supply and local land management are typically handled by separate agencies.

At the international level, debates on water security rarely touch on such issues. The humanitarian community has long recognised that the national food balance (supply/demand) is not an adequate indicator of food insecurity. It is access to food, rather than its availability, which matters. The same is true of water. Yet concerns about physical scarcity – calculated in terms of national per capita water availability – still tend to dominate the agenda.

We must always ask whose water security we are talking about, and for what purposes. For national governments, ensuring sufficient water supply for food production, industry, urban areas and energy generation is a critical concern. Ethiopia is investing heavily in large-scale water infrastructure as part of its national Climate-Resilient Green Economy Strategy, and it is not alone in doing so. As these developments take place, it is critical that community and household-level water security is given a more central place in policy. Local storage will probably be more beneficial to poor farmers than big dams, for example, as well as far less controversial and probably cheaper.

These issues were debated during a recent event Achieving water security: global concerns and local realities. A central conclusion of the event was that local government staff need to be given more freedom to plan their investments in ways that respond to local needs and livelihoods, rather than being tightly bound by top-down targets and annual budget cycles. Forthcoming ODI-ILRI research under the Challenge Program on Water and Food confirms that this kind of local flexibility is key to making local water services and management arrangements work better for people.

Finally, water security is high on the agenda as the international community debates a new set of post-MDG goals and targets. A recent ODI Working Paper considers how progress on water security might be measured. It concludes that water security ‘goes beyond immediate physical availability’, must ‘address variability and risk’ and ‘needs a human focus’. Our detailed findings from Ethiopia lend weight to this call for more nuanced and human-centred understandings of water security, and give insights into what a human-focused approach to water security might look like. The MDGs focused on outputs (water-supply schemes); while important, this is a small part of the water security story. Considering impacts, sustainability and real levels of access could create a vision that is both more ambitious and more bottom-up, reflecting the experiences people at the receiving end – such as these women from Konso – tell us about.

19 February 2013
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This publication is an output of the following project: Voices from the Source: struggles with water security in Ethiopia