Public sector reform as prerequisite

Development Policy14 Feb 2013Sunil Tankha

The only way to overcome the water crisis is to redouble our efforts to reform the public sector

Mismanagement of water resources is widespread. The main reason for this is the general state of mismanagement in the public sector, a problem which is obviously more serious in developing countries. In India, for example, not only do water utilities waste water through leaking pipes, but also irrigation water is wasted because of badly maintained canals. Not surprisingly then, both urban dwellers and farmers pump out groundwater for their needs, as a result of which the country’s water tables are falling precipitously. To add to this sorry state of affairs, the water which is not wasted is polluted, again because of badly managed and under-financed sewerage systems and because of inadequate monitoring of industrial effluence. And India is not alone amongst developing countries in wasting its limited and stressed water resources. China too faces similar problems. Strikingly, these two countries account for about a third of the global population.

Yet, over the past two decades, attention paid to reforming the public sector has diminished considerably. Instead, attempts have been made to overcome the public sector inefficiency problem by bypassing it, most notably through privatization and community participation initiatives. Both of these attempted solutions have yielded mixed results, but what is more worrying is that while trying to bypass the public sector, we have slackened our efforts to reform it.

It is quite impracticable to supplant the public sector in water resources management. Even if privatization and community ownership and management initiatives could be successfully designed and implemented, there is no way they could supplant the reach of public sector networks in the foreseeable future. Each successful intervention of these types takes years to implement and it is difficult to replicate them.

In my view, too many resources are being wasted trying to sideline the public sector because of a widespread feeling that it is a thankless task. And, pursing alternative management arrangements often lets governments off the hook for reforming themselves. Even if we can showcase inspiring alternatives, they cannot be rolled out fast enough or extensively enough to solve the problem within the compressed time frames that we have.

Thus, the only way to overcome the water crisis is to redouble our efforts to reform the public sector. No matter how difficult and hopeless it may seem and no matter how intractable the problems of state ownership and control are, public sector reform must be at the top of the water resource management agenda in developing countries. This reform is a prerequisite for any functional development agenda for water and for any viable cooperation amongst different actors and stakeholders.