Scoring on the ‘S’factor

Development Policy19 Feb 2013Marco Schouten

A combination of utility performance indicators to measure the ‘S’factor as the new water SDG is crucial for the sustainable development agenda to have the desired effect.

The world water community can be proud of itself. The drinking water target was one of the first Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be met. The estimated twenty-four percent of the world population that did not have sustainable access to safe drinking water in 1990 was halved in 2010, five years ahead of schedule. Over the twenty-year period since 1990, two billion people have gained access to improved water sources. A truly impressive achievement, particularly in the light of the rapid population growth in this period.

It is evident that doubts can be raised on the monitoring data; that a lot of people still do not have access, and that in some parts of the world there has been less progress (Africa), than in other parts (China, India). And indeed it is important that these criticisms are discussed and answered. However, the achievement of the water MDG in itself should be celebrated, motivating a wave of positivism and a ‘can-do’ attitude. Having an aspirational target that is clearly monitored, widely published and understood is instrumental in making a difference. Having such a focused water target steers key decision makers in policy formulation and the disbursement of their funds.

The post 2015 Rio Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for water present a terrific opportunity to again make a difference. Formulating them so that they trigger the required change may again be the basis for future successes. At the conference in Rio de Janeiro a key decision was made with respect to the target formulation, being the prominence of the ‘S factor’. The targets were not to be called MDGs but SDGs, with the ‘S’ standing for ‘sustainable’. This shift may only be window-dressing: the achieved MDG also scored on the ‘S’factor, since it stated that the proportion of people without sustainable access to improved water would be halved.

Yet, I think that for a new SDG, the ‘old’ MDG does not score high enough on the ‘S’factor. Also, it is not certain that all the billions of people that have gained access to improved water sources will retain that access in the years to come. Particularly because the providers – local drinking water utilities – are in many cases in a poor state. The large majority of drinking water utilities in developing countries are by no means healthy in terms of finance, staffing, or asset maintenance and are incapable of securing access to improved water sources in a sustainable manner.

Hence, to score high on the ‘S’factor it is crucial to make the providers of drinking water healthy and the provision of drinking water services sustainable. This would imply that the new water SDGs should focus more on the operational management and capacities of the drinking water providers. Typical utility targets then come to mind, like cost recovery percentages, water quality parameters, asset ratios, cubic meters consumed, and Non Revenue Water (NRW) percentages. Indeed it is true that these indicate the health of a water utility and its ability to sustain services in the future. However, a complication for its usefulness is that selecting only one indicator as the new water SDG provides perverse incentives for utility managers. For example, if the focus is only on cost recovery, essential maintenance costs will be cut, affecting the state of the assets. Or, if the focus is only on NRW, too much emphasis will be put on reducing pressure in the distribution network without taking notice of water quantities delivered to the customers. Hence, only a combination of utility performance indicators – mostly presented in spider web or radar diagrams – tells whether a provider is healthy or not.

Unfortunately, the prominence of the ‘S’factor challenges the international water community to come up with such target. By itself, this challenge is highly interesting, though I fear it will not result in a simple and inspirational drinking water target that the international water community will embrace. I think it would be wise, if we prepare ourselves to accept a future drinking water target shaped like a spider web or a radar diagram. A major disadvantage is that it is less simple and less communicative. On the other hand, it has the great advantage that it is relevant and scores high on the ‘S’factor.