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Scarce Water Diverted by Greased Palms

Thalif Deen

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"Corruption in the water sector is a root cause and catalyst for the global water crisis that threatens billions of lives and exacerbates environmental degradation," complains the Berlin-based Water Integrity Network (WIN) founded in 2006.

The water crisis, it argues, is a governance crisis with corruption at its core.

And case studies of several countries, including Indonesia, Bolivia, Lesotho, Chile, Kazakhstan and Uganda, prove widespread mismanagement in the water sector.

Asked whether corruption had declined or risen in the global water sector since 2006, Hakan Tropp, chair of WIN told IPS: "It is difficult to say whether corruption has increased or decreased over the past years."

"We have no baseline to compare with, and the level of transparency about investment into the water sector is far too low," he explained.

What has been positive is that anti-corruption policies are now more firmly on the international water development agenda.

But still, said Tropp, much remains to be done to get the issue high up on national agendas.

As WIN points out, corruption is found at every point along the water delivery chain, including collusion or bribes over contracts; officials turning a blind eye or enjoying personal or political gain; and people having to pay illegal fees to water companies for connection to a water supply.

And some of the case studies by WIN indicate the degree of widespread abuse.

Tropp told IPS there has been good progress in countries like Uganda and Bangladesh, "but we are yet to see the impacts on corruption".

Asked where bribery and corruption were most prevalent regionally, he said it was difficult to say that one continent is more corrupt than another.

In systems characterised by institutional deficits, the risks for corruption are much higher, particularly in situations of water monopolies and the lack of basic democratic rights, such as access to information, said Tropp, who is also project director of the Water Governance Facility at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), which is hosting World Water Week in the Swedish capital this week.

On the positive side, he said, WIN has facilitated the creation of country coalitions to build bridges and fight corruption. Such coalitions exist in Bangladesh and Uganda while a number of other countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa are expected to establish similar entities.

According to WIN, the risks of corruption in development projects "are high and widespread". . The Kecamatan Development Project (KDP) covers over 34,000 villages and has supported Indonesia's water sector through the construction of some 7,178 clean water supply units, 2,900 sanitation units and over 7,300 irrigation systems.

But this large-scale project has offered plentiful opportunities for government officials to misuse public funds for personal gain at a low risk.

"Dysfunctional judicial systems and ineffective oversight institutions contribute to an overall weak accountability system, enabling the diversion of money away from development projects," WIN says.

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), described as one of the world's largest infrastructure projects at an estimated cost of over eight billion dollars, "is well known for the grand corruption trials involving several (European and North American) multinational companies and public officials."

According to WIN, more than six million dollars in bribes were exchanged to win contracts and secure tenders in the bidding process.

The Lesotho trials were described as the first of its kind where bribery in international business transactions were brought to light followed by prosecution in the country impacted by the bribes.

WIN has also singled out Kenya where corruption prevents Nairobi's water from reaching millions of poor people, forcing them to pay five to 10 times more for water from other sources.

The Network has not spared the United States either.

In California, San Diego households were overcharged for sewage treatment services, and the excess was unlawfully used to subsidise industrial customers.

And local corruption in China, says WIN, often prevents enforcement of environmental regulations resulting in 700 million people drinking water contaminated with animal and human waste.

WIN was founded jointly by Transparency International, the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), the International Water and Sanitation Centre, the Swedish Water House and the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Programme - Africa.

The funding for the network comes from several donor countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.