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How Tanzania failed to fix its water access problem

Credit: Tom Murphy

The following is an abridged version of an investigative report I did with Jacob Kushner for the Ground Truth Project and the GlobalPost. For the past year, we looked closely at the $1.4 billion plan to increase access to water in Tanzania that was yielding little to no impact. For the full story, go here.

MLANDA, Tanzania — During dry season, students walk on the brownish-red sand, passing a water pump adjacent to the school buildings. The plastic bag covering the nozzle is a reminder for the central Tanzanian village of Mlanda that water has not flowed from it for years.

Outside the school, a bright yellow bucket sits atop the head of a young girl, moving slowly across the limitless landscape. Adila is returning home from a 2-kilometer walk to the nearest water source — a ground well where farmers take their livestock to drink — to fill the 20-liter bucket. She too passes the barren pump and the classroom where her classmates sit to learn.

Adila will miss class this afternoon, like she does nearly every day. She must carry the water home before turning around and heading back to school.

Speak with Tanzanians today, and you’ll hear them describe an ambitious dream: to shed the country’s 60-year legacy as a “third-world” nation, and emerge as a thriving middle-income one, despite allegations of a culture of government corruption that has led donors to suspend close to $500 million in budgetary aid.

For some, achieving the goal of a middle-income Tanzania begins with water. The single broken-down pump in Adila’s home village of Mlanda is one of thousands across Tanzania. In 2007, the World Bank joined an unprecedented drive the Tanzanian government had launched in 2006 to fix its water crisis once and for all. In the past, international donors funded different projects in the country’s water sector.

This time, the World Bank would provide Tanzania with the financial and technical support to organize them to pool their money together, in a grand experiment that combined rural and urban water resource management into one plan.

To date the drive has attracted more than $1.42 billion — including $200 million in direct budget support from the World Bank as well as funding from various other donors and the Tanzanian government — an incredible sum for a single project in a small country like Tanzania. The initial goal was ambitious: to bring improved access to water to 65 percent of rural Tanzanians and 90 percent of urbanites by 2010, and continue until each and every citizen had safe drinking water.

By all available metrics, the project has failed: When the project began, only 54 percent of Tanzanians had access to what is called an improved water source — a water point, like a well or water pump, that is protected from contamination. Seven years into the project, that figure has actually decreased — now at 53 percent, according to the latest World Bank Data. Coupled with Tanzania’s rising population, today 3.8 million more Tanzanians lack access to improved water than did before the project began.

Others are at immediate risk of failing as communities find themselves unable to raise the money to fix and maintain them. Experts across Tanzania’s water industry say the program is failing to address the fundamental challenges that have plagued Tanzania’s water sector for decades.

“They are only trying to intervene for a short time — ‘Let’s keep the system working for a couple years,’” said Herbert Kashililah, chairman of Water Witness Tanzania. “If I am from the World Bank, it is easier to count new projects than try to ensure people are running their own systems.”

The World Bank defends the program, arguing that despite its slow start and the likelihood that some water points will stop working, it is better than doing nothing.

“The problem of providing rural water around the world hasn’t been cracked,” said Philippe Dongier, World Bank country director for Tanzania. “You could say, ‘if that’s not going to be sustainable, why should we build it?’ But that could be said all over the world.”

A World Bank spokesman in Washington interviewed Monday said that while the data used to analyze the initiative are “factually correct,” it combines rural and urban data. The spokesman said that combined data can hide some of the overall successes the project has had in improving access to clean water in rural areas.

The spokesman added that the government, with support from the World Bank, had brought access to 8 million more people in rural areas through this initiative. But due to an increase in population, when viewed as a percentage, access to clean water has actually decreased in Tanzania.

Uwiro Village, Tanzania (credit: Tom Murphy)

Uwiro Village, Tanzania (credit: Tom Murphy)

And so governments and international financial institutions continue investing hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the project going, despite evidence that it hasn’t succeeded. Plus $102.9 million more has been committed to the program in the past year alone, and the deadline for completion of the first stage has been extended for a third time, to December 2015.

Meanwhile, revelations about the transfer of $122 million from Tanzania’s central bank into overseas private accounts led a dozen funders, many of the same ones who backed the project, to halt payments. The money was sent by the state-owned power company TANESCO to IPTL, an independent power company. Both groups say it was legal, but opposition politicians and watchdogs cried foul.

Allegations of a cover up have dogged the government and they got louder as the prime minister asked for parliament to cancel debating the corruption allegations earlier this month.

Why is such an unprecedented project lagging behind its lofty goals? And why does the World Bank continue to solicit hundreds of millions of dollars for it?

Failure in Lupeta

It’s a full day’s bus ride from Dar es Salaam to the district of Mpwapwa in north-central Tanzania. It is here that the earliest signs appeared of trouble ahead for Tanzania’s ambitious water development program.

Engineers dug boreholes in 2004 and 2005 to get at water trapped deep in the ground in Mpwapwa and in 13 other places across the country.

The idea was to learn how expensive it would be to create functioning water points, how long they’d take to build and how best to establish “community water councils” capable of keeping the water flowing. Leaders would learn from mistakes on a few pilot projects and work out all the kinks before the plan went national. But critics say those lessons went unlearned.

The Tanzanian government launched the initiative in 2006, and the World Bank brought its hefty support in 2007. In that first phase, five water systems had been completed in Mpwapwa. Less than a decade later, three of them are not functioning, said village leaders. A fourth failed, too — it only resumed operation recently thanks to the emergency intervention of a private NGO.

And rather than seek a new model for ensuring that its rural water points don’t fail, the WSDP continues to forge ahead with the very same program that failed the villagers of Mpwapwa, including the farming community of Lupeta. 

On small plots of land, the farmers of Lupeta grow corn, ground nuts and sunflowers. A typical family earns just about $212 a year from their crops, says village chairman Wilfred Msumu. On a dry year, even less. Since before Tanzania’s 1961 independence, these families had been making hours-long treks to fetch water.

Then in the 1970s the government built pipes into the community from a faraway stream.

“It was not sufficient,” said Msumu, 67. The water flowed at a trickle, and what little did arrive had to be shared with another village. And so, most families went back to fetching water from afar.

When residents learned in 2004 they were slated to receive a brand new system — a WSDP pilot project — they were wary. But they rejoiced when the project successfully brought a source of water directly to the village.

“People were so happy they were dancing,” says Msumu. The new system delivered water right to the center of the village — reducing dozens of hours each family spent fetching water every week.

“That (extra) time we used for people to farm, for children to attend school instead of fetching the water,” says Msumu. “Children go to school for many more hours now, many more days.”

The water flowed for six, fruitful years. But then it slowed. “The place where they were building a new intake, the water was not enough,” says Msumu. Seven years after the system was built, the water stopped altogether.

“We had no water for nine months,” says Msumu. For the third interval since Tanzania’s independence, the residents of Lupeta “were going to another village, 10 kilometers (away), with a bucket on their heads.”

Msumu tried to raise money to build a new water intake, which an assessment by water engineers estimated would cost $92,000. The small fee of 20 shillings (about 1.2 cents) that community leaders had been collecting for each bucket of water consumed was not nearly enough.

He was unsuccessful in getting the Tanzanian government to make up the difference. At last, the private water relief NGO WaterAid answered the call, furnishing a $92,000 gift to build a new intake and replacing some of the old pipes.

But Lupeta is just one of many failures during the pilot program and Phase I of WSDP, according to Mpangala — and WaterAid is in no position to step in and fix every one.

Goyagoya argues that the WSDP should not be judged by the failures of communities to maintain the projects.

“When the pilot projects were completed, it was still early to learn about the maintenance,” he says. “But during the implementation of WSDP, we came to learn that sustainability of the projects under the private sector was not sustainable.”

To bureaucrats far away in Dar es Salaam, these challenges seem stubborn, out of reach, even incomprehensible. To the people of Mpwapwa, they are real, and current:

“I cannot wash our clothes, I cannot cook anytime I want because I must spend time going to the well,” said Hawa Jacob, who lives in the village of Masagali where a WSDP tank sits cracked and unusable.

The 29-year-old spends one hour every morning walking to a far away well, carrying a 20-liter bucket of water back on her head. Her two children — ages 8 and 6 — carry 10 liters each, about 22 pounds.

Jacob recalls fondly the days when the water did flow — when she and her family could use as much as they wanted, without having to spend all morning carrying such heavy loads. She laments that the WSDP built project amounted to nothing. She insists that it isn’t too late.

“The World Bank should fix it,” she says. “Because it’s their project that isn’t working.”

A history of failure

The World Bank came into the project with a history of being criticized for its “top-down” approach to development aid — loaning money with strings attached, micromanaging, even dictating the types of water systems a community can choose from. In Tanzania, World Bank leaders were particularly sensitive to that criticism: a push by the Bank in the early 2000s to privatize Dar es Salaam’s water authority ended just two years later in utter failure. Companies had serviced the rich and neglected the poor, those most in need of water.

Children collect water in Uwiro Village, Tanzania. (credit: Tom Murphy)

Children collect water in Uwiro Village, Tanzania. (credit: Tom Murphy)

But when it came to constructing rural water points under the WSDP, decisions were not going to be set in Washington, D.C., nor in the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma.

Instead, WSDP managers would let communities decide for themselves what sort of water system they wanted to build. A simple gravity scheme to deliver water from a faraway creek? A deep borehole requiring an electric pump? No problem. It was the kind of community-led development that bucked the traditional top-down model.

“You cannot dictate the type of technology. Water is not for the government (to decide), it’s for the people,” said Amani Mafuru, an engineer in the Rural Water Supply bureau who helped implement the WSDP in the Mpwapwa District.

Though government water engineers warned communities that choosing an advanced system could be expensive to maintain, few heeded the advice. In the modern era, Tanzanians have modern expectations. Many want water pumped right to where they live and work, whatever the cost, so they opted for boreholes, pumps and other systems that bring the water closer.

But “that shift of technological choice had its implications,” said Mafuru. Granting rural villages in a way so much autonomy proved to be detrimental, causing the entire WSDP program to lag behind schedule and over budget.

“Communities were given an open envelope: Choose. The money’s not a limit,” said Kashililah of Water Witness Tanzania. “So they choose Mercedes-Benz without knowing how to drive a manual car. You can’t give a poor man a Mercedes-Benz. He can’t pay to replace the tires, he can’t afford the fuel costs.”

And because the first systems were so expensive, money is now running short to build the rest.

The result, according to a World Bank document obtained by The GroundTruth Project summarizing the progress of the WSDP in January 2013, is that only 10 Local Government Authorities (LGAs) had signed contracts to start working by May 2012. That number accelerated over the next seven months to 102 LGAs under construction.

“Compared to the target of 10 schemes per district, we’re still far from that,” said Dongier, the World Bank Tanzania country director. “You’re talking 150 districts in the country multiplied by 10. That’s 1,500 projects, while now we are only at a few hundred.”

Dongier blames the slowdown in part on bureaucracy within Tanzania’s government: initially the Ministry of Water wanted to review and approve each and every project, causing delays. Only recently has the ministry delegated that responsibility to regional governments, which has sped things up, according to Dongier.

The tendency toward high-cost technology and the complications of using private contractors have delayed access to water for hundreds of thousands of rural Tanzanians. To make up for the shortfall, Tanzania’s government and the World Bank solicited nearly $500 million more funding, part of a $1.42 billion total price tag — pumping more and more resources into building rural water points that were supposed to have been completed already this year.

A way forward?

Even as the $1.4 billion Water Sector Development Programme (WSDP) showed signs it was not working after five years, the World Bank and other organizations provided even more money without first investing in identifying new solutions to old problems.

Despite this, recent changes hold promise for the WSDP. As the World Bank points out, more projects are being completed now than two years ago. They and the Tanzanian government say the program is starting to work the way it was intended. Donors partnerships with with Tanzania are also evolving. The United Kingdom, for example, introduced an innovative scheme to avert the very problems that have plagued the WSDP.

Another form of increased accountability comes to the WSDP through Tanzania’s ambitious plan to reach middle-income status. If both efforts take hold, there is a chance to change course. Lingering over these positive steps is the question of whether they are enough to increase and sustain access to clean water across Tanzania. And if they will work.

Broken water pump in Mlanda, Tanzania. (Credit: Tom Murphy)

Broken water pump in Mlanda, Tanzania. (Credit: Tom Murphy)

Like many aid projects across the developing world, the World Bank and other donors get credit for the number of people they connect to water — not the number of people who still have water years down the line. It’s the same problem that has plagued Africa for decades — the WSDP in Tanzania has no direct incentive to build water systems that are meant to last.

With more than 300 government agencies involved in the program, there is little accountability for the implementation, say experts involved, which has been slower and more expansive than anticipated.

“You can understand when you have almost 10 donors and the government, each one doesn’t trust the other and each needs to be accountable to the money they’re putting in the basket,” said Kashililah. “It has been very slow.”

As the first phase of the WSDP winds down — hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, years past the original deadline, and with few results — organizers across the water sector are eagerly planning Phase II. Along with a renewed commitment to water access and an innovative funding scheme by the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID), backers say the new plan will finally help WSDP right its course.

“On the one hand you can say its bureaucratic, it’s slow, it’s inefficient. But on the other hand you can say it’s a national program that’s beginning to come together,” said Dongier. “Indeed it’s a lot of money and its been far too long to produce the results, but we’ve seen a real acceleration.”

The accountability measures introduced by the Big Results Now initiative and DFID’s Cash on Delivery scheme seek to rein in the WSDP. But will this, and other measures such as creating a contingency fund for emergency maintenance in rural areas, be enough to truly turn the $1.4 billion program around?

Already, Kashililah fears that priorities are being mixed — urban areas continue to get more per capita funding, for instance.

“They’re saying the coverage in urban should reach 95 percent and in rural should reach 65 percent. Where’s the equity?”

Mrindoko disagrees: In Tanzania, any investment is good investment, he says.

“This is not the U.S. Fifty percent of the people do not have access. Whether you start with that or this, they don’t have access. This would be a philosophical argument. None of them have supply.”

The second in command at the Ministry of Water brushed off accusations that even the plan for Phase II fails to sufficiently address the problem of maintenance.

“I can tell you these things are changing,” says Mrindoko. “There’s so much hype about people not being able to pay. Tanzanians are not as poor as people like to think.”

Others say the government and the international donors who fund it must do more to help the 20 million people in Tanzania who still go without improved access to water.

“If they don’t focus on maintenance, many of the projects finished in phase I may already become non-function during Phase II,” says Kashililah.

Even some within the ministry say the current “quick fix” mentality with which Tanzania’s leaders approach their nation’s water woes leaves limited room for optimism.

“If you ask me it’s a matter of it not yet being in our brain that it is really our main challenge,” said Director of Urban Water Supply and Sewerage, Dr. Justus Rwetabura. “Everybody must think water is a first priority.”

For the more detailed story and go here.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]