Sunday, January 13, 2008

Water, Technology and the World Bank's 2008 "Global Economic Prospects" report

As interested as I am in basic and applied research, new technologies, and ways to get them to market, I am not particularly excited about new water-related technologies just for the sake of new technology. I am far more interested in the scale up, out and over of existing appropriate technologies, particularly in the developing world where people suffer not from a lack of solutions but a lack of diffusion of those solutions.

The World Bank has some very insightful things to say about all of this in its recent Global Economic Prospects report:

Page 12: One of the recurring themes in this report is that “even relatively simple technologies can have far-reaching development impacts…For example, the dissemination of the simple skills required to build rainwater collection systems can improve access to clean drinking water and reduce the incidence of disease.”

Page 55: “In developing countries, the diffusion of such technology as water and sanitation systems…(has) been tremendously important for improving household well-being, but such innovations will affect output (blogger’s italics) only over time as improved child health eventually pays off in terms of greater adult productivity (source: Alderman, Hoddinott, and Kinsey 2006; Behrman and Rosenzweig 2004; Glewwe, Jacoby, and King 2001). These technologies may also have important noneconomic societal benefits, such as improved gender equality, which are not recorded in GDP because women are more likely to engage in nonmarket production, or may appear only with a lag as improved health technologies facilitate women’s entry into the labor force over time (source: Bailey 2006; Miller 2005; Schultz 2007).”

Page 57: “A recent study of Rwanda identified simple technologies whose greater use could have a substantial impact on development. For example, the study identified a lack of qualified plumbers and water sanitation technicians as a major factor holding back the implementation of simple rainwater collection strategies that have helped improve the quality of drinking water supplies in neighboring countries.”

Examples of the diffusion (or more correctly, lack thereof) of watsan technologies appropriate for Rwanda include:

• Roof water harvesting: only on limited scale for households
• Boreholes: few and expensive
• Hand pumps: imported from region or India
• VIP and Ecosan latrines technology: available, limited uptake

To repeat, “even relatively simple technologies can have far-reaching development impacts.” And the World Bank, the U.S. government, other international donors, and most importantly the Rwandan government itself should see to it that those simple technologies get to where they are most needed.

What could happen if happen if more financial and technical resources were available to more broadly diffuse the known solutions to Rwanda’s water and sanitation challenge? Rwanda is not racing for the cure for its water and sanitation challenge – they have the cure in their hand – e.g. they and the rest of the world have been putting into practice rainwater harvesting for millennia. Rwanda needs to scale it out and over. Perfect segue to my closing remarks:

I shouldn’t be surprised by the accurateness and relevance of these ideas coming from the World Bank, considering its mission of “global poverty reduction and the improvement of living standards.”

However, considering the controversy over many of its policy and fiscal recommendations and requirements in the developing world, and the irrelevance or worse of some of those in many cases for its primary mission of alleviating poverty, I find the simple ideas in this report refreshing. The next step is to make those recommendations happen, and my hope is that the US government is taking a step toward making those happen with its recent funding of the Water for the Poor Act.

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