24 November 2014

A deep dive into Tanzania's failed $1 billion water project

Today marks the publication of the first of a four part investigation into Tanzania's World Bank-backed endeavor to increase access to clean water, by myself and Jacob Kushner. It is the culmination of now more than a year looking into why it took more than 5 years for the project to start showing meaningful results and why the gains are tenuous in the long term. The story begins with the scene depicted in the above image I took while reporting from Tanzania last fall. Mary Slosson, then of GOOD, and I were curious why the pump located at the nearby school was not working.

Here is a clip from part one. You can expect the second and third parts to publish this week and the finishing part next week.
To date the drive has attracted more than $1.42 billion in funding from various 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 metrics, the project has failed categorically: 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.

The Tanzanian government and the World Bank admit that only 20 to 30 percent of rural water projects that were due to be completed by this summer were actually built. Although the pace of the program has picked up over the past year, with 28,246 rural water points either built or rehabilitated, there is no accountability mechanism to ensure that these sources will remain operational in the years ahead.

Already, some of the earliest water points created under the program’s pilot initiative are no longer being maintained and have stopped working. 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,’” says Herbert Kashillilah, chair 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.”
Read part one here