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Poor remain thirsty in water-rich Zambia

Surface water covers more than 6 per cent of Zambia’s land mass but its poorest people are unable to access safe water and adequate sanitation.

Children in many parts of the world start their day at school with a sleepy assembly. Not so in the Zambian village of Gwembe – here the children's day begins with a two-kilometre trek to the village chief's palace to get their daily supply of drinking water. On the way back they sometimes use the bushes to go to the toilet, since the pit latrines back in the village are often unusable.

As a result, lessons in Gwembe – situated in one of the poorest regions of Zambia – cannot begin before mid-morning or noon. It's a problem that the children's teacher, Charles Museba, has to grapple with every single day.

"It is ironic that a country that has a well distributed system of perennial rivers, streams, lakes and swamps is unable to harness this to provide its people safe and drinkable water," says Museba.

"The people here often suffer from diarrhoea, cholera and other water-borne diseases," says Museba. "Last year, I lost a student to bilharzias," – one of many water-borne diseases that break out during the rainy season.

A recent report by the National Water Company found that less than a third of the population living in rural areas has access to clean water and sanitation. Ironically, landlocked Zambia has much more ground water than its neighbours, who nevertheless manage to provide clean water and sanitation to over 90 per cent of the population.

Like many others in the village, Museba blames the government for not sinking boreholes and wells or digging pit latrines in Gwembe, which lies in the Southern Province. "Why do they dig a bore hole so far away from us? In Lusaka (the capital) there are water points every 500 yards, so why don't they do the same here?"

Museba draws a simple equation to illustrate the link between poverty and the lack of water and sanitation: "In towns where people have money, they have water and sanitation systems. Perhaps it is because they can pay the bills and we cannot."

His wife Nareda says the local council, where she used to work, has made numerous appeals to the government to dig wells or boreholes near to their settlement of over 200 people. "The government does not want to spend on rural areas, despite what they tell the donors."

Nareda says every year, non-government and government officials drop by to ask what the community needs. And although water and sanitation services are invariably cited as a priority nothing ever comes of it. "We are tired of getting water borne diseases and fetching and carrying water," she adds.

Minister of Local Government Sylvia Masebo, who deals with rural water and sanitation services, denies that rural areas are being ignored. She says the government realises the importance of providing water and sanitation services as not only a commodity, but also as a means of poverty alleviation.

That is why, she says, water and sanitation were included in Zambia's five-year Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) drafted in 2000. "Right now we are cash strapped – every sector is suffering. We are doing our best in the circumstances," she told Panos Features.

Experts say an amount of 20-50 litres of water per day is enough to cover basic human needs for drinking, sanitation, bathing and cooking. The internationally-agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for water supply and sanitation coverage have two aims: to halve by 2015 the number of people who are unable to reach or afford safe drinking water and to stop the unsustainable use of water resources.

To achieve these two MDG targets, experts estimate Zambia will have to spend up to US$9 million annually. While this is not a small sum for a poor country, it is not unaffordable either and it represents less than 30 per cent of the amount allocated to water supply and sanitation in the 2003 national budget. The problem lies elsewhere: as the Auditor General's report has repeatedly shown, money allocated for the sector in the budget, is often not actually given to the sector and is used up by other sectors. In election years, for instance, it is sometimes appropriated by the government's security wing.

Now, a research paper by WaterAid, an international NGO working in Zambia, says that it is the lack of coherence in decision-making, allocation and release of resources – rather than the lack of money – that is the biggest obstacle to providing water and sanitation.

The WaterAid paper, Getting To The True Nature Of The Problem: The Case Of Financing Rural Water Supply And Sanitation In Zambia's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, says financial allocations for water and sanitation in Zambia's annual budget were typically more than what was eventually set aside in the resource envelope in the PRSP.

But actual spending was only about 10 per cent of the allocation. What appeared as a pattern of misreporting of actual expenditures was not so much due to the lack of government capacity to implement projects or to spend budgets, as it was due to the centralisation of resources and the perennial state of crisis surrounding the budgeting process.

District-level water and sanitation committees established in 1996 to ensure community planning and management of water and sanitation facilities have not been the drivers of local level planning as they should have. As a result, financial resources were not properly targeted for poverty reduction.

The paper says there are a number of reasons places like Gwembe find it hard to access adequate water and sanitation services. Unsurprisingly, poverty tops the list: "The poorer the area, the more difficult it is to reach."

Gwembe has one of the country's poorest road networks and a difficult terrain – the paper says this is all the more reason that areas such as these should be prioritised by poverty reduction projects. It suggests that a new indicator be developed to measure equity in distribution.

In their defence ministers and officials say donors often undermine or bypass national PRSP objectives. Katele Kalumba, a former finance minister says donors typically follow their own financial calendars – often different from the national budget timeframe – and give out money too late or on a piecemeal basis.

This, he says, impacts heavily on programmes such as water and sanitation, which is 80 percent donor-funded.

Limited consultation – a common feature of the PRSP process in many countries – is another problem. Although there is an entire section devoted to water and sanitation in the Zambian PRSP, WaterAid expert Pamela Chisanga said this does not necessarily indicate any commitment. "There was very little consultation on what should go into the document in the first place," Chisanga says.

"When we realised that there was no component on water and sanitation, we paid a consultant to come up with something. It is only now that we are looking at it and trying to see what we can do."

In general, critics say there is little public involvement in the PRSP process – which in turn impacts on projects such as those on water and sanitation.

"The little consultation that took place was done in just a few provinces and with very narrow representation," adds Charity Musamba from the Jesuit Centre for Reflection, an influential NGO, who was involved in the drawing up of the PRSP.

"And because things were being done in a hurry, the IMF and World Bank did not want political interference – so [regional and other] representatives were excluded. As usual there was a huge rush to get it off the press in order to access more donor funding."

As a result, the local leadership in many rural areas had no idea that water and sanitation projects were being undertaken in their districts. "We only know about the projects if the national agencies copy us their reports. But that is rare, so we do not know what happens in water and sanitation here," Musamba says.

Back in Gwembe, schoolteacher Museba quotes a local idiom which neatly sums up the situation that the Zambian rural poor find themselves in: "We live on the banks of a river, yet wash our hands with spittle."

Zarina Geloo is a freelance writer specialising in development issues.

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