A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel highlighted some of the problems of building water infrastructure in the very regions where the Columbia Water Center is trying to work. The article cited intense corruption, as well as other factors, as barriers towards building improved water infrastructure. The most shocking point in the article is that “the U.N. spends $13 billion annually on third-world water projects, and yet the number of people worldwide without access to drinkable water has been stuck for a decade at more than 1 billion”.
Assuming this article, which quotes heavily from the Acumen Fund, is correct, what consequences follow? What types of solutions might work, where others have long failed? It is apparent that fresh, innovative thinking is needed in the water space. At a minimum, big infrastructure projects, such as those now being attempted in China and India, need to be approached with caution. Even in developed countries, large scale infrastructure projects often tend to be inefficient and riddled with corruption. While these projects can capture the public imagination, it’s not at all clear that they close to the most cost-effective way to provide water.
Workable solutions to the water crisis will need to involve more than building infrastructure. Some effort must be made to empower individual users of water and to harness market forces. The Journal-Sentinel article states that many users are completely willing to pay for water, even of questionable quality. It’s just that corruption and political interference get in the way, driving costs up unfairly, while also diminishing the quantity and quality of water provided. Viable solutions will need to find some way of harnessing people’s willingness to pay, while also making an end-run around institutional corruption. A more detailed look at some possible solutions will follow in coming weeks in this blog.