Changing the way we change the world

The Years of Magical Thinking in the Water and Sanitation Sector

By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

Each year the United Nations highlights a theme for the year in water. Last year it was “Water & Food Security;” this year it’s “Water Cooperation.”  But I think we should acknowledge the “Years of Magical Thinking.”

I recently read Joan Didion’s memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” about her struggles to deal with the death of her husband.  It was striking and sad. One example of magical thinking is that if a person doesn’t let the messenger into her house, he cannot deliver the horrible news.  This made me think of decades of magical thinking we have collectively endured in the water and sanitation sector. As long as we don’t let the bad news about failures get personal, we don’t have to acknowledge our roles in solving the problems.

At conference after conference, speakers lament the “sustainability problem.” They quote failure statistics and talk about the need for research and best practices.  And yet, the way we do business hasn’t changed much.  This is either magical thinking or, according to Einstein, insanity (Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.)

In program after program, development organizations think:

“If we build this water system, it will last.”

“If we build this latrine, people will use it and replace it when the pit is full.”

If we put handwashing stations at a school, the teachers will make sure there is soap.”

“If we set up water committees, they will make sure that people pay and that the system is maintained.”

“If we build this system, the government will replace it when the time comes.”

“If we give families a water filter, they will know how to clean it/replace it.”

And yet, evidence shows this is often not the case (see Sad Stats).  On a site visit last year, I saw a new water system that was replacing (or intended to supplement) a system built by the government.  According to the community, the government system lasted for 20 years but it wasn’t maintained by the government or the community.  When it finally broke down completely, nobody had funds or felt responsible to replace the system.  This is not the first time I’ve heard a similar story.

Here are some ideas for practical thinking:

  1. Look back at what you’ve done and build on what works; fix what’s not working.
  2. Get real: Development organizations and donors need to have some hard conversations with the communities and the appropriate government agencies before any money is committed and definitely before anything is built.  External funds can be a strong point of leverage but they can also let people off the hook.
  3. Remember why we’re doing this. If we really want to help people have safe water services for life, we need to work smarter.

And let’s save the magical thinking for the things we really can’t do anything about.

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