Study: World Bank aid for water-deprived countries misses most afflicted

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The world's most water-deprived countries are also receiving some of the least help from the World Bank to improve conditions, according to a study that the bank's independent evaluators released on Monday. The study said water shortages, being felt in more than 40 countries, are at risk of getting worse.

Nearly one-third of the bank's total lending -- more than $54 billion -- was linked to water shortages between 1997 and 2007, but there was little correlation between the flow of funds and the depth of a country's water problems, according to the report from the bank's Independent Evaluation Group.

Ethiopia, Haiti and Niger, for example, all ranked at the bottom of a Water Poverty Index, which analysts used to measure the availability of water in a country against demand. All three had received only about $20 per capita in World Bank funding for water projects -- compared with the more than $140 per capita provided to Guyana, a country classified as "water-rich."

There is "no clear relationship between Bank water lending and water stress," the report noted.

Within five years, the number of people without access to clean drinking water may reach 800 million, and the number lacking basic sanitation could hit 1.8 billion, the IEG said in a statement accompanying the report's release.

Jamal Saghir, the bank's director of energy, transport and water, said the report overlooked what he described as a rapid shift in the bank's priorities toward water projects overall and particularly in funding for the nations facing the worst problems.

He said that bank funding for water projects has tripled since 2003 and that about 60 percent of the funding for active projects was going to water-poor nations.

"We've been moving on this," Saghir said.

The study found that although the World Bank in general was managing water projects better than in the past and completing them successfully, it must do more on basic issues such as sanitation and helping countries control water demand by charging appropriate tariffs to farmers and other heavy users.

The issue is politically sensitive, particularly in nations that subsidize water rates paid by farmers to sustain sometimes-inefficient farming operations and protect the associated jobs.

"We are not saying that in Bank projects, the poorest farmers have to cover the full cost of the water they are using," said Ronald Parker, the lead author of the report. But he added: "We would like more frankness on this topic. . . . Countries have begun a process of rationalization that, in the way they use water, there are trade-offs to make."

Bank analysts, he noted, are preparing more direct assessments of water policy, so that countries can understand how a farm irrigation program in one part of the country might affect the water supply in a distant urban area -- and the costs involved in each.

The misalignment of bank funding and water needs is not only the bank's fault, said Parker and Vinod Thomas, head of the Independent Evaluation Group, an arm of the World Bank that assesses the effectiveness of its programs. Countries set their own priorities when deciding what projects to fund and may have different ideas about what is most urgent.

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