THE BLOG
05/10/2016 03:02 pm ET Updated May 11, 2017

How Water Corruption Leaves Millions Mired in Misery

On Thursday May 12, British Prime Minister David Cameron is set to burnish his credentials as the world's anti-corruption tsar when he hosts an international summit aimed at stepping up global action to crack down on corruption.

The backdrop to the summit is the recent release of the Panama papers. The team of investigative journalists behind the Mossack Fonseca exposure will surely use the anti-corruption summit to reveal further damning material, no doubt designed to cause plenty of embarrassment, perhaps even to some of those attending the London conference. But it would be a missed opportunity if the conference were to simply focus on tax havens, offshore trusts and other issues highlighted by Panamania.

While corruption permeates every walk of life, its impact on water is particularly pernicious. Corruption in the water sector is widespread, hugely underestimated and little understood. It has a profound impact on economic progress, provision of water and, in the final resort, costs million of lives.

By 2050, the world's population will reach 9 billion people, with a major proportion living in urban areas. It is estimated that 4 billion people will live in water-stressed areas; 1.4 billion people are projected to remain still without access to basic sanitation. The consequence of this will be increased competition across people and places, especially in emerging markets.

Against this glum backdrop is the additional challenge that the water sector is susceptible to graft, caused in large part by regulatory and policy fragmentation. By its ubiquitous character, water cuts across a range of portfolios and disciplines. This leads to different political and governmental agencies having often overlapping and, at times, conflicting responsibilities. Agriculture ministries are likely to have a different perspective on water resources than, say, a river basin authority or a ministry responsible for health and sanitation. Such fragmentation is problematic, and often compounded in highly federalized political structures. All too rarely will governments rally sufficient political will to impose an overarching water strategy and regulatory framework. In short, fragmentation of actors and of accountabilities hinder and undermine transparency, efficiency and opens doors for corruption. This is magnified given water's complex transboundary character.

Another complicating factor is the provision of water infrastructure and services. While most countries commit to increasing access to water, there is little consensus on how to actually achieve it. One approach has been to turn water provision over to the private sector. Indeed it was the British government which was the first to sell off its entire water industry in the 1980s.

The international experience has been mixed with some private water companies entering into contracts and unable to deliver against service level targets having failed to take into account the significant externalities that are present in our sector.

Moreover major water infrastructure such as irrigation and dam projects are large, expensive and complex. This makes corruption in procurement and contracts easier and profitable. Delivery of key services and infrastructure by the private sector requires robust regulatory oversight.

Given the complexity of water, then, and its vulnerability to graft, there are three measures which could easily be adopted at Prime Minister Cameron's summit:

First, there is a dearth of data and it is key to understanding the scale of the problem. Without strong evidential data on corruption in the water sector, attempts by political leaders to tackle wrong-doing amount to a shot in the dark. Good policy making depends on strong scientific data.

Second, armed with the data governments and international bodies should then resolve to strengthen oversight of water management. Measures taken to tackle water corruption require enforcement. In short, for regulation to work it needs relentless policing.

Third, investment in facilitating international knowledge share and training on water governance for regulators and consumers alike. Without awareness-raising of the issues and adequate resourcing, graft in the water sector will continue to thrive.

Corruption affects who gets what water, when and where. It also determines whether people have to pay -- and, if so, how much -- to access this human right. Most alarmingly, left unchallenged, water corruption will compound the world's long-term water security challenges.

The London anti-corruption summit shouldn't be preoccupied by Panamania. The conference provides the occasion for politicians to demonstrate leadership by highlighting how water corruption keeps millions of the most vulnerable people thirsty, ill and mired in misery.