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Westminster Hall

Thursday 1 May 2008

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

International Development (Sanitation and Water)

[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2006-07, HC126-I, and the Government’s response, HC854.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]

2.30 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am glad to have the opportunity to debate this report, but the Minister and others may recognise that is quite some time ago that we took the evidence for it. I have some questions to ask the Minister. We have had the report and the Government response, and it would be an appropriate outcome of the debate to get information from him on how the Department for International Development is moving forward on the issues of sanitation and water.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I do not want to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman too early—[Laughter.] I have done so for a purpose. I feel strongly that a debate of such importance ought to be taken on the Floor of the House. The report is brilliant and the Government have put a lot of time and effort into the issue, but does he agree that a debate on the Floor of the House would have been more appropriate?

Malcolm Bruce: I always believe that the Committee’s debates should be taken on the Floor of the House, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s serious point. This is a vital topic, and I shall certainly stress that I give credit to him for his interest in the matter and for successfully initiating a debate on it here in Westminster Hall in the past few months.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): In a similar spirit of helpfulness, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government, through my Department, are working on revising our policy on water and sanitation? We are seeking to take into account at least some of the Committee’s recommendations, so I hope that the Committee feels, as a result of the debate and the further paper, that its concerns have been given sufficient recognition.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful to the Minister—indeed, he has answered one of my questions. The Department had indicated that it would publish a paper, and perhaps he will give us a timetable for that. I am aware that a paper will be published and I look forward with eager anticipation to it, even if, from reading and re-reading the Committee’s recommendations and the Department’s reply, it was clear that there was some irritation in the Department about some of the suggestions. Nevertheless, there was recognition of the fact that there was an awful
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lot of common ground on what the Committee wanted to do and its approval of what the Department was doing, and I am speaking in that spirit. The Committee’s recommendations or criticisms were underpinned by the fact that we recognised that sanitation and water were high priorities for DFID, and that they were being substantially resourced.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): In the spirit of other interventions, and in general recognition of the importance of the subject, I want to point out that the Government say in their response that they will produce a policy update by the end of 2007. Four months on, that policy update has not been produced, as far as I am aware. Too often in the House, Select Committees produce reports on issues that they never revisit. Will the Chairman of the Committee give an undertaking that he will at least consider revisiting the subject at the end of this year or next year to see what action the Government have taken as a result of the report?

Malcolm Bruce: In some form or another I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will do so, not least because we review the Department’s annual report. Clearly, we do that partly in relation to our recommendations. At the very least, we will be asking Ministers for an update. Perhaps the Minister can give us a slightly firmer response on that issue.

Mr. Thomas: I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there is never irritation with the Committee—that would be a recipe for suicide. Sometimes there is disagreement, but never irritation. On the remarks made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), the right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that a water policy update has been published in the past month—I cannot give an accurate date, but one has been published. I can send copies to those hon. Members who have not received one. When I spoke earlier, I was referring to the fact that we are revising our forward-looking policy.

Malcolm Bruce: I have obviously seen that document, which I believe is titled, “Water: meeting our promises”, but it specifically says at the beginning that a policy report will be published. The honest truth, which the Department would acknowledge, is that the timetable has clearly slipped. However, I am not as concerned about the timetable as I am about the outcome. Getting the right policy a little late is preferable to publishing a report simply to meet a timetable. Perhaps the Minister will give us more insight on that.

Mr. Bayley, being a member of the Committee and having participated in our visits and inquiries, you will be directly interested to know that, right at the outset, from the first informal teach-in that we had, we realised that the initial short title of the report, “Water and Sanitation”, should be reversed, and that the title “Sanitation and Water” would make the point that sanitation is underrated and underplayed, even if it is incredibly important. I notice that the Secretary-General of the United Nations highlighted that recently—to be honest, all he really said was, “We need the political will and we should do something about it.”

Members of the Committee will recall that a piece of poo—I am glad to say that it was actually plastic—was passed around the Committee to make the point, “This
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is what we are talking about and the fundamental of what we are about. Too much of that stuff in the wrong place is causing children to die and many other people to suffer severe illnesses.” Nobody wants to talk about it because it is embarrassing, which is part of the problem.

It was interesting to see that the issue was as basic as that when we visited a village in the highlands of Ethiopia which had benefited from improved sanitation and water supply. The women and girls were collecting firewood from the forests and woods around the village, which is also where people had been to defecate. Of course, they were picking up sticks and twigs and finding that they were covered in excrement. The women were coming in and saying, “This is disgusting and horrible and we should not have to do this every day.” At the time there was a Government programme saying that something needed to be done. That reinforced the message and—I shall come back to this—contributed to a substantial improvement in sanitation in that village, with correspondingly positive benefits.

We highlight in the report a list of obstacles to why people will not talk about sanitation. Funnily enough, we also stress that although in reality the best outcome from good sanitation is much better public health, it is not the first reason why most people buy into the idea. In fact, it is to do with privacy, dignity and such things. That is fine, because I argue that it does not matter how we get people engaged, but that we do so. However, they must talk about the problem and want to do something about it, and receive the kind of support that makes that possible.

I want to stress that the Committee felt that it had a contribution to make by placing the emphasis on sanitation. Water is always talked about, but sanitation is often an add-on; it is the second part of “Water and Sanitation”. Water is delivered by Environment or Public Works Ministers, and it is a civil engineering project, but health, education and other Departments should lead on sanitation. There needs to be a cross-departmental, integrated approach to bring those things together.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when it comes to sanitation, the engagement of the private sector on how to market sanitary equipment is vital? It became clear in the evidence that the Committee received that the attractiveness of having a toilet had to be established, rather than simply delivering a plain public health message.

Malcolm Bruce: I agree entirely. I do not want to detain the House by reading from the report, but on page 11 the United Nations Development Programme comments on the six barriers to progress on sanitation and the issues that have made it a poor relation. I hope that our approach has at the very least helped to put sanitation much higher up the priority list.

In their reply, the Government acknowledged that they would bring together an interdisciplinary group. I understand that that resulted in a publication, but it would be helpful to know whether the group is still functioning and, if so, what its agenda is. It would help us to know how that is being taken forward.

Mr. Cash: To return to the matter raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin), I was in contact this morning with the Bathroom Manufacturers
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Association and, indirectly, with the World Plumbing Council. The World Plumbing Council is located in Scotland, but the Bathroom Manufacturers Association is located in Stoke-on-Trent, which is next to my constituency, and many of my constituents work there. The association said that it would be taking steps to take an active interest in questions of delivery. I believe, as I hope the right hon. Gentleman will agree, that getting the right quality at the right price could be an enormous incentive for people to take the right equipment throughout the third world.

Malcolm Bruce: That is interesting, and I can give two anecdotal examples relating to it. When we visited Ivory City, a township north of Johannesburg, we went in among the shanties and asked the people living in the village what they wanted more than anything else. I do not know what I was expecting: better roads, schools or hospitals, perhaps. They said that their dream was to have a toilet—to live in a shanty but to have a toilet would be fine.

We had a similar experience in Vietnam, entirely as a by-product of the process that we were looking at, which involved using domestic pigs’ manure to drive methane production, primarily to generate cooking gas. Pig production was being integrated with the production of cooking gas. We visited two projects. Feeding the methane producer needed more than the pigs could produce; what the humans produced was useful as well, so a toilet was installed in the house to feed the methane producer. That was its primary purpose, but people then realised what a huge improvement it delivered to their quality of life, even though the reason for installing it was completely unrelated. It is interesting how much we in the developed world take for granted what people in developing communities approach from a variety of directions. The benefits are real and apparent.

Sanitation is part of millennium development goal 7, but many of the other MDGs depend on the delivery of good sanitation. It is a fact—this problem, of course, relates to water as well—that many girls will not go to school because of poor sanitation. Even if they go to school, it has been reported to us that teenage girls who are menstruating will not go, because it is all too difficult. They stay away for at least one week a month, and in some cases they stay away altogether. In addition, girls are often the key fetchers of water. Poor sanitation in schools and the requirement for girls to fetch water from some distance away are two factors that combine to keep them away from school, diminishing performance on another MDG. We must recognise how such things fit together.

In revisiting the policy, are the Government and Department reviewing the balance between urban and rural provision of sanitation and water, which represent different challenges and approaches? Perhaps it is appropriate at this point to share with the House the Committee’s experience when we visited Ethiopia. It gives a human dimension to the matter, and it concerns a programme that seems to be working. If the Minister has any up-to-date information on how the programme is developing, we would be interested to hear it.

We visited two communities south of Addis Ababa. The first was a highland village, and the second was down on the plain. The highland village did not have a water problem, in that it was in the hills where it rains
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and water runs off the hills and so on, but it had not had proper sanitation or a proper water point. When we arrived in the village, we drove for a considerable distance along the usual dirt roads that one finds in Africa. We then stopped and got out of our vehicles, and the whole village gathered around us.

The first interesting thing as we stood beside the new, shiny water point—it was made of concrete and had taps and so on—was that we were initially surrounded by men. The women were standing some distance back, and I encouraged them to come closer, but at first they would not. We had an interpreter with us and we were interested, and it was clear that they were interested in telling us things. I said through the interpreter to the men, “Of course I’m very happy to talk to you, but can we not make sure that the women are absolutely engaged in this?” I asked not least because they were probably the people who knew best and appreciated most what changes had been brought about.

To be fair, the men made space and the women came to the front. Interestingly—other Committee members will bear this out—when we started asking questions, the women had all the answers. The men just stood back and let them answer. The questions concerned, for instance, the time saved. They no longer had to fetch water from significant distances. Also, the general health of the whole village had improved noticeably. There were fewer outbreaks of diarrhoea and fewer sicknesses, and the children were much healthier. I am not sure whether the infant mortality rate had been serious before, but there certainly had been no infant mortality in the year since the water point had been put in.

It was also interesting when the men started to contribute. They talked about the design of the latrines. They said things like, “Wooden seats rot. You could fall in. Couldn’t we have plastic seats? Could we have covers in case of rain?” It transpired that a local government operation—I think that the World Bank was involved in supporting it—had set up a programme across the communities. People identified a person from each village—it was in all cases, I think, a young woman—to be a health extension officer. That person was taken from the village, given training in sanitation and other health-related issues and then brought back to the village as an officer to advise on the right way to deal with health issues.

As a result of that advice and with the support of the local government, every household in the village, which was in some ways quite prosperous—it was an agricultural community with grain and animals, and was generally well kept—had its own pit latrine some distance from the house. I teased one or two of my colleagues, including those who are Conservatives, saying, “I bet when you went for your constituency selection to be a candidate, you didn’t expect you’d be sticking your head down pit latrines in darkest Africa as part of your parliamentary function,” but that is what we were doing. We were asking people about the benefits to the community, which were real and positive. Indeed, people were proud to show us what a difference had been made.

I found our visit to that village extremely instructive, and I think that we all found it interesting and rewarding. We could say, “This is great. This is working. This is a partnership involving the local community, on their own terms, with national and international agencies, and it appears to be delivering real improvements in both water and sanitation provision.”

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Unfortunately, when we went down on to the plain, the situation was rather more difficult, because that area was water-stressed. There was a shortage of water. Interestingly—again, the Minister may comment on any subsequent developments—the water point that we saw, which made tapped and fluoridated water available to the village, had been provided by a non-governmental organisation. It was entirely funded by an NGO, not Government or DFID. That presented us with another problem: the investment required in the stressed areas was clearly more significant than in the areas where the water was available—in those places, it was just a question of how it was managed and tapped. That is why different approaches and funding mechanisms are needed. It is a complicated issue.

As we saw recently in Ghana, people were perfectly willing to pay for their water, which was interesting. They were pleased to have it, and so were willing to pay small amounts of money, the benefit of which, other than ensuring that the water is appreciated and not wasted, is that it created an income to maintain the supply with. Neglecting supplies results in major repair demands. Again, some types of infrastructure are more expensive to maintain, so we must find funding mechanisms that people can meet. However, we found that to be an interesting, but different, problem.

We looked at Ethiopia for two reasons. First, its sanitation provision is among the worst in the region—there is 13 per cent. coverage—but it has a national plan to achieve more than 90 per cent. coverage within a short time. Secondly, it is not short of water, although it was not managing it very efficiently. It would be interesting to hear whether that programme is continuing to move towards its ambitious—probably too ambitious—targets. If progress is being made, it would be a classic example of something working to deliver an MDG and real benefits for a country. The difficulty for the Committee sometimes is that we visit and take evidence and then go somewhere else—we do not always have the opportunity to follow things up. I would be interested, therefore, if the Minister replied to that point.

Having shared that experience with the Chamber, I would like to draw the threads together. I expect that the Minister has already anticipated some of my questions about how the Department is taking things forward. Since the report, the Government have announced significant extra contributions to multinational associations such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank. It would be helpful if he indicated the likelihood of those contributions impacting directly on water and sanitation provision, particularly those going to the ADB. It is setting itself up as a bank with a unique lead on infrastructure, of which sanitation and water would form an important part.

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