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Home / ToolBox / Policy Choices and Challenges: 2 Understanding the Causes of the Water Problems


Policy Choices and Challenges

2 Understanding the Causes of the Water Problems

What problems do the reforms seek to address?

When embarking on a reform process and choosing new management tools, it is necessary for governments to be clear about what problems are to be resolved. Within the water sector it has been common to define these problems in physical or financial terms, eg:-

  • Water scarcity (insufficient water to maintain food security)
  • Over abstraction (mining of ground water, rivers failing to meet minimum flow requirements)
  • Water quality deterioration (threats to ecosystems, human health and downstream supply sources)
  • Increased threats from abnormal climatic events
  • Lack of access to clean water and adequate sanitation
  • Lack of hydrological and resource use data
  • Lack of finance to invest in essential water services

Treating the causes not the symptoms

It is important for the policy maker to recognise that a perceived water problem may often be a physical manifestation or symptom of underlying deficiencies in the way that water management systems are operating. To uncover these deficiencies and the underlying problem causes a questioning approach will need to be taken. An example of the type of questions which may need to be asked is given in the box below, which looks at the lack of financial resources to invest in additional water infrastructure. Once such questions are answered the policy maker is in a much better position to judge which management tools can treat the disease rather than the symptoms.

Lack of Financial Resources to Invest in Additional Water Infrastructure

Is the need for new investment increased:

  • by poor management of existing asset base (lack of maintenance, high leakage levels, illegal connections)?
  • by actions of others (pollution of supply sources, dam sedimentation, increased occupation of flood plains, land use change)?
  • because existing users are not using supplies efficiently (high levels of wastage, devoted to low value purposes)?

Has the service provider:

  • increased the demand for investment by setting prices significantly below cost or even at zero? or
  • failed to accumulate any investment surpluses by setting prices at levels, which do not even cover operating costs and essential maintenance? or
  • inflated the need for new investment by assuming that everyone should have the same levels of service irrespective of ability and willingness to pay?
  • Do current organisational arrangements increase total investment needs by failing to achieve economies of scale or scope (eg conjunctive use of ground and surface water, multi-purpose reservoirs)?
  • Are there legal, constitutional or administrative barriers to private sector investment (international and national companies, NGOs, community groups and users through direct labour)?


For instance if poor management of existing water supply assets is one underlying cause, then appropriate tools might include performance audits and benchmarking, performance bonus incentives, distributional zonal metering, staff retraining or issuing managing contracts for the operation and maintenance of the service to bodies with more technical and managerial expertise.

Multiple causes

Understanding the causes is not a simple task, for multiple causation is commonplace. If we take the problem of increased threats from flooding it is likely that at least 9 different key underlying causes could be established:-

  • Climate change, more extreme events
  • Increased occupancy of flood plains
  • Inadequate maintenance of existing flood defences
  • Dam siltation
  • Deforestation and upstream rural land use change
  • Urbanisation of catchments
  • Improved land drainage or flood defences upstream
  • Ineffective land zoning or building regulations
  • Lack of incentives for local/community vulnerability reduction measures

While multiple causes increase complexity, they also provide opportunities to start the reform process by tackling first those causes more amenable to change


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