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Article Released Sun-28th-October-2007 19:01 GMT
Contact: Vivien Chiam Institution: International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
 Farmers Have Their Say “Where the Water World Meets”

Yongxuan from Guangzhou in southern China told the meeting that pollution-control regulations appeared to be doing little to clean up her country’s severely degraded rivers, while Gerald from Accra pointed out that much of the Ghanaian capital’s wastewater is dumped directly into the ocean.


“If I had the $70 it takes to build the cheapest toilet, I would use it first for school fees, food, clothes, or a bicycle,” Patricia, a farmer from Zimbabwe, told international water experts gathered at a major global forum in Sweden. So why, she continued, did they think she would choose to sink her money first into building a latrine?

Yongxuan from Guangzhou in southern China told the meeting that pollution-control regulations appeared to be doing little to clean up her country’s severely degraded rivers, while Gerald from Accra pointed out that much of the Ghanaian capital’s wastewater is dumped directly into the ocean. “Some say that dilution is the solution to pollution,” he observed. “But what do you think about this?”

Philip from Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city, wanted to know why only six or seven of the country’s 44 wastewater treatment plants — mostly those serving hotels — actually work. Lydia from Abidjan said that even when wastewater treatment plants do function in Côte d’Ivoire, they can meet only a small part of the need. “What does it take to give complete coverage?” she asked. “Will I still be alive to see it?”

Joseph from Nairobi said municipal officials want him to stop growing the vegetables on which his livelihood depends because the stream he uses for irrigation is dirty. He was thousands of kilometres away from the international water experts he was addressing, but he could hardly have been more direct: “What should I do and what are you doing to help us? The bad water is not my fault.”

These statements were all contained in a short video shown to 50 delegates who attended a workshop co-hosted by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) at the 17th annual World Water Week, “Progress and Prospects on Water: Striving for Sustainability in a Changing World.” More than 2 400 participants from 140 countries attended the August gathering in Stockholm of water and sanitation professionals from around the world.

In most cities in the developing world, urbanization has outpaced sanitation, with myriad consequences for human and environmental health. At the conference in Stockholm (“Where the Water World Meets”), IDRC and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) organized a workshop on pollution management in urban watersheds in developing countries — with a creative twist. Panellists were asked to answer questions posed by farmers in Africa and Asia, who had been videotaped in the weeks running up to the meeting.

To keep the panellists on their toes, members of the audience were asked to judge the strength of the responses, raising yellow or red cards to signal agreement or disagreement. If they showed a panellist the red card, audience members were encouraged to provide alternative answers themselves.

The questions submitted via videotape by the farmers facing tough realities on the ground testified to the fact that the poor themselves are a key part of the solution, IDRC Program Officer and Stockholm panellist Mark Redwood pointed out.

“Slums are often seen as depressing and grim places,” he said. “Let’s not forget that they are also places where creativity leads to informal but effective responses to providing various urban services. Many of the small-scale entrepreneurial activities, such as community water distribution and the reuse of domestic wastes to enhance food production, demonstrate an inventive streak that can be harnessed.”

Panellist Albert Wright, a leading authority on water and sanitation, sought to dispel another common misconception. Responding to the comment about spending priorities made by Patricia from Zimbabwe, Wright observed that low-income households might lack liquid assets but still possess a stake in things of value. “It’s not that the poor don’t have money,” he said, “it’s just that their money is busy.”

IWMI’s Africa regional director, Akissa Bahri, stressed the need to consider together the linked issues of sanitation and livelihoods. Industrial and domestic waste, for example, ends up in water and soil that farmers use.

Henk de Zeeuw, coordinator of the international network, Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Forestry (RUAF), sympathized with the plight of farmers such as Joseph in Nairobi. “Rendering the use of polluted water illegal is common,” he said, “but it has made no impact on improving the lives of the poor, who often depend on that water for food production.”

IDRC partners in the field will convey the Swedish end of the interactive discussion back to the farmers who had their say at this year’s World Water Week.

“So many panels are relatively conventional formats with lots of presentations and tough-to-read slides,” said Redwood, who works with IDRC’s Urban Poverty and Environment program. “But with our partner IWMI’s strong field presence and links with many urban farmers, we were able to bring the voice of farmers to Stockholm.”

A final question from the audience validated the innovative approach: “The panel format was good because it got farmers involved. Would you mind if we copied it?”

Kelly Haggart is a senior writer with IDRC’s Communications Division.

Associated links

Meeting information

17th annual World Water Week, “Progress and Prospects on Water: Striving for Sustainability in a Changing World.

Keywords associated to this article: pollution, water
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