Mar 18 2010
MIAMI—The news was from South Africa. It was about an expensive new soccer stadium that had been built in a city where the drinking water is often dirty and many people have neither electric lights nor toilets.
It was an outsized example of what keeps happening with government spending in so much of the world and how it can be that decade after decade more than one billion people around the world struggle along without a reliable supply of clean drinking water. They are routinely sick and, each year, about two million die – mostly children.
They shouldn’t be dying. We know how to provide clean water and the cost is not overwhelming. But we’re not making much progress.
The barriers seem to involve human nature, politics and, often, good intentions: Instead of putting in wells and pumps and pipelines to get clean water to everyone, government officials put up hospitals and schools and sport facilities. Or they put their money into joint projects with businesses that promise to help the economy, and often do. Or they just squander the money, sometimes on themselves.
Compared with building hospitals and schools and even soccer stadiums, water projects are not that interesting. But clean drinking water underpins everything. More than half the people in hospitals in developing countries are there because they drank foul water. School attendance is much lower than it might be because children get sick from the only water available to them and can’t go to classes.
The United Nations, in its latest global report on water, said that work in this area “has been plagued by lack of political support, poor governance, under-resourcing and under-investment.” The U.N. estimated that $148 billion was needed for water projects over the next 20 years, but that somewhere between $33 billion and $81.5 billion might be available.
The story from South Africa involved much more money than is often in play. The soccer stadium cost $137 million. It was built as part of South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup games in the summer of 2010. The stadium was put up in the city of Nelspruit, population 600,000, in northeastern South Africa.
The story in The New York Times got me thinking about water and injustice. The spending on the stadium was bad enough. But some of the money apparently went into people’s pockets and investigators are now recommending criminal charges. The corruption seems to have led to at least two murders.
It is hard to argue against any kind of development in countries that need almost everything. It is especially hard to oppose building hospitals. But using the money to fix the dirty water problem would cut back on the number of people who need hospital treatment. More kids would make it through school. Both would be good for economies.
The impact on the economy of spending to clean up drinking water might be more gradual than an investment in a factory or a high-tech center that could handle overseas business. But not long ago, a panel of experts on finance and water, led by Michel Camdessus, a former chairman of the International Monetary Fund, said that solving the drinking water problem would do more for reducing poverty and advancing other social goals “than almost any other conceivable actions.”
In Nelspruit in South Africa, Simon Magagula lives in a mud house on a dirt road near the new stadium. He talked with Barry Bearak of The New York Times and seemed to be saying that he thought the stadium was part of a plan to make things better in Nelspruit. But he said work on the stadium had provided fewer jobs than expected and that not much had changed. The drinking water is still a model of neglect.
“We’ve been promised a better life,” Mr. Magagula told the Times reporter, “but look how we live. If you pour water into a glass, you can see things moving inside.”
The soccer stadium in Nelspruit – one of five built in South Africa for the World Cup games – is just one more example of the exciting things you can do with money, and how hard it is to get anyone to focus on the mundane work of making sure that people like Simon Magagula get clean drinking water. #