The high cost of water corruption — and how to stop it

A woman waits to collect water at a water point in North Darfur, Sudan. Photo by: Albert González Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

ALICANTE, Spain — In Uganda, some city residents are forced to pay a bribe if they want a water connection. In Kenya, women may have to endure sexual assault to secure a jerrycan of clean water, and "water mafias” exploit vulnerable populations. And in Mexico, water utility staff have been known to illegally sell off water rights in order to make a profit.

While corruption is far from unheard of in the aid sector, experts say it may be particularly rife in the water space.

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“The water sector is very vulnerable to corruption,” said Barbara Schreiner, executive director at Water Integrity Network, blaming the sector’s fragmented institutions, land and water grabs by multinationals, and dependence on infrastructure, which can also be corrupt.

Every 10% of investment in the water sector that is lost to corruption equates to over $75 billion in losses per year, according to a 2016 study. Corruption also increases the price of a water connection by up to 30% for individual households, according to separate research. Comparable data for other sectors is hard to come by.

According to Transparency International, corruption in the water and sanitation services sector reduces the quality and availability of services, leading to water poverty, which in turn can lead to the spread of disease.

“There’s corruption in just about every sector. But if you don’t have access to safe drinking water, people die,” Schreiner said. It is “absolutely pernicious because it impacts on an absolutely fundamental input to survival,” she said.

Sareen Malik, executive secretary at the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation, said water’s crosscutting nature with other sectors — such as agriculture, health, and infrastructure — also might make it more vulnerable.

She noted that the costs of this could rise with a renewed focus on water, sanitation, and hygiene amid COVID-19. “There’s a call to increase sector investments, and this is going to increase the vulnerability of the sector itself,” Malik said.

The many faces of corruption

Corruption in the water and sanitation sector most commonly plays out as “petty corruption” — the everyday abuse of power by low-level and midlevel public officials in their interactions with ordinary citizens, said Umrbek Allakulov, coordinator of research and evidence at Water Integrity Network. This usually involves relatively small amounts of money or other items of value, he added.

While there is limited data to compare the prevalence of bribery across sectors, Allakulov analyzed data on self-reported bribery in 36 African countries. He found that in Liberia, Egypt, and Gabon, around half of respondents who had had contact with a water, sanitation, or electricity service provider in the past year had paid a bribe at least once.

The people most vulnerable to this kind of bribery are the poorest, who are in a weaker position because of a lack of knowledge around their rights, said Pilar Avello, program manager of the water and sanitation department at the Stockholm International Water Institute.

Meanwhile, “other types of corruption — grand corruption, favoritism, and nepotism — are likely to happen less frequently,” Allakulov said. “However, [they] may involve much larger resources and inflict much more serious damage on the functioning of the sector.” Such corruption might involve a utility, a municipality, or even a ministry when it comes to larger construction and procurement projects.

In 2019, Kenya’s finance minister and 27 others were arrested on fraud charges after the Treasury borrowed more than was needed for a project to build two megadams. And in 2015, an audit revealed that €4 million earmarked for a water program in Benin had disappeared from the country’s Ministry of Water.

“Very often, people think of corruption as one individual trying to get rich. … But you also get systemic corruption,” Schreiner said.

“There’s corruption in just about every sector. But if you don’t have access to safe drinking water, people die.”

— Barbara Schreiner, executive director, Water Integrity Network

This could play out as collusion between private sector players as they work to eliminate competitive bidding by rigging the process for certain water projects.

For example, the World Bank last year debarred French water engineering company OTV and Veolia Water Technologies Brasil Ltda., a Brazilian water treatment technology company, following their “fraudulent and collusive practices during a bidding process” around a World Bank-funded project in Colombia.

And a study of eight European Union countries found that bid-rigging was most prevalent in the water and waste sector, compared with others such as medical procurement and urban and utility construction.

But one of the worst forms of corruption in accessing water and sanitation services is “sextortion,” Allakulov said, which typically happens when women are forced to engage in sexual acts to access water.

“Essentially, they’re being raped in order to get the services they’re entitled to. And that, for me, is unforgivable in the extreme,” Schreiner said. Such cases have been reported in Kenya, South Africa, and Colombia, although the practice is thought to be more widespread.

How to safeguard against corruption

While corruption will never be eliminated, it can be reduced and controlled, Schreiner said. Water Integrity Network recommends that governments, companies, the private sector, and NGOs adopt transparency, accountability, participation, and anti-corruption mechanisms, together known as the TAPA approach. “Where you have those four, you’ve got the best bet of reducing the risk of corruption,” Schreiner said.

In practice, this might involve the implementation of a public information system to increase the transparency of public works, as has been done in Peru with INFOBRAS, or the sharing of information around local WASH investment plans via community radio stations, as is being done in Nepal.

Avello said transparency in procurement, budgets, and finances can limit the opportunities for corruption. She urged ministries to put policies in place to encourage greater transparency and recommended criminalizing sextortion while providing training for authorities on how to handle such cases.

Government auditors also have a role to play, according to Schreiner. “If they’re doing a decent job, they should be picking up on a whole lot of stuff,” she said. If they’re not, media and civil society organizations should be able to access the public audits and start asking the right questions, she added.

Utilities should install integrity measures such as complaint and whistleblower protection mechanisms for users and staff members so that incidents of bribery or attempted bribery can be better reported, Avello said. “If they put more integrity measures in practice, it will have an impact on their own efficiency of the resources,” she said, adding that corruption costs utilities money and that this should be an additional incentive to shut it down.

They should also ensure their tariffs are clear — by posting signs in doorways and hosting community assemblies — so users understand their rights around water and are aware of what they should be paying, Avello said.

On an individual level, WASH professionals should understand how corruption works and be careful about what people’s motives are, in case they too become part of the problem. Schreiner said sometimes corruption begins with a small gift before growing into a larger issue. Many organizations — including Water Integrity Network and the United Nations Development Programme’s Water Governance Facility — provide training on this.

But despite the dangers of corruption in all areas of aid, the sector still manages to have “a considerable and positive impact on lives in developing countries,” said Charles Kenny, director of technology and development at the Center for Global Development.

It would be better for the aid sector “to worry about results rather than obsess over receipts,” he argued. “After all, we give aid in the hope and expectation that it will improve outcomes. So let's focus on making sure it delivers — and if it does, clearly corruption hasn't stopped it.”

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.