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Ensuring Children’s Right to Water through Community Participation: Myth or Reality?

Congress: 2008
Author(s): Per Wickenberg, Karsten Åström, Håkan Hyden

Keyword(s): Children's right, water, community participation
AbstractIntroduction: Children’s access to safe water has been recognized as their basic right and a normative framework has been constructed that entrusts the responsibility of implementing the right to the nation states. Consequently, a number of actions have been undertaken across the globe that ultimately aim at promoting children’s access to water as their human right. A cross-cutting global approach promoted in this process has been community participation. It is believed that if local communities will participate by contributing in the capital and operation and maintenance costs on the one hand, and by taking up the responsibility of managing their own water supply systems on the other, then the sustainability of safe water in the local communities will be ensured. Since children are members of the local communities, they will be directly benefited and hence, their right of access to safe water will be ensured. Objective and method: How effective has the approach of community participation been in delivering the goods? Are children's right to water really being secured through this approach? Based upon an interdisciplinary actor-oriented empirical study in India, the paper explores the realities underlying the issue. It is based upon qualitative analysis of first-hand data procured through long-term intensive fieldwork in 35 rural communities in three different states – Gujarat, Bihar and West Bengal, where quality problems in drinking water are a significant concern. Results: The findings of the study reveal that ensuring children's right to water through community participation appears to be a myth on a number of grounds. First, community participation, being further grounded in the ‘demand-driven approach’, involves a strategic attitudinal change, involving a change their mindsets to ‘pay’ for water as also ‘invest’ their time and energies into installing and managing the new water systems. Adequate and appropriate efforts at bringing about the necessary attitudinal changes have not been made everywhere. Second, though based in the notion of ‘partnership’, where the agency (government/NGO) is the facilitator and community, represented by an executive committee, are the actors, the roles and responsibilities of the partners are not clearly delineated and/or communicated to the community. Third, successful participation also requires certain pre-existing conditions in the community, of which homogeneity and cohesiveness are very important. Finally, creation of new institutional frameworks that are alien to the traditional social institutions in the community lead to ineffectiveness of efforts. Gender-based norms, roles and responsibilities are an important aspect in this regard. Conclusion: As a consequence of these multitude of factors, community participation either fails to take off or else remains a tokenistic effort, with the result that the new water supply systems that are meant to ensure access to safe water for all adults and children alike, ultimately becomes inequitable as well as unsustainable. For securing children’s right to water, it thus emerges that the various factors affecting community participation need to be adequately understood and appropriately addressed through various means so that all children can enjoy the right equitably and sustainably.
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