Water integrity and anti-corruption (B4.04)


In communities all over the world and at all levels of management, water is not ethically managed due to factors including corruption, inequality, illicit financial flows, and poor governance. This constitutes a significant barrier to achieving water and sanitation for all and to ensuring water security into the future. The success of the Sustainable Development Goals therefore depends in many ways on water integrity.

Two specific factors make the water sector particularly vulnerable to corruption practices. First, water infrastructure projects such as supply and sanitation infrastructure and irrigation schemes are almost invariably capital intensive. Second, bound to its nature, water issues are cross-sectoral and as such are managed by a myriad of different actors. When combined, this means that large sums of money transit through various hands in a context where the institutional integrity is not necessarily a given value.

Institutional fragmentation is especially high when infrastructure projects are funded by the international community. Funds happen to land in unintended hands because of corruption but also because of mishandling. Contrary to popular beliefs, funds can leak on both sides of the financing scheme; recipients and middle men as well as donors themselves do misuse and misallocate infrastructure capital.

The three strategies and approaches for enhancing water integrity are transparency, accountability, and participation. Enhancing transparency refers to disclosure of information from all water management organisations. This is especially important from the decision-making and financial standpoint. Monitoring the performance of the institutions involved in the water sector, in addition to, revealing and identifying corruption actors are ways to increase accountability. Enlarging and intensifying stakeholder participation enriches the understanding and knowledge of communities, two important contributing factors to building institutional trust.

A number of bodies and mechanisms are available as to promote and advance transparency, accountability and participation in the water sector. National Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) can respond to the weaknesses of the fragmented public financial managements systems. SAIs have the responsibility to track public expenditures, which means that they can play an important role in revealing fraudulent practices, including “ghost projects”. For those functions to be adequately performed, SAIs need to be properly set up as independent bodies and to be protected from political interference.

In light of the size of funds being lost, donors have also started to pay special attention to water integrity and mechanisms that could support good financial management. A recent focus has been to help recipient countries produce Country Procurement Assessment Reports. These reports wish to build transparency, and accountability in terms of how water infrastructure contracts are being domestically awarded. Disengagement policies – to pull back funding when corruption practices are revealed – are also adopted by several national and multi-lateral donors. However, withdrawing from a project might cause severe harm to the intended beneficiaries. The pros and cons of adopting disengagement as a punitive strategy should be carefully evaluated before this sort of method is applied.

Building integrity where it is lacking in water management is very difficult and sensitive because it involves challenging power, often specifically political power. Changing corrupt systems cannot be done through rules but must be advanced through a broader approach. Allowing involvement of independent media and advocacy groups are among these approaches, and is extremely important to maintaining true transparency and to fighting corruption. That said, among the barriers to developing integrity are the risks faced by people or institutions themselves who act as whistleblowers, and even those who refuse to participate in corruption but act within a corrupt system. Whistleblower protection is crucial to transparency and can be facilitated through advocacy and legal advice centres.

While corruption does constitute a significant obstacle to achieving water and sanitation for all, ensuring integrity is a matter of overall governance rather than one that simply relates to the water sector. Institutions across the board should commit themselves to integrity and adopt transparency, accountability and participation. They should as well take part in, or even initiate, integrity networks on both national and international levels, thereby contributing to accountability for themselves and others in the institutional arrangement.

Lessons Learned

  • Corruption and other illicit activities need to be clearly defined, as well as legal consequences that surrounds these acts.
  • Institutional integrity is necessary for protecting water resources and efficient use of finances for water development.
  • Institutional integrity and capacity are co-dependent; improving institutional integrity will allow for greater institutional capacity, and improving institutional capacity will allow for advancement of institutional integrity.
  • Independent National Supreme Audit Institutions and other forms of public expenditure tracking bodies can play a powerful role in identifying sources of corruption and illicit financial flows.
  • Country Procurement Assessment Reports are ways to evaluate and monitor if contracts are being awarded in transparent and accountable manners.
  • Depending on the context, disengagement may be deemed an appropriate form of punishment. Since withdrawing funds from a project may cause severe harm to the intended beneficiaries, the pros and cons of resorting to such strategy should be carefully evaluated before following though.
  • Involving independent media and advocacy groups brings transparency to water governance structures and are backbones to water integrity networks.
  • People and organizations who know about corrupt practices might not end up disclosing them as they do not feel protected enough. Protection measure for Whistleblowers need to be in place for water integrity to fully take place.