The true cost of water

Erasmus Alumni Portrait: Catarina Fonseca

Open a tap and water comes out - in many countries around the world, this is a simple fact, but in many others, taps run dry. Or there is no tap to begin with. ISS alumna Catarina Fonseca steps in.

In the ideal world of Catarina Fonseca, everyone is able to hydrate, wash and clean themselves. As an expert in economics, she significantly improved global access to clean water and sanitation services. At times, bureaucratic hassle slows progress down, but an encounter with a little girl in a ravine gives her strength to carry on.

Leap of faith

Twenty years ago many Asian, African, and South-American government officials did not consider maintenance costs when installing water and sanitation infrastructure. Alongside NGO’s and other companies, they would just drop handpumps, toilets and pipelines into some rural area.

“And then they would take a leap of faith, hoping that the communities would take care of it, and that water facilities would keep working. Well, in the majority of cases, they don’t,” says Fonseca.

Within a year or two, most installed infrastructure breaks down, leaving homes, schools and healthcare facilities without water again.

Fonseca, a schooled economist, observed that so-called lifecycle costs could give infrastructure units their necessary financial and political foothold. Not just for a few years, but indefinitely: “Lifecycle costs are all costs involved in building, monitoring and maintaining a service, including transport costs, repair parts, salaries and so on. If we want to keep the water and sanitation services up and running, those costs need to be structurally taken into account,” she explains.

About Catarina
Catarina Fonseca (1974) is an international researcher and advocate for global water and sanitation services. She studied economics in Lisbon and finished her master’s Rural and Agricultural Development at The International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague in 1999. In 2014 she wrote her PhD dissertation on the intersection of water management and economics at Cranfield University in the UK.  She now works independently, as Director of her company Pulsing Tide, influencing governments and local communities to strengthen their water systems. Recently, Fonseca was elected as Global Chair ‘Water and Sanitation’ in the G100, a global network of influential female leaders fighting for gender equity.

Early on in her career, the Portuguese entrepreneur stumbled upon this vital accounting gap. By leading international projects and training people in areas without water or sanitation she has for the past twenty years focused on closing it. What started off as a research project, turned for Fonseca into an international career as a water and sanitation consultant. “It’s all about changing narratives, mindsets and ultimately having the finance go where its missing,” she says. Millions have benefitted from her and her colleagues’ work.

Tasty meals

But the ISS alumna didn’t start off working in the water sector. In the ‘90s’s she worked for an NGO in Lisbon, helping female immigrants working in slum areas develop their professional skills and break free from stigma. Fonseca, still in her early twenties, then realized she could benefit from improved education about rural poverty and development issues. The master’s Rural and Agricultural Development at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague piqued her interest.

It was a time of studying, arguing, and inviting friends over for tasty Portuguese meals: “I learned so much from my new friends at ISS. We were always discussing and arguing in a Socratic, fun way. That exposure to the experiences of other students, paired with the different schools of thought they taught us, were building blocks for the rest of my career.”

“I wrote three books on the project that year. They offered me a job after that”

Fresh out of ISS, Fonseca applied for an internship at IRC in The Hague, then the International Water and Sanitation Centre - a ‘think-and-do-tank’ focused on building and strengthening water and sanitation services. The institute tested her limits: “They gave me boxes full of documents to analyze. I had to distill the methods they had used in a project in Colombia. I learned a lot about all the technical stuff, the engineer names of piped water systems. I wrote three books on the project that year. They offered me a job after that.”

Deep dive

While successfully taking on the role of research associate, project officer and programme officer, Fonseca realized the glaring lack of proper unit costs in the budgeting plans of the global water and sanitation industry. Consequently, she wanted to explore how to lastingly influence the financial approach of the organizations she worked with. In need of accurate information, Fonseca took a deep dive, and developed her own PhD research project, which focused on tracking lifecycle unit costs of water and sanitation infrastructure in Ethiopia.

While in a meeting, she serendipitously met someone from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who took an interest in her work. They funded Fonseca with fourteen million euros to upscale her project, which allowed her to design and lead the WASHCOST project at IRC. Supervising a team of one hundred researchers, the ISS alumna could now focus on analyzing lifecycle unit costs in India and multiple African countries. This would give her an accurate view of the lifecycle costs necessary for improving the living conditions of people she worked with.

Challenging the narrative

When after some years the research goals were achieved, with proper unit costs in hand Fonseca could now challenge the global narrative with the true cost of water: “NGOs used to say that it costs a dollar per person to get water. Well it doesn't. It costs like fifty, actually. So it took a while to give the… not bad message, but the more realistic message. And to help them account for it, in their books and policy.”

“To get people on your side, you first have to understand where they come from”

Delivering this message required Fonseca to go beyond research, and into training and advocacy. By acting as a bridge between governments, intragovernmental departments and civil society organizations, the ISS alumna and many of her international colleagues have been sharing their expertise and influencing stakeholders since. Fonseca: “The global water sector is a complex system, so we have to make sure that people are on the same page, thinking long term, beyond small time frames.”

When dealing with government officials, sometimes Fonseca needs to put her foot down, though she knows that the Erasmian value of ‘connectedness’ will ultimately bring the best results. “First, you have to understand where people come from, to get them on your side. What is their situation? What do they need? I listen openly. And yes, sometimes I sit in long meetings, where the ultimate result is a change in a single line of a law or regulation. But I believe that’s worth doing, because this is how effective, long-term change happens. I’ve seen it work many times.”

Fonseca believes the international water and sanitation sector could benefit from more economists.  “I train them, but many leave to the energy or finance sector. Those are important too, but what about just having water and sanitation?” she says, while adding that she would also like to see more women working in this area.

Famous DJ

A particular success story in delivering large-scale clean water through advocacy is the Watershed project. There’s a twinkle in Fonseca’s eye when she talks about it: “The Dutch government granted us sixteen million dollars to help strengthen civil societies across several countries. In one case, we helped a Ugandan community claim their water rights. Local civil society organisations organized radio campaigns where a radio station acted as a central reference point.”

“Two years later, this dirty river was clean. It was amazing”

Townspeople would call a number to speak up about their problems with water, and would get a famous radio DJ on the phone. “One big problem we learned about, was the waste from a market flowing into the river. It made the water very dirty. Bottles floated everywhere. But people still drank it, kids bathed in it. So at the end of the week, the radio station called in the people responsible for the market, and brought all stakeholders, including government officials, together on the show,” Fonseca says.

“Two years later, this dirty river is clean. It was amazing, I can still see the faces of these young people that worked with the local organizations, and the power they felt from influencing their government officials. This next generation  then becomes strong and confident from taking on such projects independently. That is what we like to see.”

Ethiopian girl

In spite of these positive developments, particularly women’s rights issues still move Fonseca to the core. Her voice breaks when she talks about it: “There are women still carrying water for hours a day, and girls skipping school because of this. It made me angry in 1999, when I started this work, and it makes me angry today.”

She remembers a little Ethiopian girl, on her way home from a very dirty water tap in a ravine, carrying a twenty liter jerrycan on her head. “I walked with her. She told me her mother was sick and her brothers can’t carry water, because they are boys, and therefore they were in school, and she was not. But young women deserve to go to school too and have a life too. What do you say to such a little girl? Every time I think about her, it breaks my heart. But it also reminds me of why I keep doing this work.”

“We have space programmes, we can have water and sanitation too”

The ISS alumna will therefore never compromise in fighting for universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities: “We have space programmes, we can have water and sanitation too. Governments nowadays do actually see the need to build water systems. But it doesn’t matter if you inject a lot of money into institutions when they are not functioning properly. So we still need to build the capacity of these institutions, to be able to deliver functioning water and sanitation services for everybody. That is very important.”

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