Guest Post: Corruption in Water Resources Management? Not Our Job Say Water-Sector Professionals

Today’s Guest Post is by Juliette Martinez-Rossignol, a graduate student of Political Economy of Development at Sciences Po, Paris, and at the London School of Economics; Laura Jean Palmer-Moloney, a hydro-geographer and consultant with Visual Teaching Technologies specializing in wetlands ecology and hydrology; and Mark Pyman a leader in corruption prevention efforts and co-founder of CurbingCorruption.

It is hard to imagine an area where corruption has a greater impact than in the management and distribution of the world’s supply of water. Examples abound. Locally, as in the misuse of water in a municipality; regionally, as in unregulated diversions in watersheds; and globally, as in corrupt mismanagement of marine protected areas or the diversion of funds intended to combat climate change.

We asked a cross-section of those who have devoted their professional careers to managing the world’s water supply what they were doing to combat corruption in the sector.  Interviewees included engineers in water utilities in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere, environmental lawyers, geographers, geologists, ocean economy investors, ecosystem scientists, natural resources managers, plus water anti-corruption practitioners and journalists to.

What we found is enormously troublesome.

Interviewees were uncomfortable in the extreme even talking about corruption.

We heard several explanations, including the absence of professional anti-corruption training for water professionals and that the subject is almost never included on professional agendas, not even as a topic of conversation. Most notably, our interviewees questioned the limits of their personal and professional responsibilities. Do we have a responsibility in relation to corruption, whatever its impact on water performance outcomes? Should we seek to recognize corruption, take some responsibility for reducing it, think about preventive measures? There was an instinctive response that preventing or tackling corruption was not part of the job of a water professional. 

The thinking behind our research, developed by the not-for-profit organization CurbingCorruption, is that functional performance in any sector will be improved through strengthening the corruption prevention capabilities of the professionals working in that sector. Some of the corruption issues that would otherwise seem too broad, too sensitive or too political to tackle, can be disaggregated to more manageable levels of problem-definition, prioritization and risk. This approach has been developed and used in other sectors, such as defense, health, education, and in this case is extended to water.

But in our water sector interviews we didn’t get to step one of a discussion about better ways to prevent, or limit, or avoid corruption. Our interviewees did recognize, despite their discomfort, the importance of professionals becoming more attuned to corruption issues, such as by being specific about the corruption risks and the beneficial effects of responsible public sharing of water data. Similarly, they did recognize the necessity for adaptive, resilient community building, a by-product of which is likely to be limiting corruption. They recognized the role of the technicians, engineers, and scientists to produce reliable, complete, unbiased data. But there was pushback against the idea that professionals held some responsibility for improving water performance by speaking up about corruption, or by exploring ways to prevent corruption, or by solving those issues that could be addressed.

The research also looked at one water-critical country, Mexico, to put more bones on the nature of the water corruption issues. In the northern Mexican states, the corruption issues include over-exploitation of aquifers, the contamination of the water destined to urban consumption by mining activities, and the unjust distribution of water sources between the private sector and the public urban sector, between rich and poor neighborhoods and within the agricultural sector. In the south of Mexico, it’s the magnet that is the tourism industry that is behind water corruption.

Attention to corruption matters in the search for better use of water, as water scarcity becomes more pronounced, and the question is made more urgent by climate change. It should surely be within the professional and ethical dimensions of all those working professionally with water. We, the authors, feel that it is a necessary competence, as well as an institutional responsibility, for all in the industry, whether they be water practitioners, engineers, environmental scientists, policymakers, journalists, or hydro geographers.

See the interview results here, and the illustrations of water corruption in three Mexican regions here.

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