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A Bridge Over Troubled Water: Open Government Can Improve Access to Water and Sanitation Services

Carole Excell|

Water crises in India and South Africa have made headlines this year, exposing looming water risks not only in those two countries but around the world. In fact, the most vulnerable members of society already experience acute levels of water insecurity every day. According to the World Health Organization, over 663 million people worldwide lack access to reliable drinking water, and 2.4 billion people lack basic sanitation services like toilets or latrines. Poor governance makes these problems worse. Many countries and cities lack adequate policies and infrastructure for water management. The people who are most affected by water and sanitation problems – the poor and marginalized, especially women – often also lack access to information, representation and opportunities to participate in decision-making processes.


An open government approach can help improve services for these people. Last year at World Water Week in Stockholm, the Open Government Partnership joined Water Integrity Network, Stockholm International Water Institute, World Resources Institute, and Fundación Avina to form a Community of Practice that brings together water experts from around the world to make the case for open government reforms in the water sector. The Community of Practice has been gathering stories to present at the upcoming OGP Global Summit in a Knowledge Café entitled “Communities, Inequality and Water,” with practitioners from Indonesia, South Africa, Uruguay and Brazil speaking about the distinct challenges they face seeking an inclusive water sector. At the Knowledge Café we will highlight some of the issues the Community of Practice will prioritize, including:


  • Political marginalization related to poverty and race

  • Infrastructure and policy challenges

  • Financial and political capture by elites and/or the private sector

  • Scarcity, misuse or mismanagement of resources

Research from the World Bank suggests that open government reforms in public service delivery can help countries overcome these challenges. Making information about water management more accessible and encouraging public participation gives underserved communities an opportunity to demand more effective institutions that make equitable decisions. Ultimately, these reforms result in improved water and sanitation services for poor or otherwise marginalized people.


OGP offers a platform for countries to set innovative water commitments, share their experiences, and highlight successful examples. According to the OGP Explorer, partner countries have already made 54 commitments that could improve water management, including 26 commitments specifically about water and sanitation. Latin American and Caribbean countries in particular show momentum. For example:


  • The Dominican Republic’s government is improving accountability by creating a mobile app for the public to report breakdowns or failures in water pipes.

  • Honduras created an OGP commitment to strengthen local and public oversight of sanitation and water service providers.

  • Uruguay’s government is advancing open data around water usage, and involving civil society stakeholders in the inclusive co-creation of a national water plan.


These countries’ commitments represent a growing awareness of the need to manage water through a human rights approach. We believe that the OGP and the new Community of Practice can support governments in making sure their commitments have real impact on citizens. As it is starting up, the Community of Practice is focused on:



  • Working with governments to develop country-specific Action Plans focused on water.

  • Facilitating knowledge-sharing across organizations, sectors and countries.

  • Accelerating the creation of dynamic new crowdsourced data to drive water management reforms.

  • Developing a cohesive, compelling voice to advocate for more transparent, inclusive and accountable water governance.

  • Engaging with social movements and local community members in OGP processes.



As more water crises unfold around the world, it is clear that we need to manage society’s demands on water resources through a human rights approach. OGP can be a bridge to overcoming challenges on the way. Our work on water and sanitation is grounded in the belief that open government can improve institutions and ensure greater participation for the people most affected by water insecurity. Water scarcity, pollution and mismanagement are urgent problems, and citizens have an important role to play in keeping governments accountable.


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