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The cost of water

Payment structures need to cover all the costs of water provision

Written by Paul Dean and Rachel Stevens 2023

Two children use a red metal water pump in their community in Bangladesh, standing next to a woman carrying a green jug.

Children pump water in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Ralph Hodgson/Tearfund

A smiling Brazilian woman collects water from a running tap fixed to a red brick wall.

From: Safe drinking water - Footsteps 120

How to value, look after and ensure the safety of drinking water

Nearly two-thirds of the earth’s surface is covered in water. It fills streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. With so much water available, why do we have to pay for it? Why is it not free of charge?

There are several reasons why providing sufficient, safe water for drinking, cooking, bathing and cleaning is not free. It costs money to:

  • find and protect water sources
  • find alternative water supplies if sources dry up for a season, or longer
  • bring water closer to where people use it (in or near their homes)
  • make water safe to drink
  • manage, maintain and repair water systems. 

However, should people with low incomes pay the same amount as people with higher incomes? What about businesses? Should households that have water piped into their homes pay the same amount as those who collect it from a public water point?

It is possible to work out a payment structure based on what people can afford, as well as the service that is being provided. In some communities, it may be appropriate for low-income households to pay less than higher-income households for what the community agrees is an essential daily amount of water per person. This will reduce the spread of water-borne and other diseases in the community as a whole, while benefiting individual households who would not otherwise be able to access a source of safe and reliable water.

Whatever decisions are made, it is important to calculate a payment structure that is able to cover all the costs for providing water in the long term. These include:

  • wages, training and travel costs for water-management staff
  • regular running costs, such as generator fuel or electricity
  • cost of basic repairs and maintenance 
  • cost of replacing old and worn-out equipment
  • cost of extending the system to new homes and customers
  • cost of collecting and analysing information to ensure the smooth running and timely maintenance of the system:
  • amount of water extracted each month, usually measured by fitting meters
  • pressure and rate of water flow at collection points
  • water quality
  • deterioration of equipment. 
A covered, gravity-fed concrete water tank has a protective fence around it in Nepal.

This gravity-fed water tank in Nepal is protected by a fence to keep animals away from the village’s water supply. A water and sanitation committee is responsible for the regular testing of the water and the maintenance of the equipment. Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund


It is important that the water management structure is properly run, in a transparent, accountable and fair way. This should include:

  • keeping organised records of money collected, spent and banked, and putting procedures in place so more than one person is responsible for checking the amounts
  • considering whether to charge a fixed amount per week or month, or whether to base the charge on the amount of water collected (this may depend on the number of users and the amount of water available)
  • potentially charging different rates depending on when people collect water from communal water points; if rates are higher at popular times it may help to reduce queueing times
  • considering any seasonal issues that community members may face, for example they may have more funds available to pay for water just after harvest, or they may find it easier to pay ‘in kind’ (swapping goods instead of money for services). Take a flexible approach for how and when payments are made.

Case study: Everflow

In 2017 the International Lifeline Fund launched Everflow, a water-service provider in northern Uganda. 

Each community participating in Everflow’s water management programme pays a US$25 monthly fee per water point, and they receive four services in return:

  • scheduled preventative maintenance of the borehole
  • annual handpump checks and maintenance 
  • emergency breakdowns repaired within 24 hours
  • a free-of-charge emergency hotline.

Everflow currently serves around 25,000 people, and external studies show that customers enjoy functioning handpumps for at least 99 per cent of the time.

Written by

Written by  Paul Dean and Rachel Stevens

Paul Dean is a water and sanitation engineer, and Rachel Stevens is a WASH specialist in Tearfund’s Thematic Support Team

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