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Community involvement in urban water supply

How can communities in urban areas be involved in supporting water supply?

2006 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Urban renewal – Footsteps 67

How slum dwellers are transforming their own communities

Millennium Development Goal 7, target 10, seeks to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Community-driven initiatives could make an important contribution towards achieving this goal in urban areas.

A large and increasing proportion of the people without adequate water supplies live in urban areas. In most slums, water supplies are either inadequate or non-existent. Involving communities in water supply in rural areas can improve the design of schemes and support long-term sustainability. How can communities in urban areas be involved in supporting water supply, particularly when urban water supplies often need professional engineers to manage complicated and expensive technology?

In many urban areas, companies who manage water supplies don’t appear to be doing very well, usually only managing to supply richer people with piped water. Slum dwellers often have to buy very expensive water from small-scale private providers, tanker drivers and vendors because there is no piped network.

The involvement of private companies in improving urban water supplies has had mixed successes and is not likely to be expanded in the future. However, one of the effects of involving private companies has been the realisation that public services, such as water, need an additional level of control by government and society, especially when there is no competition.

Water supply in urban areas requires considerable investment on very expensive buried pipes and concrete tanks. It is important to judge whether money is being spent wisely. Water prices are increasing world-wide as people expect higher standards. However, it is important to ensure higher prices are not just paying for inefficiencies, such as overstaffing, in the companies. Piped water supplies must also ensure fair access to the poorest people.

Over time, all organisations can become lazy and tend to do more to meet the needs of their staff than their customers. This has been true for both public and private water suppliers. There is a need for an independent economic regulator to judge performance against prices to ensure that water supplies (including the disposal of waste water) are well managed and that charges are fair.

Customer committees

In a big city ‘the whole community’ cannot become involved in the same way as in a village where nearly everybody can discuss the right place for a new handpump or well. A useful model is for the economic regulator to set up a ‘customer committee’ to represent the voice of customers. Where that proves too difficult, a local NGO could represent the concerns of ordinary people. Examples of such voluntary groups of water customers are Water Watch in Zambia, Customer Service Committees in Ghana and the Customer Forum in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The customer committees can question the water provider on its performance. This can mean visiting poorer neighbourhoods to talk with people about how often they receive piped water, for how many hours per day and how much they have to pay for it. The customer groups may be asked by government to become involved in setting fair charges. They should make sure that the water provider is putting any problems right and doing it in a fair way. In some countries they become involved in ensuring water companies pay the proper compensation to customers when they make mistakes.

In Lusaka, Zambia, the committees have been going out to the poorer areas of the city to explain to customers their rights and responsibilities. They have been so successful and so well received that the energy and telecommunication regulators have now asked them to include additional members and take on responsibility for considering their performance as well.

The poorest customers are unlikely to become part of such committees. They simply don’t have time in their struggle for everyday survival. However, the customer committees can arrange for regular surveys to find out what customers think of their water service. They can hold ‘focus groups’ for people to meet and share their experiences of receiving water, problems over paying bills, getting new connections or being reconnected after a period of being unable to pay their bills.

Where government or the regulator has not arranged for these formal committees to be established, NGOs have often been asked to represent customers. This has worked well in La Paz, Bolivia, where the fejuves (local neighbourhood associations) represented householders to the water companies and sorted out many problems, such as delays in new water connections. Similarly, NGOs in Buenos Aires, Argentina, were unhappy about the performance of the private operator there and lobbied against price increases.

All cities and towns need groups of concerned consumers who are willing to become involved in improving water supplies. Do you know of groups or NGOs who are lobbying government to establish a customer committee to oversee your water supply? Is it something you could become involved with?

Richard Franceys, a long-term contributor to Footsteps, is completing a research project for the UK Government entitled Regulating Public and Private Partnerships for the Poor.

Further information can be found at   

Lusaka Water Watch Group, Zambia

The economic regulator for water in Zambia, NWASCO, set up the Lusaka Water Watch Group (LWWG) in March 2002. Membership is voluntary and usually advertised in the national press. Selected members need to have a good understanding of water supplies and are required to serve for two years.

Members meet every fortnight and are provided with initial training, stationery, transport and other help to carry out their activities. Their main role is to handle complaints, to collect information on quality of service, to educate consumers on the proper use of water and on the role and function of NWASCO. They hold regular public meetings and pass their findings to NWASCO.

Boxes were placed in post offices for people to make complaints. However, these were not very popular, so people can now also make complaints by letter, phone and through public meetings.

The committee has proved very effective in giving consumers a voice. Through their work, many complaints have been solved. However, members have found the work time-consuming and difficult to sustain, without any financial allowances. 

Sam Kayaga, 2004, Research Findings of the Zambia Case Study Regulating Public and Private Partnerships for the Poor 

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