Water for the urban poor

Water Supply

by Richard Franceys.

Good access to water supplies is a growing problem around the world. Where do people living in the slums and shanties of the world’s growing cities get their water? How do they find good sanitation for safe excreta disposal?

Photo: Mike Webb/Tearfund
Photo: Mike Webb/Tearfund

Water sources

The poorest people often get their water by queuing for hours, sometimes starting at 3am to collect water from a standpipe, or from a polluted well or illegal connection. Many people obtain water from water carriers – small-scale independent providers who charge ten, maybe twenty times more for a container of water than the price paid by rich people with piped water connections.

Governments often promise low prices for water so everyone can have access to this precious basic need. However, government laws usually prevent suppliers from providing water pipe networks into illegal, unplanned housing areas. So though up to half the city may live in these areas, including the poorest, these people receive no government support for water. The higher income households, living in the planned areas, receive most government help. The poorest remain at the mercy of criminal gangs who often control the illegal water supply.

Many poor households may live close to an existing piped water system. They would be willing to pay for water if they could pay small amounts on a regular basis. However, they find the water services often charge a very high fee to connect to the water mains and also demand that new customers pay for the pipes to the household. Poor people in urban areas can rarely save up enough to pay these large sums in advance. So they have to buy from richer neighbours who have a piped connection and may charge a high profit.

Sanitation problems

Access to good sanitation is equally difficult. Well-built latrines provide excellent and safe sanitation. However, slum tenants, unsure of their future, cannot afford to invest in a latrine. So people have to use either dirty public toilets, the sides of the streets in the early morning or perhaps suffer the indignity of ‘wrap and throw’ – using a plastic bag or newspaper and throwing excreta into a drainage channel or onto a garbage heap. Meanwhile many rich people have access to water-flushed toilets connected to sewer pipes, the most expensive form of sanitation, which will also have been subsidised by the government.

The challenge of solving this problem seems too great for many government services. They may not have the money to invest in improving water or sanitation services. They may lack the political will or capacity to find ways of serving rapidly growing illegal housing areas. However, the good news is that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are now making a difference in some cities.

Community organisations

All over the world, NGOs and community-based organisations are trying to help the urban poor. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, the NGO Dusthya Shasthya Kendra (DSK) works with the slum communities and Dhaka Water. After making an agreement with a community water management committee of women, which is supported by an advisory committee of men, a water tank is constructed on nearby land, contributed by Dhaka City Council. The community pays the water bills and, over time, pays back the $600 capital cost of the water tank and connection.

The water point caretaker, a woman who is a member of the committee with an average salary of $11 per month, collects water charges from users. With the support of the NGO, she deposits this into a joint bank account. The community sets the water rates. The average charge is just one third of that previously paid by users. In the beginning, the NGO helps with monitoring their bank account. Later, communities take full responsibility.

In India, the NGO Sulabh International constructs toilet blocks in low-income areas complete with soap, showers and storage. There is a small charge for using the facilities (though the destitute and people with disabilities do not pay). The government helps with the cost of building the toilet blocks. The small charge pays for operating costs that include a caretaker to ensure cleanliness. Sulabh now has 4,000 toilet blocks in India and also promotes a twin pit latrine programme. It is providing sanitation services to perhaps ten million people.

These examples show what can be done. However, it is very difficult for NGOs to meet the needs of so many urban poor. Even with Sulabh’s achievements, the majority of poor people in India lack access to improved sanitation. Most of the 400 million people worldwide who live in urban areas do not have access to improved sanitation and 170 million of them lack access to improved water supplies.

Public private partnerships

Recent research in over ten Asian countries has shown that one unexpected answer to solving the problems of the urban poor is ‘privatisation’. Involving private enterprise in what are called public private partnerships (PPP) is making a difference for poor people in several cities in the world.

Private operators can bring better management and new investment. The results may be clean water flowing for 24 hours a day at reasonable pressure. Before, users might receive just two hours of water supply every one or two days at low pressure. By working in partnership with governments and community organisations, some of these private operators are serving poor people through participatory approaches. For example, they may reduce connection costs if the community helps to lay pipes in the slum, or they may allow people to pay their connection fees over two years with a small addition to their monthly water bill.

As a result of one PPP, a resident in Manila who says she used to spend up to P40 (pesos) each day for water bought from a water carrier, now only pays P25 to P50 per month! Another resident who used to pay a flat rate of P300 per month to a neighbour with water, now spends only about P60 per month.

During focus group discussions, participants said that they could now enjoy the luxury of a daily shower because of the higher water pressure. As well as much reduced water charges, people mentioned other benefits such as:

  • more time for other household chores
  • more time for leisure
  • lack of stress from queuing (fights often occur when people jump the queue)
  • readily available water supplies.

In one slum in F Carlos, Manila, after individual water connections were installed, many houses were improved. Previously they were mostly made of temporary materials, while now most are made of more permanent materials such as hollow blocks and cement. Mothers now have more time to care for their children. Some residents use their extra free time for income-earning activities.

Why have these examples of private operators proved so successful? There are several reasons:

  • It is in their commercial interest to serve all potential customers.
  • They can make a profit even with low charges.
  • They often have government contracts demanding they achieve high levels of service for poor people.

What can we do?

What can readers of Footsteps do with these ideas? We can share these research findings about PPPs and lobby our governments to consider them as one way forward. We can lobby politicians to improve water services for poor people. We can ask them to raise their targets for water service provision to 100%, so that the urban poor are always included.

Through churches and NGOs we could establish credit unions, which among other ideas, could finance piped water connections. We can talk with house-holders who sell water to their neighbours about what should be a reasonable profit. Perhaps we could even consider building a Sulabh-style public toilet block, complete with soap and showers, making sure it remains clean and safe. An interesting extension perhaps of Jesus’s example of foot-washing in John 13:1-17?

Richard Franceys is based at the Institute of Water and Environment, Cranfield University, Silsoe, Bedford, MK45 4DT, UK. He was team leader of the Asian Development Bank study ‘Beyond Boundaries: Extending Services to the Urban Poor’ used as case studies in this article. E-mail: r.w.a.franceys@cranfield.ac.uk