Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A new WRI report on 15 cities across the Global South reveals that access to safe drinking water is often underestimated—and the challenge will only get worse.
The United Nations has long made access to safe drinking water a global priority. First, the UN began tracking each country’s progress as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—a set of eight targets aimed at improving the quality of life for the world’s poorest. Later, water access became part of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which replaced the MDGs when they expired in 2015. While some nations have reported improvements over the last few decades, a report published Tuesday by the World Resource Institute finds that such national-level measurements underestimate the reality of water access inside cities.
“The issues of continuous service, affordability, and how people move water in the urban built environment are not apparent from just looking at progress on SDGs,” says Victoria Beard, a fellow at the WRI Ross Center For Sustainable Cities who co-authored the report. “You need to go beyond it.” Just saying that a nation provides piped water, for example, doesn’t tell you how reliable the service is, or how safe the water is. If the population depends on privatized water sources, like local water vendors or tanker trucks, the costs may not be accounted for—especially among those living in informal settlements.
So researchers at WRI took a deeper dive into the urban water crisis by analyzing water access in 15 “emerging” or “struggling” cities across Latin America, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa—regions often referred to as the Global South. They looked particularly at informal settlements, which may not always be included in the data. “A lot of times informal settlements are not represented in public city data because they are considered illegal or they’re outside formal planning or regulatory frameworks,” Beard says. Yet in sprawling megacities like Lagos, Nairobi, or Karachi, more than half of households are inside informal settlements, according to the report.
The good news: Nearly two-third of households, on average, across all 15 of the Global South cities studied have access to piped water, according to the report. A deeper dive into each city, though, reveals that availability is uneven. In Mumbai, more than 80 percent of households get piped water, but water is available for only seven hours each day. Similarly, water is available only three hours a day for roughly 70 percent of households in nearby Bangalore, and only for three days a week. The authors also report that in 12 cities, the government struggled to provide continuous water service—often a result of water and energy shortages, infrastructure failures, or “municipal rationing.” That, in turn, affects quality and safety, as water is more likely to be contaminated when water pressure is low.
Access to piped water is even more infrequent and inconsistent for those living in informal settlements. Of the nine cities that reported medium to high piped-water access, five also reported intermittent water supply.
When piped water is absent or unreliable, residents turn to privatized water delivery services, which are not uncommon. State agencies turned to private companies in the 1980s after struggling to provide basic services to lower-income households. In the 2000s, when private companies also struggled to make a profit, cities began corporatizing water utilities, operating on an incentives model. As a result, Beard says, affordability often gets ignored.
“We looked at tanker-truck water, water vendors, sachet water, and bottled water, and we found that other than natural sources like groundwater, piped water is the most affordable source of water in a city,” says Beard. In the seven cities where some residents rely on tanker trucks, the researchers found, the cost can be up to 52 times more than that of piped water. “The big point in this paper is that conceptualizing water as commodity hasn’t worked—it hasn’t ensured access or made water more affordable,” she adds. “And it hasn’t worked for the private companies. That’s why you see this re-municipalization of water and you don’t see privatization expanding in markets in Africa.”
The report comes as many cities are already running into water crises. In 2018, Cape Town, South Africa, faced a “Day Zero” situation as its municipal water supply nearly ran dry due to extended drought; this year, residents of Chennai, India, found relief only in water delivered daily via train from a dam more than 200 miles away. As climate change brings more frequent and extreme droughts, urban water challenges will only get more dire.
That means cities have to act now, says Beard. As part of the WRI report, the authors also offer a road map for what local governments can do, with four key “action areas” for governments to tackle. Those include extending formal piped water networks, improving continuous service of those networks, focusing on making water affordable for low-income households, and upgrading the quality of life in informal settlements. “When you think about the number of informal settlements since the 1960s that have been upgraded with housing improvements and improved access to basic services like water and sanitation,” says Beard, “this is one of the most successful intervention to date in terms of reaching the greatest number of people.”
Beard acknowledges that municipal resources in Global South countries are typically scarce. But it’s hard to overstate the fundamental importance of maintaining access to drinking water, and she emphasizes the need for cities to invest in the necessary infrastructure, as opposed to relying on what she calls stopgap measures.
“Access to water is a human right, and it requires political commitment by cities to deliver piped water to every household at an affordable price, and to guarantee continuous service,” she says. “There’s no way around that.”