Urban Water Justice in the Developing World

By Urmila Malvadkar* 

ImageIn the developing world, a lack of sufficient clean water is both a cause and consequence of poverty.   Informal settlements—housing up to 60%  of the population of some cities in the developing world– face unique obstacles to water access.  New infrastructure is difficult to install in dense, unplanned communities.  Many governments ignored needs of these communities in order to de-legitimize them and discourage rural-urban migration.  Further, residents are often rural migrants who stay for a few years  and do not advocate for investing in their community.

Where cities are unwilling or unable to provide water, residents can spend hours a day to purchase water from private vendors who charge 10 to 20 times more than tap water.   Some of these vendors in large cities such as Jakarta and Nairobi, have ties to organized crime, collude to cause artificially high prices, refuse to serve certain ethnicities,  and threaten utility workers with violence.

While some official policies– even pro-poor policies–can reduce access to water among the very poor, some programs focusing on improving service to the most indigent communities profoundly improve lives.

Cost-recovery mandates[1] without explicit pro-poor policies can lead to infrastructure development focused on upper-income areas, since these are often located close to the existing water network and thus cheaper to connect to the existing water network.   Tariff structures driven by cost-recovery can also encourage water consumption among the wealthy and water conservation among the poor.


The steep tariff structure in Jakarta led businesses and the wealthy to use private wells rather than municipal water.  The unregulated use of groundwater lowered the water table, depleting an important water source for some indigent  communities.


South Africa’s Free Basic Water policy, while meeting water needs of some households, did not provide sufficient water for large households or those with special health needs such as HIV/AIDS.  The structure of Johannesburg’s water tariffs required households using more than the Free Basic Water allotment to pay for the entire amount (including “free” water); many indigent families could not afford this and decreased water use for activities such as subsistence farming and laundry. By court order,  Johannesburg has increased the amount of water available for indigent households.


Rather than entirely dismantling a complex system of private water providers, many of whom connected to the municipal network illegally, Nairobi’s water company has involved private kiosk owners in water projects in several slums.  The water company established communal meter chambers, to which vendors were allowed to legally connect. By requiring vendors to use quality pipes, Nairobi’s water company both reduced leakage and contamination as well as increased its own revenue.  In some slums, reliability, water quality, and price for residents have improved; in others, water cartels have taken over meter chambers.

The urban poor in the developing world face many barriers to clean water.  The Philadelphia Global Water Initiative’s conference next April will focus on Urban Water Justice: we hope to learn more about how cities can ensure equitable access to water.

*Urmila Malvadkar does research and modeling in the environmental sciences, with an emphasis on water and conservation.

[1] Cost-recovery requires consumers to pay the total cost of providing water, although the tariff structure may enable cross-customer subsidies.

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