Many major cities in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America are falling dangerously behind in their efforts to provide residents with reliable and affordable access to clean water, according to a new report by the World Resources Institute. The data in the report offer a stark new account of the scale of the threat posed by unsafe and unaffordable water to public health and the economy in the Global South’s quickly-expanding urban centers.
The report analyzed data from local governments, utility companies and household surveys in 15 cities ranging in population from 250,000 people to more than 23 million, including Lagos, Mumbai, São Paulo and Caracas. It concluded that 42% of households in those cities lack access to in-house piped water, which is considered to offer the best chance of a reliable, safe and cheap water supply compared to public taps, surface water, bottled water or other sources. In 12 of the 15 cities, piped water was frequently intermittent, which increases the odds of contamination. Across all three regions, the total number of urban residents lacking access to piped water has increased by more than 200 million since 1990, the report found.
At the root of the problem is the crumbling state of urban infrastructure, says Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia University Water Center, who was not involved in the report. In many of the cities mentioned in the report, he says, the water main system is decades old and hasn’t expanded much beyond the historic city center. Upgrades are massively expensive and can’t keep up with population growth.
“I would love to say that the Sustainable Development Goals related to water access are gloriously being met, but that would be wrong,” he says. “The situation is one where the physical systems are getting worse, and the pace at which urban infrastructure is being developed is being overtaken by demand. Then you get a little drought and the population is out of luck.”
The situation was worst in the African cities, which also included Nairobi, Kenya; Kampala, Uganda; Maputo, Mozambique; and Mzuzu, Malawi. Overall, fewer than one-quarter of those households had access to piped water. In Lagos, for example, more than 60% of households relied on groundwater wells and captured rainwater; in Kampala, most households relied on public taps. According to United Nations data analyzed in the report, the portion of the continent’s total urban population lacking access to piped water has increased from 57% to 67% since 1990.
Victoria Beard, a professor of urban planning at Cornell University and WRI fellow who helped author the report, says the situation is expected to worsen as urban populations grow and climate change increases the specter of “Day Zero” events, in which a city’s taps run dry. A separate WRI report last week found that 33 cities around the world, with a combined population of more than 250 million, are currently experiencing extremely high water stress, with that population number expected to rise above 470 million by 2030.
The new report doesn’t offer any new regional watershed analysis to show which cities are most vulnerable to a Day Zero. Instead, it was designed to quantify the extent to which many urban dwellers are already facing a daily reality of shortages and high costs because they’re cut off from the water supply system, leaving them especially vulnerable to future climate crises.
“Many cities aren’t making the proper investments as they move in the direction of more inevitable ‘Day Zeros’,” Beard says. “Given that scarcity is only going to increase with climate change, cities need to take control of their jurisdictions and deal with leakages, make sure people aren’t paying too much for water and work to extend supply networks.”
In June, UNICEF, the organization that typically manages global water and sanitation issues and whose data is commonly considered authoritative, reported that 97% of the global urban population has access to “basic” water services. That includes a broad range of “improved” sources that can provide safe water and are within a 30-minute round trip from a person’s home.
But the WRI report argues that UNICEF’s urban water access statistics likely overstate the extent of urban water access because they don’t adequately account for cost and intermittency issues and may count sources as “accessible” that are in fact susceptible to contamination and/or exorbitantly priced. In Mumbai, for example, the report found that 10 gallons of water from a public pipe cost around 0.0023 cents, while the same amount from a tanker truck was 52 times more expensive, at 12 cents, and the same amount in a bottle was 89 cents. For a low-income household, that can quickly top the U.N.-recommended water expenditure threshold of 5% of income.
Basi Agberemi, an urban water specialist at UNICEF, says the agency relies on countries’ national-level data and may not be well-suited to capture the experiences of individual cities. The agency is currently working on a series of case studies on affordability, he says, and plans to better incorporate that type of data into future analyses.
In the absence of reliable or safe piped water, Beard and her colleagues documented a variety of workarounds. In Kampala and Nairobi, residents rely on water “ATMs” that dispense water in exchange for payment in coins or on a credit card. In Dhaka and Karachi, they found residents of some informal settlements using hand pumps or electric suction devices to illegally siphon water from public water mains – -in some cases, under the auspices of black-market “water mafias” that control access in certain neighborhoods. The streets of Lagos are littered with an uncountable number of used plastic single-serving water sachets.
“The fact that people are willing to pay very high prices for smaller and smaller amounts of water shows how extreme the issue is,” Beard says.
One of the most immediate solutions to the crisis is also the most obvious, Beard says: Fix leaky pipes. The report found in many cities, 25 to 60% of water that leaves a city’s distribution hub is lost before it reaches customers, either because of theft or inadvertent leaks. It’s a vicious cycle: Lost water means lost revenue that might otherwise be spent expanding the network. Other promising solutions include providing subsidies to the poorest citizens to support their water purchases and rolling out smartphone apps that can communicate when outages might occur and where residents can find water.
Megan Chapman is co-director of the Justice and Empowerment Initiative, a community organization in Lagos that helps slum residents organize for improved living conditions. In some riverfront slums, she says, residents are able to drill boreholes beneath the riverbed and pull up clean water, which they load into canoes and sell around the city for 25 cents per bucket. Chapman says her group has made efforts in the past to petition the local government to extend pipeline services to the slums but has been ignored, possibly because building pipes would lend legitimacy to settlements that the government prefers to view as illegal.
“People living in extreme poverty need to be able to access clean, free water, and they shouldn’t have to make choices based on cost,” she says. “It comes down to individuals and entrepreneurs finding ways to make the necessities of life possible on their own.”