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Global Urban Water Scarcity Endures as a ‘Daily Reality’

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Urban water provision is a social good, but one that will become increasingly difficult for cities and water utilities to provide due to climate change and population growth. More than 40% of residents in 15 cities in the “global south” – developing nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America – still lack quality, affordable water that can be piped into dwellings, according to a report released by the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

“Cities need to rethink how they view equitable access to water,” said report co-author Victoria Beard, professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University and a fellow at the World Resources Institute.

Ratio of total annual water withdrawals to total available annual renewable supply, accounting for upstream consumptive use. 
Baseline water stress.jpg
Credit: Source: World Resources Institute (WRI)
“In many developing countries … urban residents lack access to safe, reliable and affordable water on a daily basis, ” said Beard, also a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “These are the same countries that have made huge strides in guaranteeing universal access to primary education. Equitable access to water requires similar levels of political commitment. The solutions are not high tech. We know what needs to be done.”

In addition to Beard, the report – “Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Rethinking Urban Water Access in the Global South” – was prepared by lead author Diana Mitlin, professor, Manchester University; David Satterthwaite, senior fellow, the International Institute for Environment and Development; and Jillian Du, research analyst, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

The authors analyzed data from 15 cities from the global south and found that, on average, 58% of households have water piped into their home dwelling or plot. In Latin America, about 97% of urban households had running water, while South Asia had 63% and sub-Saharan Africa had 22% – and often the water was poor quality.

Lack of access to piped-in water means that families must purchase water from private sources (tanker trucks, vendors) or buy bottled water, which can cost up to 52 times as much as piped utility water, Beard said.

When water is either unavailable or too expensive, households in these countries are forced into tough decisions, Beard said.

“Families will sacrifice their health and time to self-provide ‘free’ – but likely unsafe – ground and surface water, or they will buy water that requires financial cutbacks on food, electricity, education, health care or other household needs,” she said. “’Day Zero’ [a phrase that denotes water scarcity or a complete lack of water] is a daily reality for nearly half the population in many cities in the global south.”

The report offers four general solutions:

  • Extending a municipal piped water system to all households or plots;
  • Addressing intermittent water service to reduce contamination;
  • Implementing diverse strategies to make water affordable; and
  • Supporting citywide upgrading of informal settlements around the world, to improve rather than displace urban residents.

Beard said reports over the past decade have claimed that society had turned the corner on delivery of water to fulfill basic human needs in the global south. But in her own observations, she explained, data showed that the urban water crisis remains a problem.

Said Beard: “Widely used global indicators used to monitor water access have failed to capture the everyday reality on the ground in urban neighborhoods.”

Decades of attempts to increase the private sector’s role in water provision and corporatize water utilities have not adequately improved access, especially for the urban under-served. Cities and urban change agents should commit to providing equitable access to safe, reliable, and affordable water

Contacts and sources:
World Resources Institute
Cornell University


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