Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Rethinking Urban Water Access in the Global South

In 2015, UNICEF and the World Health Organization reported that over 90% of the world’s population used improved drinking water sources. But new research suggests the indicators used by UNICEF/WHO grossly overestimated the state of water access, especially in cities of the global south. Analysis of 15 cities shows that vast segments of the urban population in the global south lack access to safe, reliable and affordable water. On average, almost half of all households in the studied cities lacked still lack access to piped utility water.

The new analysis featured in this paper also illustrates that piped utility water is the least expensive option for most households. But reliability is crucial. Among those households that were connected to piped water in the analyzed cities, most received intermittent service, which results in contaminated water. Households that are not connected rely on self-provision or private water vendors, which are up to 50 times more expensive than public water.

The paper argues that decades of attempts to increase the private sector’s role in water provision and to corporatize water utilities have not adequately improved access – especially for the urban under-served – and have led to issues of affordability and regularity/reliability being ignored.

The paper explores what cities can do to ensure more equitable access to safe, reliable and affordable water, while facing down major trends affecting water access, including population growth, degraded and depleted water sources, and climate change. It highlights four key action areas for cities to improve water access: extend the formal piped water network, address context-specific causes of intermittent water service, pursue diverse strategies to make water affordable with special considerations for low-income consumers, and support informal settlement upgrading.

This is the sixth thematic paper of WRI’s flagship World Resources Report (WRR), Towards a More Equal City, a series of 15 papers that examines if equitable access to core urban services can help achieve higher economic productivity and better environmental quality for the city. Visit citiesforall.org for more information.

Key Findings

Executive Summary

Full executive summary available in the paper.

About This Paper

This working paper is part of a series of papers comprising the World Resources Report (WRR), Towards a More Equal City, which views sustainability as composed of three interrelated issues: equity, the economy and the environment. The WRR examines whether the equitable provision of urban services to meet the needs of the under-served can improve the other two dimensions of sustainability. Each paper focuses on actionable solutions that have been proven to work across cities of the global south. The key enabling factors that support these actions are also discussed.