Limited access to water makes Day Zero a daily reality for cities in the Global South: Report

According to the report, nearly 1 billion people receive piped water for lesser than 24 hours each day

Every day is Day Zero for vast segments of households in the global South, where millions have access to limited hours of water, while others are forced to pay a quarter of their monthly household income to get private water. As per a report titled ‘Unaffordable and Unthinkable: Rethinking Urban Water Access in the Global South’, by the Water Resources Institute, 42 percent of the houses in 15 cities surveyed across South Asia, South America and Africa, which included Bengaluru, Dhaka, Karachi, Lagos, Mumbai, Colombo, São Paulo and Caracas, lack access to piped water. The report stated that the global data underestimated the urban water crisis, and this contributed to ineffective planning and management of water provision.

Universal water coverage may be an expensive proposition – the report cites data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) which states that the cost of investing in universal drinking water coverage in urban areas would be USD 141 billion over five years. However, failure to invest in drinking water coverage will prove to be costlier – the total global economic losses from the negative consequences of inadequate water and sanitation amount to USD 260 billion per year.

Piped water: Cheap, yet inaccessible

As per the study, while piped water supply is the cheapest water service for most people, a large number of households do not have access to piped water connection. The situation is alarming – the report estimates that nearly 1 billion people receive piped water for lesser than 24 hours each day. In fact, two informal neighborhoods in Karachi and Bengaluru receive water service for as little as two to three hours per day for two days a week.

Further, in 12 out of 15 households surveyed, those that were connected to the municipal water supply received intermittent water. This intermittency is often caused by leaky or broken pipes, inadequate water supply, political reasons and selective discharge or by the municipal corporation to address water shortage. This then affects the quality of the water, as when water supply drops, contaminants from sewers and the groundwater enter the pipelines.

Lack of piped water connections also forces households to self-provide water (which is likely unsafe) or obtain water from other sources such as tankers, where they often ending up paying much more more than piped connection services. Cities such as Karachi and Mumbai rely heavily on tanker trucks – in Karachi, close to 25 percent of household income is spent on water, while in Mumbai close to 10 percent of household income is spent – much higher than the WHO recommended limit of 3-5 percent. This eats heavily into household income and funds that have been kept aside for education, food, health, and other aspects.

While the report does not have specific data to quantify the rich poor divide when it comes to access of water, inadequate access to water negatively affects rich and poor households, and leads to a variety of behaviors that are inefficient in economic terms and negatively affect the environment. The over-extraction of groundwater, which results in land subsidence and saltwater intrusion is an example.

Victoria A Beard, Professor and Associate Dean of Research, College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, Cornell University Fellow, and one of the authors of the report, explains that rich households have more economic resources at their disposal to cope with inadequate water provision. “For example, they can dig bore holes, purchase materials for water storage, or they can afford to purchase bottled water. However, poor households are disproportionately affected by inadequate access to water because often the poor, especially when they aren’t connected to public, piped water system, pay more for small quantities of water of questionable quality.”

Since the 1980s the involvement of the private sector in water has also been encouraged in the global South. This was to make water supply to localities more efficient. However, most private players and corporates have paid little attention to affordability, nor has it improved the access of low income communities to water.

Case studies: Bengaluru and Mumbai

According to the WRI report, Bengaluru has the second lowest access to piped water supply, after Karachi, with certain informal neighbourhoods receiving less than two hours a day. This has been exacerbated by the three consecutive years of drought that the state had faced, which had led to unofficial rationing in Bengaluru. The report further states that while Bengaluru receives 530 million cubic meters/year from the Cauvery, nearly half is lost as non revenue water in transmission and distribution. It’s a vicious cycle as this has led neighbourhoods to rely on private water tankers, leading to the over extraction of groundwater, causing private tankers and the utility department to dig further to obtain water.

Those who rely on tanker water to supplement their water supply/as a main source of water supply, also end up shelling a lot more than those who receive piped water. In Bengaluru one tanker truck of water is 12 times more expensive than piped water, while in Mumbai, a tanker truck of water is 52 times more expensive.

With such intermittent and poor water service, water mafia is a huge problem in Bengaluru. A 2014 research paper by Malini Ranganathan for Water Alternatives, speaks about the prevalent urban ‘water mafias’ of Bengaluru. The paper suggests that in many parts of the city, where there is no access to municipal water supply, or a scarcity is deliberately created, a parallel water supply is run by local politicians, thugs, some corporations and even some Water Department employees.

Workable solutions

Raj Bhagat P, Manager, Sustainable Cities, WRI India believes that NITI Aayog’s recent report which states that 21 cities in India are running out of water is somewhat misleading and there is no research done to conclude that Indian cities are running out of ground water. However, many Indian cities are in water stressed environment (i.e over exploitation of ground water). “India needs to adopt an integrated water management approach with particular focus on demand management to avoid such issues,” he explains. Bhagat lists the following five points that could be adopted to overcome the water crisis:

1. Improve efficiency in water use for agriculture, in particular.

2. Rain water harvesting in urban areas

3. Re-use waste water

4. Open data for researchers

5. Delimitation and protection of natural infrastructure like flood plains, water bodies etc.

At a global level, the report has put forth actions that need to be taken to improve access of water to urban, under-served areas: Extend the municipal piped water system to all households or plots, address intermittent water service to reduce contamination, implement diverse strategies to make water more affordable and support city-wide, participatory, in situ upgrading of informal settlements.

The report adds that in order to address water crises in the global south, cities and water utilities should work together to extend the formal piped network, address intermittent water service, and make water more affordable. Further, city governments should support strategies to upgrade informal settlements, which include improved access to water and sanitation services. “Water is a human right and a social good that is essential to human life, health, and well-being. As such, cities and water utilities need a sustained political commitment and sufficient financial investments to ensure equitable and continuous access to safe, reliable, and affordable water,” Beard concludes.