Access to Water in the Slums of the Developing World


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This article is based on an article in Poverty In Focus (by International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG)) Number 18, August 2009 by by Hulya Dagdeviren and Simon A. Robertson, University of Hertfordshire.

It highlights the difficulties of expanding utility networks in slum areas, which include technical barriers and a lack of land and housing tenure. The authors make a case for stronger public interventions.


The problem

The problem of inadequate access to safe water is nowhere more pressing than in the slums of the developing world. Most countries in which a large proportion of the urban population live in squatter settlements are unlikely to meet the water-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This article argues that market-oriented policies make little, if any, difference in those circumstances.

Trends in Slum Development

About a third of the world’s urban population lived in slums in 1990, and the total number of slum dwellers might rise to 1.5 billion by 2020. Slum growth has been particularly marked in Africa where, on average, more than 70 per cent of the urban population live in informal settlement areas.

Public policies towards slums are highly politicised. They are influenced by factors such as the strength of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other social groups, as well as by the politics of slum management. So far, governments have dealt with squatter settlements and the associated problems in three ways:

  1. clearing slums through forced or legal evictions;
  2. applying public policies that range from benign neglect to occasional interventions; and
  3. regularising settlement conditions.

Forced evictions are still used extensively, especially in Africa and Asia, where over 14 million people were evicted between 1998 and 2006 (UN-Habitat, 2007).

Access to Water in the Slums of the Developing World

The increase in urbanisation and its disproportionate concentration in informal settlements pose problems for the expansion of water and sanitation services. Table 1 provides data on access to safe water in the countries with the largest slum populations in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where conditions are particularly drastic.

Table 1:Access to Safe Water in Countries with the Largest Slum Population (%), Source UN-Habitat (2007)
Table 1:Access to Safe Water in Countries with the Largest Slum Population (%), Source UN-Habitat (2007)

UN-Habitat’s original database, which includes a larger number of countries, shows that urban access to improved water facilities declined in more than a third of African countries during the period 1990–2004. In many cities, there is a notably low rate of access to water through private household connections from network infrastructure. More than two-thirds of the urban population in Africa depend on water from non-residential connections. In half of the African countries, the share of residential water connections either declined or was static.

Lack of access to safe water in general, and lack of residential supply in particular, is positively correlated to the proportion of the population living in unplanned settlement areas. An important trend in Africa, and to some extent in Asia, is that improvements in access to safe drinking water were frequently accompanied by a decline in residential connections during the period 1990–2004. In other words, more people now rely on public standpipes, boreholes, “protected” wells and springs.

Challenges for Public Utilities in Improving Access to Safe Water in the Slums

1. Technical difficulties of infrastructure extension

The supply problems facing public utilities are exacerbated by a number of barriers that make it impractical to build the network in some slum areas. The most important are:

  • The topographical location of settlements in previously unused land such as hills, ravines, flood plains and desert land.
  • The physical conditions of the settlements, which are marked by a random and haphazard development pattern and overcrowding.
  • The quality of the materials used to build housing units, such as thickened mud, plant leaves and stems, tin and plaster boards, which are unsuitable for permanent water pipes and taps.
2. Lack of tenure for land or housing

The result of the invasion of public or private land, can pose a significant obstacle to the provision of water services. This is because provision by utilities and the extension of water services by local authorities often depend on the existence of legal tenure for property. These two issues are challenging for public policy. Overcoming the difficulties associated with the settlement conditions outlined in (1) requires relocation of slum dwellers to more suitable areas and enforcement of housing standards. Granting full tenure in order to tackle the problems associated with the insecurity of tenure outlined in (2) may raise property prices and encourage the development of new slum areas. Dwellers may sell their plots and squat elsewhere. The policy may benefit the non-poor, especially property merchants. Opposition to redistributive policies, involving relocation and/or the formalisation of slums, can be testing for governments.

Can Privatisation of Utilities Provide an Answer?

Thus far, policies geared to improving access to water have emphasised the importance of market-oriented solutions (World Bank, 2004). The shift towards private or commercialised services has meant that direct public investment in the water sector has declined. But the resulting gap has not been offset by private sector investments (Estache, 2006). Where public utilities have been privatised there have been numerous problems related to cost recovery, affordability and regulation of services. Private service providers have not performed better than public operators. Nonetheless, though the outcomes have been disappointing, the drive for privatisation continues with renewed emphasis following a short period of critical reflection.

The potential for privatisation is even more limited in countries where a significant proportion of the urban population live in squatter settlements. In these settlements, the multifaceted nature of the problems (such as tenure, technical difficulties in building water infrastructure, widespread poverty, high population turnover) seriously constrain the capacity of privatised utilities.

Types of Informal Water Services in the Slums and Their Limitations

In the middle- and upper middle-income countries, slums are often supplied from the public network. In low-income economies, however, the provision of water in informal settlements is dominated by community-managed water schemes and small-scale private suppliers.

Community managed water schemes

Typically, these are facilitated by NGOs that help the community to build a shared water point such as water kiosk, which is then managed and run by people employed by the community’s members. These small-scale projects are crucial to the provision of water in the absence of other alternatives, but they are not problem-free. Water charges are higher and cross subsidisation is not feasible because the projects do not benefit from economies of scale. Their long-term maintenance can be difficult because of a lack of social cohesion, financial resources, and technical and management capacity.

Small-scale private water suppliers

Some 50 per cent of the urban population in Africa obtain water from small suppliers. These include water tankers, street vendors and other water re-sellers (that is, households with a piped supply or wells in their yards selling water to those without access). Their services are problematic for three reasons. First, their prices are much higher, partly because they lack economies of scale. Second, the quality of the water is highly dependent on the quality of sanitation services in the locale. Finally, where regulation is absent (which is often typical), prices may be subject to collusion. While it is desirable to regulate small, private suppliers, it is intrinsically difficult and costly to do so because of their size, variety and number.

Policy Recommendations

There are three fundamental reasons why governments should play a more active role in the provision of water and sanitation. First, universal access to safe drinking water has positive externalities in the form of lower rates of illness and mortality, an associated increase in productivity, and reduced medical costs. The returns from universal water coverage can be significant, varying from US$4 for each dollar invested in sub- Saharan Africa to US$17 in Latin America (Table 2). Second, privatisation is not an option in poor and low-income areas where services are not profitable.

Table 2: Cost-Benefit Ratio of Achieving Universal Water Coverage, Source Hutton et al. (2006)
Table 2: Cost-Benefit Ratio of Achieving Universal Water Coverage, Source Hutton et al. (2006)

Finally, as outlined above, there are specific failures associated with non-state, small-scale supply systems. In short, solutions to the lack of safe water services in the slums of the developing world lie in the following approaches:

1.Coordinated public sector interventions

Improving water services depends heavily on upgrading slum conditions more generally. Urban planning and tenure issues require multifaceted interventions within the remit of governments. That requires thinking outside the “water and sanitation box” (IIED, 2003).

2. The expansion of public network utility

Long-term policy should be devised in light of the costs and benefits of alternative systems of provision. There are serious doubts about the potential gains of both privatised network utilities (where planning and development challenges persist) and small-scale service providers (because of pricing and quality issues). Ultimately, these concerns can be resolved by investing in the expansion of the public water and sanitation network.


Estache, A. (2006). ‘PPI Partnerships vs. PPI divorces in LDCs’, Review of Industrial Organization 29, 3–26.

Hutton, G., L. Haller and J. Bartram (2006). “Economic and Health Effects of Increasing Coverage of Low Cost Water and Sanitation Interventions”, HDR Office Occasional Paper. New York, UNDP.

IIED (2003) Water and Sanitation: Water Will Deliver the Improvements Required for Urban Areas. International Institute for Environment and Development. London.

UN-Habitat (2007). Enhancing Urban Safety and Security: Global Report on Human Settlements 2007. Un-Habitat. Nairobi.

World Bank (2004). Reforming Infrastructure: Privatization, Regulation, and Competition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

See also

Equitable Access to Basic Utilities: Public vs Private Provision and Beyond

External Resources


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