The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 5, 2015

How can developing cities provide better water to their residents?

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The world’s urban population is projected to add 2.5 billion people by 2050, with nearly 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa. The provision of safe, clean drinking water in urban settings is a high priority for international development, and justifiably so. Drinking water that is protected from contamination improves health, education, and economic growth, yet roughly 150 million urban dwellers do not have access, with numbers on the rise.

Fortunately, the problem has not gone unrecognized. An expansive body of work explores the causes of water market failures and the policy interventions national governments can use to mitigate them. This body of work, however, has paid less heed to local governments role in implementing those policies, a critical link in the chain of service provision.

In theory, local governments can help ensure that people have access to water, but even when they have the authority the deliver services directly, they often need support in carrying it out. Beyond providing water via public utilities, local governments can also regulate private and third sector (nonprofit and non-governmental) water providers. When governing well, they can foster markets in which water costs are low, and access and quality are high.

So why do 150 million urban citizens lack access to clean water?

Our ongoing research explores how local governments can face a variety of barriers to effectively providing services, including obstacles that are the result of national legal frameworks. We’ve identified dysfunctional power relationships among local actors in the water sector as a key constraint. Coordination issues, information asymmetries, and overall mismanagement tend to plague interactions between local governments, private providers, and third-sector water providers.

We have found confirmation of this experience in our work in the water sector in two quickly growing cities: Ga West, Ghana and Nakuru, Kenya.

In Ga West, major regulatory gaps allowed the private sector to provide low quality water at high prices. Simply put, the municipality does not have the staff or the resources to effectively monitor water quality in the private sector, and has not prioritized it. Moreover, there is little incentive to resolve these gaps in Ga West, as legal responsibility for water provision is unclearly allocated between the local government, the national urban water provider, and the national rural water provider. Even when outside actors have offered to help address urban water access challenges, coordination and communications failures between the local government, nonprofit, and NGO water providers led to boreholes that tap salty groundwater.

In Nakuru, unclear responsibility for water provision under Kenya’s new constitution exacerbates underlying scarcity and accessibility problems. Kenya’s new “county” level of government is now responsible for water provision, including in urban areas, but laws have not yet been passed that reallocate authority from regional and local water boards and utilities to the newly elected local governments. As a result of this confusion over roles in the water sector, the county has not begun actively regulating water provision. In turn, consumers rely on a limited network of NGO providers and unregulated private distributors, with the unsurprising result of inflated water prices and poor, even unsafe, water quality.

The global shift toward urbanism—particularly in developing countries—presents both opportunities and challenges. High population density affords the opportunity for economies of scale in water delivery, and cities in general can be major engines of economic growth. However, haphazard settlement patterns and unequal service provision can undermine the benefits cities may otherwise offer. When people have access to potable water, the economic and health benefits are numerous. But to ensure those benefits are sustainable, local governments must have the power, resources, and capabilities to do their job.

A boy returns home carrying a 20-liter container of fresh water, which cost 5 Kenyan shillings (5.5 U.S. cents) to fill from a private tap in the street, in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, on March 14, 2015. Photo by Sayyid Azim/AP

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