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Water and sanitation: Informal settlements pose unique challenges, and locals fill the gaps

Water kiosk in Chipata, Zambia. File 2010. (Credit: SuSanA Secretariat/Flickr)

People are abandoning rural life for urban centers in large numbers, and in the next few years, the majority of the world’s population will live in and around cities. Growing on the fringes of these urban areas are informal – and some say illegal – settlements.

U.N. Habitat estimates that a current number around 863 million people who live in hastily constructed shacks will rise to more than 1 billion by 2025.

People living in these settlements, set against a global backdrop of drought and increasingly threatened water supplies, face huge challenges in accessing water and sanitation services. With changing climate patterns set to continue, forcing around 1.8 billion across the globe into absolute water scarcity by 2025, how are urban settlements going to cope with the ever-expanding demand?

Though much progress has been made in terms of tackling lack of access to water and sanitation in rural areas, the global community must now focus on a world that is becoming more urban. As this number increases, pressures on already struggling water and sanitation services also increases.

It is more commonly thought that connections to water and sanitation services in rural areas is more of an issue, due to the inability to connect to ‘conventional’ systems where city municipalities typically run these services. But this is not always the case. In some contexts, municipalities providing water services are just keeping up with the rate of urbanization.

But often these systems are designed to meet current demand and do not factor in future fluctuations in urban populations, so “often the capacity is not increased, the system stays the same, but you have more and more potential users,” said Pascale Hofmann, lecturer at the Development Planning Unit at University College London.

Frequently, informal settlers who live on the outskirts of urban areas on unplanned plots of land find themselves without a connection to local networks. Often these settlements “are not even recognized by policy or municipal authorities because of land tenure issues,” said Timeyin Uwejamomere, urban technical support manager at WaterAid.

There is often little political will to help those who, in the eyes of authorities, have settled illegally on unplanned land. This and the insecurity in which people living in informal settlements face mean that “utility companies have felt that they are sometimes unable to build bulk infrastructure in informal settlements because they are worried that the land’s been settled illegally,” said Lucy Stevens, policy adviser at Practical Action.

People end up working out their own arrangements. NGOs that work in this area came into being because they recognized that “conventional” ways of providing water and sanitation were no longer working.

Often these solutions are more embedded or led by the community. These include water kiosks, for example, that distribute water to individuals at the community level. Kiosks are connected to main utility providers and are then managed by community members. Kiosks have provided valuable access to water and sanitation services, but problems at the institutional level pervade.

Local services typically operate at a financial loss due to illegal taps into the systems and poorly maintained pipes. Utilities drive up prices to try to offset losses, and the hardest hit are the poorest people.

The problem is furthered by the fact that the majority of investment in water and sanitation services often focuses on “really big infrastructure projects which don’t necessarily reach the urban poor,” Stevens said.

All of this highlights that, depending on the context, physical scarcity is not the only issue. Lack of political will also makes reaching the urban poor more difficult, but this also then reflects onto the international level where donors are often only working with governments at the policy level and not the communities they are tasked with helping. Often these types of projects that are supported by donors such as the World Bank tend to focus on the installation of infrastructure without really focusing the ability to run and maintain the service. This could be best framed as capacity scarcity where communities do not have the ability to manage and maintain services, as Hofmann describes:

“It very much depends on how much support there is given to generate the capacity in the local community to then actually manage the water supply system, which then I don’t think is given sufficient thought.”

In such projects, donors often build the infrastructure without also building the capacity for local communities to run these services. Uwejamomore, speaking on how community members should participate in the governance of water, adds affirmatively that “no development should take place in any country without the citizens being part of the process.”

In a reality where the physical scarcity of water can change drastically due to the sorts of intense droughts that sub-Saharan Africa has been seeing, the global community can and should be doing more to address the issue of recycling and reusing water, an issue mentioned under U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 6. Currently the international community is not doing enough to address this, Uwejamomore said, claiming that “for every cup or bucket of water that we drink, 80 to 85 percent goes out as waste. Wastewater treatment and reuse is not encouraged, most of it goes into the drains.”

With a tendency for improved sanitation systems in informal settlements to transition toward “conventional water-based sanitation systems,” Hofmann said, not enough attention is given to alternative sanitation solutions that are less reliant on water to ensure that some of the pressures on water systems are alleviated. It is clear on this point that the international community must realize the dependency of improved sanitation on adequate water supplies, and come to grips with the reality that recycling waste water and collecting rainwater, among other strategies, is a crucial component in ensuring both targets can be met.

Like water kiosks, system improvements are ineffective unless the political will, the financial mechanisms and the community capacity are there to operate, maintain and upgrade these systems and technologies, these services cannot meet current demand, let alone be upscaled. Until these different forms of scarcities are addressed, the probability of services meeting the pace of urbanization is a far off reality.

Local solutions, in some contexts, are providing useful ways to combat water and sanitation service shortages, but ultimately the aim should be to ensure that universal access is provided through stronger urban planning that places emphasis on universal access to water and sanitation in the form of a networked system.


About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at