Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka
shows that the urban water and sanitation crisis is much worse than official statistics suggest, and outlines action to meet key global goals

As we enter the urban millennium – with half of humanity already living in towns and cities – one third of the urban population, an estimated 1 billion people, live without adequate sanitation and basic services. Cities and towns are without question centres of opportunity. But when they lack clean water, decent sanitation and basic services in this way, they are among the most life-threatening environments on Earth.

National statistics often disguise the true extent of the problem. Most existing surveys presume that, with ‘improved’ provision of water and sanitation, all city dwellers are better served than the rural poor. Based on such criteria, official statistics confidently report that 94 per cent of all urban populations have improved water provision and 84 per cent have improved sanitation.

City-level data from 43 African cities, however, show that 83 per cent of the population lack lavatories connected to sewers; in large Asian cities the figure is 55 per cent. In Mahira, a section of Haruma slum in Nairobi, there is just one lavatory with ten units and two bathrooms for a settlement of 332 households with 1,500 inhabitants. A 1998 survey of 7,512 slum households in Ahmedabad found that 80 per cent had no water connection and 93 per cent had to rely on dirty communal lavatories.

What these individual city studies indicate is that – if assessment is widened to measure the proportion with access to safe water and clean sanitation facilities – the number of inadequately served urban dwellers is much higher than is officially acknowledged.

Using these criteria, UN-HABITAT’s new report, Water and Sanitation in the World’s Cities, estimates that as many as 150 million urban residents in Africa – up to 50 per cent of the urban population – do not have adequate water supplies, while 180 million – or roughly 60 per cent – lack adequate sanitation.

In urban Asia, 700 million people – again half the population – do not have adequate water, while 800 million people – again 60 per cent – are without adequate sanitation. In Latin America and the Caribbean the figures are 120 million and 150 million urban dwellers, representing 30 and 40 per cent respectively.

The impact on the poor is well documented. Every year 2.2 million deaths – 4 per cent of all fatalities worldwide – can be directly attributed to inadequate supplies of clean water and sanitation. Women spend hours collecting water. The poor pay ten to a hundred times as much as the rich for every litre.

At the macro-economic level, lack of clean water and sanitation directly impact labour productivity. Peru’s GDP was estimated to have lost about $232 million in just one year in 1991, when it suffered a cholera epidemic.
We must wake up to the fact that the urbanization of poverty is one of the greatest challenges we face
The international community will have to confront the problems of the urban poor if it is to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the proportion of people without access to clean water and adequate sanitation by 2015. In a rapidly urbanizing world, successfully meeting this goal is also closely linked to the MDG commitment to improve the living conditions of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.

Despite the increasing urbanization of poverty, many international donor agencies avoid supporting programmes targeted at urban populations on the assumption that the poor in cities are privileged compared to those in rural areas. Only about 2 to 12 per cent of the funding of the agencies that publish disaggregated figures tends to go to urban projects. This proportion must increase if the MDGs are to be achieved.

There are indications that more money will indeed be made available for investment in water and sanitation for the urban poor. The commitment of the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) and the Government of The Netherlands to fund UN-HABITAT’s Water for Asian Cities programme is a case in point. Even more importantly, AsDB has also agreed to make available a $500 million fast-track credit line for pro-poor investment in the urban water and sanitation sector.

Improving governance
Increased investment is critical, but even more so is the urgent need to find more successful mechanisms for providing the poor with water and sanitation. It is interesting to note that corruption and poor governance were the major reasons cited by most aid agencies and development banks for withdrawing from large-scale capital projects in urban areas in the developing world in the 1980s.

At the same time, multinational companies and bankers tend to look for large-scale investments, with values of $100 million or more, that will serve more than a million residents. They consider as unbankable smaller projects aimed at servicing specific neighbourhoods and communities of the urban poor.

Another reason why the provision of water and sanitation is so inadequate for much of the urban population of Africa, Asia and Latin America is that investments in water and sanitation were made in cities with political systems that had no interest in improving conditions for low-income groups. Where they turned to privatization, it proved difficult to reconcile the interests and priorities of large private companies with the slow, difficult and often expensive investments needed to ensure adequate provision for the poor.

Many local authorities still underestimate the importance of inclusive practices of good governance in prioritizing the delivery of services to the urban poor. However, UN-HABITAT’s experience shows that successful water demand management at this level can reap benefits for the whole community.

UN-HABITAT’s Water for African Cities programme, a direct follow-up to the 1997 Cape Town Declaration adopted by African Ministers, is the first initiative of its kind to support municipalities in managing growing water demand while protecting their sources from increasing wastage and pollution.

Up to 50 per cent of the urban water supply in many African cities is being wasted through leakages or is otherwise unaccounted for. The programme is therefore working with the municipalities of Abidjan, Accra, Addis Ababa, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, Lusaka and Nairobi to establish an effective demand management strategy to encourage domestic users, industry and public institutions to use water efficiently. Some cities have already reduced water consumption by 35 per cent.

Community involvement
Many well-documented case studies show that it is quite possible to improve the living conditions of the urban poor if local governments allow community-based organizations – especially those representing the poor – a greater role in determining policies and projects. Pakistan’s world-famous Orangi Project was an important pioneer in this, showing how over 90,000 households could provide themselves with low-cost flush latrines. In the Sambizanga area of Luanda, Zambia, a partnership between the local authority, the private sector and the community ensured that the poor could receive clean water at a reasonable cost. The key to success, in every case, has been public-private partnerships that include the poor themselves.

UN-HABITAT’s report, Water and Sanitation in the World’s Cities, documents many of these case studies. It argues that public-private partnerships that prioritize small-scale investments at the community-level are a cost-effective way to solve the immediate problems of the urban poor. Meanwhile, effective demand management strategies can provide considerable water savings while increasing the income of the local authority. This enables municipalities to use pricing policies and regulatory measures to meet the urgent needs of the urban poor.

Reassessment and innovation
We must all prioritize the needs of the poor to ensure the success of local action for global goals. We must wake up to the realities of the urban age, which condemn almost 1 billion poor slum dwellers to suffer from the dangers and indignities associated with the lack of clean water and adequate sanitation. The international community has set the targets: if we are to meet them we must be prepared to look at everything anew. We must reassess our statistics. We must re-examine our policies and ask why we have failed in the past. We must innovate new strategies of good urban governance. We must invest more funds in urban infrastructure.

Most of all – in this urban millennium – we must wake up to the fact that the urbanization of poverty is one of the greatest challenges we face

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | World Environment Day | Water is life | The water century | Taking it at the flood | Renewing the commitment | Waterless cities | Keeping pollution at bay | People | At a glance | Changing agenda | Nor any drop to drink | Bridging troubled waters | Books & products | Getting there | Sinking fast | Waste not | Water – the poor’s priority | Atomic power

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Freshwater, 1998

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Freshwater wetlands
Mangroves and estuaries