For Bringing Safe, Clean Water to Slums in Sub-Saharan Africa, Market-Based Strategies Are Not the Answer

Privatization, small-scale water distribution, and community-managed water projects have failed to affordably bring clean water to underserved communities.
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Policies such as privatization and small-scale private distribution have failed to increase access to clean water and sanitation in Sub-Saharan African slums. It's time for African governments to start investing in public water infrastructure.

Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, is infamous for its 'flying toilets' -- plastic bags filled with human waste that are flung into the streets, occasionally hitting passersby. Without waste management and sanitation systems, human excrement and garbage accumulates in fetid ditches along roads, eventually seeping into water supplies. The consequences are dire: in Africa, more than 1.5 million children die of waterborne disease each year, in part due to poor waste management.

In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) more than 200 million people, about 60 percent of the urban population, live in slums that lack adequate access to clean water and sanitation. And with 5 million people worldwide moving to cities each month, providing basic services and infrastructure to residents of rapidly growing informal urban settlements is an urgent challenge for policy makers.

For 30 years, SSA governments have been trying to solve this problem. Unlike most of Europe and the United States, efforts to improve water access in SSA's slums have largely relied on privatization. This is part of a long-standing trend among developing nations toward water privatization, the transfer of control over water resources from the public to the private sector.

Influenced by international financial institutions like the World Bank that provide policy-conditional loans, governments have started giving water contracts to corporations. Privatization appeals to underfunded governments because it allows them to reduce public spending on infrastructure. Consequentially, 65 percent of SSA countries have privatized some of their urban water and sanitation services since the late 1980s.

A 2011 study by Hulya Dagdeviren and Simon Robertson of the University of Hertfordshire makes clear that this sharp turn toward water privatization has largely been a failure. More than 70 percent of the water contracts between governments and private operators in SSA have been cancelled or not renewed. This is largely because private companies haven't met government goals of providing clean and affordable water. Furthermore, since low-income households can't afford the high fees that companies charge for water, most private utilities never manage to recover their investment costs.

A closer look at the issue reveals why private companies have been so unsuccessful at improving water quality and access in the slums of SSA. First, without massive capital investments, it's technically difficult to establish water and sanitation networks in sprawling squatter settlements that lack basic infrastructure. Also, the law usually doesn't require private utilities to provide water and sanitation services to residents without land tenure. Thus, water privatization projects in SSA bypass most of the population living in informal urban settlements.

The failure of private water is a daily challenge for many in urban SSA. With state-sponsored privatization doing little for squatter communities, illegal small-scale private water providers, such as water vendors, provide 50 percent of urban Africa with its water. In Kibera, women and children spend one to four hours a day locating a water vendor, waiting in line, and carrying the water home. When there is a shortage, women can spend all day looking for water.

Due to political exclusion, poor infrastructure, and the control of water by local gangs and cartels that collude to raise prices, Kibera households spend up to 20 percent of their income on water. This is 10-20 times more than what wealthier residents in Nairobi pay. What's more, Kiberans are paying top dollar for dirty water. Vendors pipe water through "spaghetti networks" of dirty, broken pipes that let in sewage, so that water that was once safe comes out contaminated.

Community-managed projects are another commercial strategy to bring water to slums. Community organizations in SSA often partner with international organizations that provide resources to create community water infrastructure. For instance, in Kibera, the local NGO Maji na Ufanisi ("Water and Development") has teamed up with UN-Habitat to build community-based water, sanitation, and waste management infrastructure. While this may sound great, community-based water services in the slums are often expensive, exclusionary, and discriminatory. In Kibera, social hierarchies and ethnic tensions, especially between the original Nubian community and migrant ethnic groups, enable the most powerful voices in the community to monopolize decision-making and choose who will have access to water.

Privatization, small-scale water distribution, and community-managed water projects have failed to affordably bring clean water to underserved communities. But if none of these strategies are working, what is the solution to improving water access in SSA's slums?

Dagdeviren and Robertson recommend that African governments start investing in public water and sanitation systems. While governments don't have a shining history of developing the slums, diminishing the regulatory and spending powers of governments won't solve these massive infrastructure problems. Sure, the road to providing Africa's slums with clean, affordable water and sanitation won't be easy. Many African governments currently lack sufficient financial resources, institutional capacity, and public accountability. The vested interests of illegal third-party water cartels will also be a significant obstacle. Thus, the researchers suggest that government investment in water and sanitation be combined with institutional and democratic reforms, such as anti-corruption legislation and socially conscious public spending, for the residents of slums like Kibera to get the clean water they deserve.