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Lack of Reliable and Affordable Water a Hidden Threat for Urban Households of the Global South

New research finds millions have access only a few hours a day, while others are forced to pay up to a quarter of monthly household income for private provision


While much attention has been focused on dramatic “day zero” moments in big cities like Cape Town and Chennai, at the household and family level, the tap runs dry much more often than previously thought. Vast segments of the urban population in the global south lack access to safe, reliable and affordable water for daily use, according to new research from WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. For these households, every day can be day zero.

The new research complements updates to WRI’s Aqueduct tool, which recently found that by 2030, 45 cities with populations over 3 million could experience high water stress. Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Rethinking Urban Water Access in the Global South shows that even in some places where water stress is low, water is not reaching many residents. Some cities, like Dar es Salaam, have relatively abundant supplies, even as many residents struggle to access water day-to-day.

To better understand how water access is affecting people and their livelihoods, WRI Ross Center collected new data from 15 cities in the global south. Researchers found that, on average, almost half of all households lacked access to piped utility water, affecting more than 50 million people. Access is lowest in the cities of sub-Saharan Africa, where only 22% of households receive piped water. The analysis also found that of those households that did have access, the majority received intermittent service, which compromises quality and affects human health. For example, in Karachi and Bengaluru, the average availability of piped water supply was three days a week for less than three hours.

“Decades of increasing the private sector’s role in water provision has not adequately improved access, especially for the urban under-served,” said Diana Mitlin, lead author, professor of global urbanism at Manchester University, and principal researcher for human settlements at the International Institute for Environment and Development. “Water is a human right and a social good, and cities need to prioritize it as such.”

WRI’s analysis showed that alternatives to piped water, like buying from private providers that truck water in from elsewhere, can cost up to 25% of monthly household income – five to eight times the World Health Organization recommended expenditure level.

Global indicators used for the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals have largely underestimated this urban water crisis because they do not take into account affordability, intermittency or quality of water. UNICEF and the World Health Organization reported in 2015 that more than 90% of the world’s population used improved drinking water sources. But “improved” encompasses such a wide variety of sources that it fails to reflect the reality for individuals and families in today’s rapidly growing cities. For example, of the 15 cities analyzed by WRI, only 3 had water networks with continuous pressure. The question of whether water is affordable is also not measured, which determines whether households can access and secure sufficient quantities of water. While efforts have been made to increase water coverage, public authorities have paid little attention to affordability issues.

“Cities need to rethink how they view equitable access to water,” said Victoria A. Beard, co-author, fellow at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, and professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University. “In many developing countries where urban residents lack access to safe, reliable and affordable water on a daily basis, these are the same countries that have made huge strides in guaranteeing universal access to primary education. Equitable access to water requires similar levels of political commitment. The solutions are not high tech. We know what needs to be done.”

The World Health Organization reports that investing in universal drinking water coverage in urban areas would cost $141 billion over five years. But total global economic losses from unsafe water and sanitation systems are estimated to be at least 10 times greater, at $260 billion per year during the same period.

What can cities do? Evidence suggests four specific actions can improve access for the urban under-served:

  1. Extend the municipal piped water system to all households or plots. Universal access to piped water requires governments to make substantial capital investments that the private sector has been unwilling to make due to its lack of confidence that adequate profits can be secured.
  2. Address intermittent water service to reduce contamination. Accurate and reliable metering, improved infrastructure maintenance (thus reducing water losses), access to sufficient financial resources, and more sophisticated water planning and management can all help ensure constant pressure in municipal networks.
  3. Implement diverse strategies to make water more affordable. Chilean and Colombian cities have used water subsidies targeted at low-income households, for example. And South Africa has implemented a free basic water policy where a minimum amount of water is provided to each household.
  4. Support city-wide, participatory, in situ upgrading of informal settlements. Improving rather than displacing informal settlements has improved water access for more households than any other approach. The Asian Coalition for Community Action, for example, supports more 476 city development funds to help improve informal settlements. A high priority for improving these settlements is making water and sanitation infrastructure more accessible.

“Without changes, the number of people receiving intermittent or poor-quality water will increase in the years ahead, due to rapid urbanization, increased water scarcity resulting from climate change, and a general underinvestment in water infrastructure,” said Ani Dasgupta, global director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “This will have huge costs for people and the economy. Cities must take actions now to guarantee all urban residents’ access to safe, reliable water in the future.”

The working paper is part of the World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City, a series of research papers and case studies examining whether providing equitable access to core urban services and infrastructure, like housing, water, sanitation, energy and transportation, leads to more economically productive and environmentally sustainable cities. For more information visit

About World Resources Institute
WRI is a global research organization that spans more than 50 countries, with offices in the United States, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and more. Our more than 550 experts and staff work closely with leaders to turn big ideas into action at the nexus of environment, economic opportunity and human well-being.

About WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities helps create accessible, equitable, healthy and resilient urban areas for people, businesses and the environment to thrive. Together with partners, it enables more connected, compact and coordinated cities. The Center expands the transport and urban development expertise of the EMBARQ network to catalyze innovative solutions in other sectors, including water, buildings, land use and energy. It combines the research excellence of WRI with 15 years of on-the-ground impact through a network of more than 250 experts working from Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Mexico and Turkey to make cities around the world better places to live. More information at

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