Urban water crisis growing, finds new study

A Journal of People report

In 15 major cities in the global south, almost half of all households lack access to safe, reliable and affordable water, affecting more than 50 million people, finds a new study.

Access to piped utility water – safe, reliable and affordable water – is lowest in the cities of sub-Saharan Africa, where only 22% of households receive piped water.

The research finds:

Of those households that did have access, the majority received intermittent service, which results in contaminated water.

In Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan, the city’s population of 15 million people received an average piped water supply of only three days a week, for less than three hours.

The new analysis also illustrates that piped utility water is the least expensive option for most households. But reliability is crucial.

These new findings add to data from the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Aqueduct tool, which recently found that by 2030, 45 cities with populations over 3 million could experience high water stress.

The research, detailed in the Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Rethinking Urban Water Access in the Global South report shows that even in some places where water sources are available, water is not reaching many residents.

Cities like Dares Salaam have relatively abundant supplies, yet daily access to clean, reliable and affordable water continues to be problematic for many residents.

The study finds:

Alternatives to piped water, like buying from private providers that truck water in from elsewhere, can cost up to 25% of monthly household income and is 52 times more expensive than public tap water.

Private sector: Inadequate

The paper argues that decades of attempts to increase the private sector’s role in water provision and to corporatize water utilities have not adequately improved access – especially for the urban under-served – and have led to issues of affordability and regularity/reliability being ignored.

“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 The Global Development Institute at The University of Manchester. “Water is a human right and a social good, and cities need to prioritize it as such.”

Global indicators used for the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals have largely underestimated this urban water crisis because these do not take into account affordability, intermittency or quality of water.

The question of whether water is affordable is not measured and while efforts were 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.”

“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 World Health Organization (WHO) 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.

Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Urban Water Access in the Global South

In 2015, UNICEF and the WHO reported that over 90% of the world’s population used improved drinking water sources.

But new research suggests the indicators used by UNICEF/WHO grossly overestimated the state of water access, especially in cities of the global south.

The paper explores measures cities can take to ensure more equitable access to safe, reliable and affordable water, while facing down major trends affecting water access including population growth, degraded and depleted water sources, and climate change.

It highlights four key action areas for cities to improve water access:

  1. extend the formal piped water network,
  2. address context-specific causes of intermittent water service,
  3. pursue diverse strategies to make water affordable with special considerations for low-income consumers,
  4. support informal settlement upgrading.

This is the sixth thematic paper of WRI’s flagship World Resources Report (WRR), Towards a More Equal City, a series of 15 papers that examines if equitable access to core urban services can help achieve higher economic productivity and better environmental quality for the city.


  • Urban water provision is a social good, but one that will become increasingly difficult for cities and water utilities to provide due to climate change and population growth.
  • Widely used global data underestimate the urban water crisis, which contributes to ineffective planning and management. New analysis of 15 cities in the global south show that piped utility water is the least expensive option for most households, yet almost half of all households lack access.
  • Households without access to municipal water self-provide or purchase water from private sources, which costs up to 52 times as much as piped utility water. In 12 out of 15 cities analyzed, households connected to the municipal piped system received water intermittently, which compromises quality.
  • Decades of attempts to increase the private sector’s role in water provision and corporatize water utilities have not adequately improved access, especially for the urban under-served. Cities and urban change agents should commit to providing equitable access to safe, reliable, and affordable water.
  • Cities and water utilities should work together to extend the formal piped network, address intermittent water service, and make water more affordable. City governments should support strategies to upgrade informal settlements, which include improved access to water and sanitation services.

Rapid urbanization increasing pressure on rural water supplies globally

Another study found:

Sixty-nine cities with a population of 383 million people receive approximately 16 billion cubic meters of reallocated water per year – almost the annual flow of the Colorado River.

An international team of researchers carried out the first systematic global review of water reallocation from rural to urban regions – the practice of transferring water from rural areas to cities to meet demand from growing urban populations.

The study (Dustin Garrick, Lucia De Stefano, Winston Yu, Isabel Jorgensen, Erin O’Donnell, Laura Turley, Ismael Aguilar-Barajas, Xiaoping Dai, Renata de Souza Leão, Bharat Punjabi, Barbara Schreiner, Jesper Svensson, Charles Wight. Rural water for thirsty cities: a systematic review of water reallocation from rural to urban regions. Environmental Research Letters, 2019; 14 (4): 043003 DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab0db7 ), published in Environmental Research Letters, found North America and Asia are hotspots for rural-to-urban water reallocation, with the practice on the rise in Asia. Twenty-one cities rely on multiple water reallocation projects, such as Amman in Jordan and Hyderabad in India.

Since 1960, the global urban population has quadrupled, driving demand and increasing competition between cities and agriculture for water. With 2.5 billion, more urban dwellers expected by 2050, this trend is set to rise.

Even in the UK, where water is considered abundant, concerns about water shortages are prompting interest in water transfers, with Environment Agency Chief Sir James Bevan warning that England could run short of water in 25 years.

Climate change will further put pressure on water resources and regional decision-making around water reallocation, as highlighted by drought crises in Cape Town, Melbourne and Sao Paolo over the past decade.

The researchers observed that cities often hold the economic and political sway in water deals. When rural regions are not involved in the design, development and implementation of a reallocation project, reallocation can deepen inequality and foster resentment and resistance. The specter of dusty and deserted agricultural towns looms large since the iconic project that reallocated water from Owens Valley farmers to Los Angeles, California in the early 20th century. Flashpoints of conflict have emerged from Melbourne to Monterrey.

“Our research indicates that governance matters,” said lead author Dr Dustin Garrick, associate professor in environmental management at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. “Cities and rural regions need forums to negotiate deals, assuage conflicts, mitigate impacts and share the benefits from these projects.”

Historically, research on this topic has been limited. Professor Garrick assembled an international team with experts in key hotspots including China, India and Mexico, to review nearly 100 publications and establish a new global reallocation database.

“The global figures represent the tip of the iceberg — a lower-bound estimate,” he said. “Our review shows that we are woefully underestimating the size and scale, as well as the costs and benefits, of rural-to-urban water reallocation, due to major blind spots in the data, particularly where South America and Africa are concerned. These are the places where future water pressures are likely to be highest and our ability to track reallocation is most limited.” As a result, policies and investments are often made with limited evidence, say the researchers.

Professor Garrick and his colleagues’ analysis offers a first step to identify both the threats and key ingredients for successful water reallocation projects, which could help identify ‘win-win’ situations for both rural and urban communities in the future.

Contributing author Dr Lucia De Stefano, associate professor at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, added: “It is our hope that decision-makers can be better prepared to act on evidence, particularly before crises hit and the pressure for quick action can lead to rash decisions and avoidable risks.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s