Glass half empty? Urban water poverty halfway through

Glass half empty? Urban water poverty halfway through
the Decade of Water for Life
Access to clean water is a basic right denied to
millions of people living in cities across the world.
In 2000 the United Nations included targets to reduce
by half the proportion of people without access to safe
water and sanitation in the Millennium Development Goals
(MDGs), and in 2005 it launched the Decade of Water for
Life. We are now halfway through that decade and five
years away from the 2015 deadline set by the MDGs,
prompting the UCL research community to reflect on
our contribution to better understanding and solving the
problem of urban water poverty.
UCL is uniquely positioned to contribute to debates
around urban water poverty through the Grand Challenge
Public panel discussion
25 May 2010
Urban water poverty has its roots not in water scarcity but
in social inequity, panellists said at a UCL public event in
May 2010.
Dr Sarah Bell (UCL Civil, Geomatic & Environmental
Engineering) opened the discussion, ‘Glass Half Empty?
Urban water poverty in 2010’, by setting urban water
poverty in the context of a variety of internationally agreed
aims, including:
• to reduce by half the proportion of people without
sustainable access to safe drinking water
• to reduce by half the proportion of people without
sustainable access to basic sanitation
• to achieve significant improvement in lives of at least
100 million slum dwellers
• to provide reliable access to at least 20 litres of safe
drinking water per member of a household per day, less
than one kilometre away from its place of use
• to provide lowest-cost technology ensuring hygienic
sewage disposal, along with safety and privacy in the
use of these services.
Between 1990 and 2009, there had been a reduction in
the proportion of the world’s population without access to
safe water (from 23% to 13%) and sanitation (from 51% to
37%), yet 884 million people still lack access to improved
water supply and 2.5 billion people still lack access to
improved sanitation.
Adriana Allen (UCL Development Planning Unit) then
stressed the urban nature of the problem: every day,
180,000 more people are added to the world’s urban
population. One-sixth of the world’s population lives in
slums or squatter settlements, most without access to
of Sustainable Cities, which provides a focus for our
interdisciplinary work. Our staff and students come from all
over the world and we work with partners in universities,
development agencies, governments, NGOs and industry
in many different sectors and countries. We are commited
to using our collective expertise to address the world’s
major problems.
In 2010 the Urban Water Poverty project convened two
events through the Grand Challenge of Sustainable Cities:
a public panel discussion and an expert symposium. These
are described below.
A range of perspectives will also be published in a special
issue of the ‘Journal of Urban Sustainable Development’.
adequate water and sanitation and at risk of being evicted.
The urban poor often spend up to 25% of their income on
Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, commendable progress
has been made in terms of establishing concrete targets,
in placing an emphasis on cities and in recognising the
role of local authorities in bringing about change. However,
little progress was made up to the new millennium in
establishing specific targets for water-related services
and in ensuring universal access to at least 40 litres of
safe water per day and 75% of people having onsite or
community sanitation.
Traditional conceptions of professional service planning
and delivery in the public domain are outdated, whether
the professional is working in a monolithic bureaucracy,
an arms-length agency or an outsourced unit, and need
to be revised to account for the potential of co-production
by users and communities. What is needed is a new
public service ethos or compact, in which a central role
of professionals is to support, encourage and coordinate
the co-production capabilities of service users, and the
communities in which they live.
Dr Richard Taylor (UCL Geography) focused on
low-income cities in sub-Saharan Africa, where diarrhoea
is the leading cause of childhood morbidity (4 billion
cases) and death (1.8 million) annually, most of which
are attributed to inadequate water and sanitation. Most
commonly, urban water infrastructure in Africa had been
built to serve a city’s colonial community; it had not been
intended, nor is able to adapt to, current rates of population
growth. He finished by posing the dilemma of whether to
concentrate on big networks of piped water and sewerage
or to focus on managing water and sanitation at the local
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Professor Sir Michael Marmot (UCL International Institute
for Society & Health) presented a health equity perspective
on urban water poverty, focusing on health, social justice
and sustainability. Creating the conditions for people to
take control of their lives – through social justice and
empowerment at the material, psychosocial and political
levels – was key to improving health.
He cited a slum upgrading programme in India, led by
community organisations and supported by both private
and public contributions, that had resulted in: a decline
in waterborne diseases; increased school attendance by
children; and a rise in women’s employment, since they no
longer had to stand in long lines to collect water. The cost
of slum upgrading globally had been estimated at less than
US$100 billion; relative to, for example, bank bailouts, this
was a modest investment that would have profound results.
Timeyin Uwejamomere, WaterAid UK’s Senior Policy
Analyst (Urban), noted that the increase in the use of
improved drinking water sources had barely kept up with
urban population growth. He highlighted necessary policy
changes, such as:
• in international development – to prioritise urbanisation
in policy dialogue with donor recipient governments
• in national development – to put sanitation and water at
the centre of housing and urban development processes
• in urban authorities and utilities – to facilitate
citizen-centred governance of water and sanitation
processes, and to accelerate subsidised connections
and targeted, affordable services to the urban poor.
He called for researchers to:
• advise on what the Department for International
Development needs to do to bring urbanisation into the
development policy agenda
• develop research indicators and capture disaggregated
data on urban poverty and sanitation, central to housing
and urban development
• identify the drivers of change in the urban context and
appropriate policy responses
• differentiate the health and poverty impacts of water and
sanitation between rural and urban areas.
Dr Bell noted that governance and equity were common
themes running through all four speakers’ presentations,
along with infrastructure, whether big (city-wide) or small
Sir Michael noted that one of the consistent themes
identified by the Commission on the Social Determinant
of Health was the need for evidence-based policy. He
cited a notable municipal public health initiative in 19th
century Britain. Wealthy industrialists in the Victorian era
played an important role in the development of city-wide
infrastructures for water supply and sanitation.
He cited Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914), the successful
Liberal Party candidate for Mayor of Birmingham, rigorously
addressing the outgoing Conservative administration’s
neglect of public works. The city’s water supply was
considered a danger to public health – about half of
Birmingham’s population was dependent upon well water,
much of which was polluted with sewage. Chamberlain
municipalised the city’s water supply, using his personal
wealth to fund development of Birmingham’s infrastructures
for water and gas. For him, the return he expected on his
investment was the health of the population, on whom he
depended for the success of his nationally and globally
important manufacturing industry businesses. Sir Michael
noted the British historian Tony Judt’s recently published
book, ‘Ill Fares the Land’, in which Judt challenges the
‘Washington Consensus’ that has held sway through the
first years of the 21st century – expounding the virtues
of deregulation, a minimal state and low taxation. Water,
however, Sir Michael pointed out, is a public good, and the
sustainability of supply systems relates to the organisation
of society. Individual solutions, he argued, would not
adequately address the crisis of water poverty.
Adriana Allen saw the need for both big and small water
and sanitation infrastructures. She highlighted land
tenure and security issues, the need to start with urban
interventions and incremental service provision, for which
governments needed to take responsibility. She highlighted
community-level initiatives in Caracas, Venezuela, through
which the government has prioritised investment in water
supply systems where the need is greatest. The initiative
depends on responsible citizenship, being predicated on
the idea that the community that gets organised is the
community that gets results.
Dr Taylor considered that critical population densities had
to be the trigger for big centralised water supply schemes.
There had been too many small-scale solutions in big
cities. The piped network in many sub-Saharan African
cities, like Nairobi, Kampala and Lusaka, had been built for
the needs of small colonial administrations.
Timeyin Uwojamomere highlighted the challenge of
governance issues in Africa. Not all failed or failing city
water supply systems could be attributed to inadequate
colonial legacies. Nigeria’s federal administrative capital
Abuja, established in 1991 for a planned population of
250,000, now has a million residents; it has been beset
with water supply problems. He noted Uganda’s national
water and sewerage utility as an example of good practice
in the larger urban centres of the country.
Expert symposium
10 June 2010
The expert symposium, ‘Glass half empty? Urban water
poverty halfway through the Decade of Water for Life’,
was chaired by Adriana Allen and hosted by the UCL
Development Planning Unit (DPU) in June 2010.
Presenters and discussants came from eight UCL
departments, and external organisations including
WaterAid, Birkbeck and the London School of Hygiene
and Tropical Medicine. A total of 11 presentations were
delivered under four themes:
• sustainable resource management
• dealing with water pollution
• water, access and equity
• water, power and society.
Adriana Allen opened the symposium by presenting three
key aims:
• to bring together the UCL community in a new way
around the important issue of urban water poverty
• to test how well our research is informing progress
towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
• to better define what is meant by the concept of ‘urban
water poverty’ in light of rapid global urbanisation.
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sustainable resource management
‘Water Scarcity in Cyprus’ – Dr Anastasia Sofroniou
(Intercollege Cyprus and University of Nicosia) presented
a paper co-authored with Professor Steven Bishop (UCL
Mathematics) outlining the problems of water scarcity
in Cyprus, which has a growing population and limited
resources. This results in desperate water shortages
during periods of drought, such as was experienced in
2008 when water was imported using tankers from Greece.
Water scarcity in Cyprus is strongly linked agriculture,
which uses 66% of the country’s water but only contributes
3% of its GDP. Policies to address water scarcity include
implementing desalination, reducing demand from irrigation
and households, increasing water charges and increasing
non-potable water recycling. More radical realignment
of the use of water resources away from agriculture to
more economically productive activities seem unlikely
given the cultural significance of agriculture in this small
Mediterranean country.
‘Tackling Water Shortage by Using Solvent Extraction
for Efficient Desalination’ – Dr Kary Thanapalan
(University of Southampton) presented a paper
co-authored by Dr Vivek Dua (UCL Chemical Engineering)
on the possibilities of using solvent extraction for efficient
desalination. Desalination has been considered a
high-cost, energy-intensive technology for addressing water
shortages. Developments in solvent-extraction techniques
provide opportunities for reducing energy consumption.
Models developed by UCL Chemical Engineering have
been used to optimise the efficiency of these methods.
‘The Role of Urban Agriculture within the Urban
Metabolism – A critical perspective’ – Dr Robert Biel
(UCL Development Planning Unit) linked the role of water
in cities to urban agriculture and the urban metabolism.
He pointed out that water poverty is not the same as water
scarcity, as many people live in cities that have abundant
water resources and yet are unable to meet their basic
needs for water. Food is effectively embodied water, and
we consume roughly the equivalent of one litre of water for
each calorie of food we eat. Increasing urban agriculture,
particularly using organic techniques, has the potential to
create more sustainable, local cycles of food production
and consumption, with water being an important input and
medium of transmission of nutrients. A diverse approach
to implementing agriculture in the city should include
measures to conserve water and use it efficiently, as
demonstrated by leading urban agriculturalist Will Allen
from Milwaukee.
Discussion – Dr Ben Page (UCL Geography) drew
attention to the importance of social equity in sustainable
development. Sustainability for many has become a
synonym for resource efficiency, neglecting the importance
of political and social relationships in determining
sustainable outcomes. This is particularly important for
discussions of water poverty because lack of access to
safe water in cities is rarely due to an absolute shortage of
water but is usually the result of political and institutional
arrangements that are unable to meet the needs of the
urban poor.
Dealing with water pollution
‘Groundwater Quality Trends in Dhaka, Bangladesh:
Sources of contamination evaluated using modelling
and environmental isotopes’ – Dr William Burgess (UCL
Earth Sciences) presented a paper on behalf of co-authors
relating to their work on trends in groundwater pollution
in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Dhaka is a megacity which relies
on groundwater for 85% of its water supply. Industrial
pollution of rivers is the most likely source of contamination
of groundwater resources, which could threaten the safety
of water in Dhaka. Dr Burgess and colleagues recommend
increasing monitoring of groundwater, prioritising the
clean-up of discharges to rivers, and developing a number
of peri-urban well fields and treatment works to protect the
urban water resource.
‘Arsenic Pollution of Urban Groundwaters in Lahore,
Pakistan’ – Dr Karen Hudson-Edwards (Birkbeck College)
presented on behalf of colleagues working on the
problems of arsenic contamination in Lahore, Pakistan.
The origins of arsenic pollution are most likely to be natural,
hydrogeological processes, causing levels of contamination
that may be harmful to human health.
‘Sustainable Water Treatment’ – Yuji Suzuki (UCL
Electronic & Electrical Engineering and London Centre for
Nanotechnology) presented novel technologies for water
treatment. Zinc oxide nanoparticles can be engineered
to improve the absorption of solar radiation, leading to
improved water purification. These particles have the
potential to reduce the cost of water treatment, leading to
more efficient and affordable technologies. However, the
widespread application of such technologies in developing
countries may be limited by costs of intellectual property
associated with the development of high-technology
Discussion – Dr Sarah Bell (UCL Civil, Geomatic &
Environmental Engineering) highlighted water pollution
as a classic problem of sustainable development – linking
economic development, good governance, the health of the
environment and the consequences for the world’s poorest
people. The importance of North–South collaboration
was demonstrated in the papers by Hudson-Edwards and
Burgess, though opportunities for such collaboration in the
field of nanotechnology seem limited by issue of intellectual
property rights and funding.
Water, access and equity
‘Disparities in Peri-Urban Water Quality in Kisumu,
Kenya’ – Dr Richard Rheingans (London School of
Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Rollins School of Public
Health) highlighted that an ‘improved’ water source is not
necessarily a ‘safe’ water source, which is an important
distinction in measure of water access and the success
of water policy. A detailed study of the settlement of
Kisumu, Kenya, investigated the mechanisms of exposure
of people to contaminated water and the relationship
between behavioural, socio-economic and environmental
factors in determining exposure to contaminated water and
health outcomes. The study showed there were significant
disparities in exposure to contaminated water despite
near universal provision of ‘improved’ water sources, and
differences in behaviour related to water and health based
on household characteristics.
‘Moving towards Adequate Access to Water through
Active Involvement of the Peri-Urban Poor’ – Pascale
Hofmann (UCL Development Planning Unit) presented
a paper based on work done with colleagues on water
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poverty in peri-urban communities. She again highlighted
the need to distinguish between access to an ‘improved’
water source – which is reported against the MSGs and
other policy targets – and adequate access, which requires
regularity, sufficiency, affordability and quality of supply,
all within a particular context of the urban community. The
UCL Development Planning Unit ‘water wheel’ has become
a useful emblem for the different approaches to addressing
water poverty and the different elements that contribute
to meeting the needs of urban communities. The ‘water
wheel’ distinguishes between policy- and needs-driven
approaches, and underpins a general philosophy of starting
with the existing efforts of communities to meet their needs,
rather than a policy-driven agenda, which may reflect wider
ideological or political agendas.
Discussion – Timeyin Uwejamomere, WaterAid UK’s
Senior Policy Analyst (Urban), highlighted the challenges
presented by the use of different definitions in the
WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water
Supply & Sanitation and country-progress reporting as
indicated by both Rheingans and Hofmann. He identified
three areas for improvement in data standardisation and
• coverage, access and use
• institutional overlaps and collaboration
• monitoring methodology and framework.
He argued that the water crisis facing developing-country
slums is not one of scarcity but inequality, fuelled by the
absence of any meaningful participation of the citizens in
decision-making processes and a lack of ambition in the
international development community to achieve significant
improvements in the lives of slum dwellers.
Water, power and society
‘We are Buyers, not Beggars: Mobilising for water in
middle-class Chennai’ – Dr Pushpa Arabindoo focused on
communal water tanks that are traditionally associated with
Hindu temples, and provide a potentially valuable source
of water during periods of shortage. A project to restore
one particular water tank demonstrated the persistence of
class divisions within neighbourhoods. Although initiated as
a middle-class environmental action, the restoration of the
water tank was largely undertaken by poorer residents who
are more dependent on communal water facilities.
‘Emergent Morphology: How actors network feed
the assembly of space in a squatter settlement in
Mumbai’ – Reid Cooper (UCL Development Planning Unit)
addressed the relationships between basic elements of the
urban environment – such as pipe networks, water sellers,
urban layout and local politics – which determine patterns
of access to water. His analysis of urban morphology,
infrastructure networks and networks of power in the
Ganesh Murthy Nagar slum, Mumbai, showed how a
particular configuration of pipes, related to the physical
layout of the settlement, enabled corrupt practices to
become embedded in the provision of water to residents,
further undermining the living conditions of the poor.
‘Toilets, Design and Water Poverty’ – Dr Barbara Penner
addressed the twin concern of water provision: sanitation.
Toilets inscribe social categories, norms and practices.
Debates about public toilets, including their planning and
design, provide interesting insights into gender, class and
other politics. This was exemplified by Dr Penner’s study
of the controversy regarding the provision of a female
public toilet in Camden Town between 1900 and 1905. Her
presentation went on to show how models of sanitation and
toilet design became effectively fixed in the 19th century, in
part because designers have embraced toilets and modern
plumbing as icons of hygiene and cleanliness rather than
approaching sanitation as a design problem. Innovations
in toilet design, such as the female urinals found at music
festivals, provide opportunities to explore different social
and political arrangements for sanitation, as well as
addressing the practical problem of safe and equitable
access to sanitation.
Discussion – Caren Levy (UCL Development Planning
Unit) noted that water in cities can encourage cooperation
within urban communities, but it can also entrench
vertical power relationships based on class, gender, age,
religion or other categories. These relationships, and
the infrastructures and technologies of water, become
embedded in urban form and can be perpetuated by
policy-driven responses to the problem of water poverty.
Science, policy and society are all important influences on
the built environment and the experience of urban water
poverty. Water poverty is rarely a result of absolute water
scarcity. Universal access to ‘improved’ water sources
is a necessary but insufficient step to alleviating water
poverty and ensuring good public-health outcomes. Water
poverty is often the outcome of failed governance of
water infrastructure and urban settlements, and reflects
entrenched power relationships in urban communities
and cultures. Working to reduce global water poverty
includes a clearer understanding of the experience of
urban communities that lie beneath the policy targets and
statistical measures, as well as helping governments and
development agencies to develop better measures to
inform ongoing targets. Both research and policy need to
be more accountable to the urban poor to maintain focus
on the pressing need to address urban water poverty as a
central element of sustainable cities.
Academic leads
• Adriana Allen (UCL Development Planning Unit),
Co-Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory:
+44 (0)20 7679 5805;
• Dr Sarah Bell (UCL Civil, Geomatic & Environmental
Engineering), Co-Director of the UCL Environment
Institute: +44 (0)20 7679 7874;
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