Urban water crisis badly neglected

Posted: 18 March 2003

The United Nations' wish to halve the number of deaths from people having no access to clean water by 2015 is massively unrealistic, says David Satterwaite, an expert on urban settlements, in a new report for the UN.

Satterthwaite, who works at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), believes that the UN Millennium Goal to improve the quality of water in rural areas of the world, neglects the equal need to improve water supply in towns and cities. His report on Water and Sanitation in the World's Cities says that the problem is far worse in urban areas than official figures show: "Less than half the population in most urban centres in Africa, Asia and Latin America have piped water to their homes, and less than a third have good quality sanitation."

He estimates that perhaps 100 million urban dwellers have to defecate in open spaces or into waste paper or plastic bags, and that poor city folk are paying up to 50-times as much for their water as the better off, who receive heavily subsidized water into their homes.

Interviewed about the report, he said "Most official government statistics show that most urban people have good water and sanitation. Our puzzle has long been that pretty much every city and small urban centre I work with in Africa and Asia, and most in Latin America, has very poor provision, especially for low-income groups."

He added that the problem was particularly bad in "informal settlements" - such as shanty towns - where the very poorest live. "There are no sewers, few open drains, and most people rely on standpipes", he said. "It's common for there to be 1,000 people to each stand pipe."

'Flying toilets'

He said the UN's figures needed to be overhauled. "We reckon you have to multiply four or five times the number of people lacking in good quality sanitation according to the official statistics.

Satterthwaite emphasised that a lack of toilets was having an important impact on health in urban regions. "Possibly the most shocking thing we found was the number of urban dwellers who rely on open defecation," he said. "They have no toilet. What we found was, in many cities, there's even a popular term given to open defecation. "In many cities in Africa, it's known as "flying toilets", because you defecate in a plastic bag and then you throw it."

He said the purpose of the report was to highlight that the problems related to insufficient access to water and the necessary infrastructure were far greater than the UN has allowed for. "If we were to combine the health impacts of lousy water, lousy sanitation and lousy drainage, it's much bigger than just for water alone."

The report says the barriers to improved provision are not so much technical or financial but institutional and political. "It is difficult to see how improvements can be made and good quality provision extended to low income households without more competent city and municipal governments that work with and are accountable to their citizens."

Satterthwaite also emphasizes the need to root improvements in local realities, to adapt new approaches to local conditions, to listen to those in need and to get the best out of public, provitarte and community organisations.

On the positive side, he points out that the actual amount of water needed to solve urban needs is relatively small, compared to other uses. More remarkable than water scarce cities, he says, is the "number of cities that have increased their populations more than fifty fold in the last century and have still not run out of water."

"Water and Sanitation in the World's Cities, Local Action for Global Goals", is published for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and is available from Earthscan