For the Poor, Water Is Dirty Yet Costly,

For the Poor, Water Is Dirty Yet Costly, Study Finds


New York Times, August 8, 1999




UNITED NATIONS -- The poorest people in the world are paying many times more than their richer compatriots for the water they need to live, and are getting more than their share of deadly diseases because supplies are dangerously contaminated, an international panel of experts concluded last week.


The reason may be that the price of water is kept artificially low by government subsidies, making the water systems inefficient and unprofitable.


Such systems, then, simply bypass the poor, who in desperation turn to private water carriers. The private providers may charge up to 100 times the municipal rates for water of very dubious quality, in which diarrheal diseases and other infectious diseases thrive. The cheaper, subsidized water then flows to better, politically more influential neighborhoods.


"Invariably this results in inadequate services, with many of the rapidly growing poor neighborhoods going without municipal services," said a report published last week by the panel, the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, which is supported by U.N. agencies, a number of governments and the Ford Foundation.


Ismail Serageldin, a vice president of the World Bank and chairman of the water commission, said in an interview that in some cases the poorest families spend as much as 30 percent of their income on water. "Yet subsidies are defended in the name of the poor," he added. "This perverse situation has got to be tackled."


He suggested that an end to subsidies and a system of graduated fees use may be the solution. Under such a system, fees could be based on water use. "The poor always use less water than the rich," he said.


Water systems in developing countries are often inefficient, losing as much as 40 percent to 60 percent of available water in the process of providing municipal services and raising costs, Serageldin said. By contrast, he added, a city like Singapore, with well-maintained facilities, has a waste rate of only 8 percent.


The commission's report, the culmination of a year of research, compared prices of water in European cities with those in the developing world and found that in richer countries people generally paid many times more for piped water than what their middle-class or richer counterparts pay in poor countries.


Germans, for example, pay $2.16 for a cubic meter of water; in Ireland 61 cents. In Jakarta, Indonesia, the charge would be 9 cents, and in Pakistan, a city dweller, however rich, pays 6 cents to 10 cents per cubic meter. Good water services cannot be provided at those prices, Serageldin said, adding that cities in the third world may need to contract out parts of the system to private investors, including community development groups that have been springing up in many developing nations.


"There are a lot of creative ways of involving the community and the private sector," he said.


In Indonesia, one such project, called the Kampung Improvement Program, has helped people cover open drains for sanitation and install standpipes that each bring reasonably clean water to every three or four families. In Pakistan, the Orangi Pilot Project has reached 650,000 people in a poor neighborhood of Karachi, the largest city.


"People don't need a flush toilet in every home or a faucet in every room," Serageldin. "But with a standpipe for every three units, with adequate pit latrines and other forms of treatment, the services can be there and the health of the children can be maintained."


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