UN-Habitat launches water and sanitation in the world's cities: Local action for global goals

Waking Up to Realities of Water and Sanitation Problems of Urban Poor

(Reissued as received.)

OSAKA/NAIROBI, 19 March (UN-HABITAT) - Water and sanitation services -- a major theme of the third World Water Forum -- are much worse in urban areas than previously thought, says a new report by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), released today at the third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan.

The United Nations Millennium Goal of halving the number of people without adequate water and sanitation cannot be met without a major paradigm shift toward urban sanitation says the report, Water and Sanitation in the World's Cities: Local Action for Global Goals.

"Half the world's population -- 3 billion people -- live in urban areas", says Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT. "Among them, almost 1 billion are desperately poor and live in slums without even the most basic services like sustainable sanitation. However, the development community continues to focus on sanitation needs as though only rural areas are in need of them". The lion's share of development aid for sanitation goes to rural areas, while developing world cities are home to the majority of poor sanitation-related death and disease.

In 1950, only 29.8 per cent of the world lived in urban areas, but by 2010, 51.5 per cent will live in cities. The trend toward urban living is particularly acute in developing countries. The urban population in Africa will jump from 14.7 per cent in 1950 to 42.7 per cent by 2010. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the urban population will increase from 41.9 per cent to 79 per cent during the same time period.

Official national statistics often disguise the real problem of the poor in cities and towns. Most existing surveys presume that the urban poor are better served than the rural poor with 'improved' provision of water and sanitation. Using such general criteria, the statistics report that 94 per cent of all urban populations have improved water provision and 84 per cent have improved sanitation.

However, city level data of 43 African cities shows that 83 per cent of the population lacks toilets that are connected to sewers. This statistic is 55 per cent for the large cities of Asia. In Mahira, a section of the Haruma slum in Nairobi, there is one toilet with 10 units and two bathrooms for a settlement of 332 households or 1500 inhabitants. A 1998 survey of 7512 slum households in Ahmedabad, India found that 80 per cent had no water connections and 93 per cent had to rely on unclean and dirty communal toilets.

These individual city studies indicate that if national assessments are widened to measure the proportion with access to safe water and those with access to clean toilet facilities, the number of urban dwellers who are in adequately serviced is much higher than officially acknowledged.

In Africa, as many as 150 million urban residents representing up to 50 per cent of the urban population do not have adequate water supplies, while 180 million, or roughly 60 per cent of people in urban areas lack adequate sanitation. In urban Asia, 700 million people, constituting half the population, do not have adequate water, while 800 million people, or 60 per cent of the urban population is without adequate sanitation. For Latin America and the Caribbean, 120 million urban dwellers, representing 30 per cent of the urban population, lack adequate water. Those without adequate sanitation number as many as 150 million, or 40 per cent of the urban population.

A Public Health and Economic Tragedy

Each year, more than 2.2 million people die from water and sanitation related diseases, many of whom are children. However, a disproportionate number of people are affected by these diseases in cities than in rural areas due to the high population concentration and accompanying concentration of human and other waste. In fact, child mortality rates in cities without proper provision of sanitation are 10 to 20 times higher than those in cities with adequate sanitation.

The lack of sanitation and access to water in developing cities is far from the only problem. Affordable water is also a major problem. The more than half of the urban poor in some countries that are denied access to municipal water supplies are dependent on private vendors. These people can pay up to 20 times more for water than their neighbours. In extreme cases, some communities living on less than $1 per day pay as much as five to seven times the price paid by an average United States citizen for a bottle of water.

The lack of clean water and sanitation impacts directly on labor productivity. In 1991 when Peru suffered a cholera epidemic, apart from the thousands of deaths there was a devastating economic impact. The Peruvian economy lost $28 million from cancelled exports and $147 million from loss of tourist earnings, not to mention the additional costs of patient care and the loss of income to those employed in the informal sector. The net loss to the Peruvian economy was around $2332 million in just one year.

A Historical Failure

Despite these dramatic figures in developing world cities and the extraordinarily poor condition of sanitation services there, only between two and 12 per cent of sanitation-related foreign aid is spent on urban sanitation.

"It is one thing for a government to say it provides improved or adequate water to a household in a rural area because there is a communal water standpipe and toilet within 100 meters of each home and quite another to use the same criteria for urban residents", says Mrs. Tibaijuka. "In rural areas, only a handful of people compete for access, whereas in a crowded city, hundreds use the same water source and toilet."

If increased investment is critical, even more critical is the urgent need to find more successful mechanisms for providing the poor with water and sanitation. It is interesting to note that in the 1980s, corruption and poor governance were the major reasons cited by most aid agencies and development banks for withdrawing from large-scale capital projects in urban areas in the developing world. At the same time, multinational companies and bankers tend to look for large-scale investments with values of $ 100 million or more that will service more than a million residents. This means they consider smaller projects aimed at servicing specific neighbourhoods and communities of the urban poor as unbankable.

The Way Forward: Local Action for Global Goals

Many local authorities still underestimate the importance of inclusive practices of good governance in prioritizing the delivery of services to the urban poor. However, UN-HABITAT's experience shows that successful water demand management at the level of the local authority can reap benefits for the whole community. For example, in many African cities, where up to 50 per cent of the urban water supply is either being wasted through leakages or is otherwise unaccounted for, UN-HABITAT's programme Water for African Cities is establishing an effective demand management strategy to encourage efficient water use by domestic users, industry and public institutions. Some cities already show reduced water consumption by 35 per cent.

At the same time, there are many well-documented case studies that show, if local governments allow community based organizations, especially those representing the urban poor, a greater role in determining policies and projects, it is quite possible to improve the living conditions of the urban poor. The report Water and Sanitation in the World's Cities documents many of these case studies. It argues that public-private partnerships that prioritize small-scale community level investments are a cost effective way to solve the immediate problems of the urban poor. At the same time, effective demand management strategies can provide considerable water savings while increasing the income of the local authority. This enables municipalities to use various pricing policies and regulatory measures to meet the urgent needs of the urban poor.

"We must wake up to the realities of the urban age; the international community has set the targets, but if we are to meet this challenge then we must be prepared to look at everything anew", said Mrs. Tibaijuka. "We must reassess our statistics; we must look at our policies again and ask why we have failed in the past; we must innovate new strategies of meeting global goals through local action; we must invest more funds in urban infrastructure. Most of all, in this urban millennium, we must wake up to the fact that one of the greatest challenges of this century is the urbanization of poverty."

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