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Water for the urban poor and Covid-19

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Summary Water, sanitation and hygiene are vital for the suppression and treatment of Covid-19. To maintain and increase access to water for the urban poor and other groups during the crisis, eleven African governments have announced various forms of free water. This includes governments paying users bills in some contexts (e.g. Ghana) and provision of water for vulnerable communities and informal settlements in others (e.g. Kenya). Development partners are also supporting new water sources for poor communities, for example, the World Bank is supporting 20 new water points in DRC supplied by water from utility owned tankers.

Water utility companies, hereafter utilities, may be unable to recover costs through user tariffs during Covid-19, which could have implications for their financial sustainability. Decreasing revenues during emergency/crisis situations can increase utilities’ reliance on government and donor funding. For example, low-cost recovery by utilities in the Middle East and North Africa during protracted crises since 2011 has increased dependence on international funding.

Poor service provision prior to and during a crisis can impact customers’ willingness to pay for water, further reducing utilities revenues and creating a vicious cycle. In 2018, the City of Cape Town (CCT) tried to introduce a drought levy, which was rejected by the public, to cover some of the additional costs and fall in revenue as a result of the 2018 ‘Day Zero’ crisis. Instead the CCT have increased tariffs threefold and restricted ‘free basic water’ to certain households.

Appropriate tariff structures can support both poor people’s access to water, through pro-poor policies and a focus on affordability, and the financial viability of utilities. Social or lifeline tariffs are a common feature of utilities service provision to the urban poor. However, they are usually cross-subsidised through higher tariffs for other users, including commercial users. Covid-19 may reduce the amount of water used by commercial customers and therefore decrease revenues. Covid-19 may increase domestic water demand in contexts where cities are already suffering from water insecurity. For example, in 2018, rainfall deficits shrank the Loka Reservoir, which supplies 70% of Bouake’s (Ivory Coast) water (Niasse & Varis, 2020).

Government responses including digging 44 new boreholes may not be effective in a context of a declining groundwater table. Covid-19 measures including quarantines and social isolation as well as the promotion of increased hand-washing could increase domestic water demand as people are at home more. Opening up new water supply solutions to meet demand during Chennai’s (India) 2019 ‘Day Zero’ crisis diverted water from poor, rural farming communities on the city’s outskirts.

Free water, or waiving payment of social tariff amounts may not necessarily benefit the poorest. In Ghana, the lifeline tariff can benefit richer households which have their own meter, in comparison to poor households who live in compounds and share a meter, easily exceeding the 5,000 litre lifeline consumption (Mosello, 2017).

Utilities are vital for urban water service provision, but they do not necessarily reach the poorest. For example, in Nairobi, Kenya only 35.9% of informal settlement residents have access to in-house or plot connections. The poorest often rely on a range of water sources including private vendors, packaged water and storing water at home. However, the reality of utility water access is more complex than statistics suggests due to informal connections and vendors who resell utility water at higher prices. Estimating urban water access is also multifaceted as access and households having water security are not necessarily the same.

Direct provision of water to informal settlements and the poorest, as well as measures to extend access through the utility are likely to include a range of measures. Typically, emergency water responses in urban areas include water trucks, water storage tanks, digging additional boreholes, urgent water infrastructure repairs and community mobilisation to address utilities’ embedded vulnerabilities. Utilities could open-up more standpipes and kiosks, reconnect customers who were disconnected due to non-payment of bills, and subside new household or plot connections.

Utility water is often cheaper than water accessed through informal water markets. For example, informal traders in Dhaka, Bangladesh charge 15-20 times the rate charged by the utility (GSMA, 2019). Utilities often have low-income customer units, which focus on the needs of poorer customers, and in some areas already work with community-based organisations and water user associations to provide water to the poorest. These efforts could be scaled-up.

Practical measures that could support water availability for the urban poor in light of Covid-19 could include:

  • Opening up additional pre-pay sources: pre-pay solutions such as smart cards, vouchers and tokens can help poor households to manage water spending, and could also reduce human contact, supporting social distancing during Covid-19. In Dhaka, Drinkwell water ATMs have issued vendors with personal protective equipment (PPE), installed hand-washing stations and social distancing ground marks. These types of solutions could be paired with social safety net transfers.

  • Subsidising the price of utility water from communal access points: In Kampala, the utility is opening up an additional 100 public waterpoints, with water charged at the public tap tariff. This tariff is cheaper than the household water tariff and cheaper than private vendors.

  • Working with private sector providers: small-scale vendors and informal water markets often fill gaps in utility service provision. Utilities could work with these providers to supply water at regulated prices. There is growing interest from humanitarian actors in supporting market-based water responses in urban crises. This includes social protection mechanisms such as vouchers that can be exchanged for water or hygiene items.

  • Digitise payments: Digital payments can reduce human contact, help poor customers to manage their water payments and use, and increase revenue collection for utilities. The Lilongwe Water Board in Malawi is emphasising digital payments in its social media campaigns, and some mobile operators are waiving transaction fees or adopting other measures to facilitate mobile money use and adoption in light of Covid-19.

  • Fixing leaks to increase water supply: Between 2012 and 2015, JIRAMA, Madagascar’s state utility was able to increase the amount of water supplied by 12 million cubic metres through tackling both leaks and commercial losses.

Covid-19 government restrictions, such as quarantines, could affect access to water. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, several maintenance routines were stopped and water trucks’ access to informal settlements and other areas was limited as nearly 50% of Freetown was placed under quarantine (TKG, 2016).

There have been a number of calls to ‘build back better’ in light of Covid-19. Extending sustainable water access to the urban poor during Covid-19 could help cities to ‘more equitably withstand the next crisis’. In 2015, the Freetown and Liberia WASH Consortiums4 argued that major investment was needed in safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to limit the spread of Ebola and ensure preparedness for any future outbreak (Oxfam, 2015). A lack of WASH, including in informal settlements, was also identified as a factor hindering recovery and development in the medium to long-term in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia (ACAPS, 2015).

This rapid literature review focuses on literature from the last 10 years including both grey literature such as reports from the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, and academic literature from peer reviewed journals. As the response to Covid-19 is currently unfolding this paper draws on examples from urban water responses to crises in low and middle income countries, as well as work related to affordable water access for the poor.