Water supply for the urban poor: bringing the utility into the discussion

As the Sustainable Development Goals call for universal access to drinking water, Akosua Boakye points at how water utilities in the cities of the Global South are caught in between the neo-liberal principles of economic efficiency and the equity imperative of providing services to the poorest.

Nyalenda, Kisumu (Credits Akosua Boakye)

As the population of cities in developing countries grows, the number of people without access to utility services, especially water and sanitation, also keeps growing. Since most of this population growth is happening in the urban low-income areas, the highest number of people without access to such services can be found in there. To help mitigate challenges related to access, development agenda such as the Drinking Water Decade (1981-1990), the Millennium development Goals (2000-2015) and more recently the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have made improving universal access to drinking water the core of their mission. Agenda, targets and policies that were set for the sector have helped throw more light on the needs of the poor in relation to water supply. However, socio-economic and legal characteristics of households in low-income areas as well as their geographical location make it difficult for water utilities to extend services to poor households in a fair, equal and sustainable manner. Discussions in academic literature have mainly pointed out the unequal access the poor in cities in the developing world are faced with. In fact reforms in the sector for a larger part of the 20th century have been geared towards ensuring equality in access. One of such is the Modern Infrastructural Ideal (MII) which prescribes a single and standardized service; in terms of the infrastructure, financial and organizational arrangements for all consumers across the different divides of the city. By the dictates of the MII any contrary form of service provisioning for the low-income areas results in unequal access. In line with this call, studies often with strong roots in urban political ecology often pointed out how and why formalized infrastructural networks are limited in the low-income areas and its implication on power and equity in cities. The plight of the poor features more prominently in these discussions.

Bringing in the utility

Water kiosk in Manyatta, Kisumu (Credits Akosua Boakye)

Meanwhile, reforms in the water sector, in line with neoliberalisation, saw public water utilities being transformed into private, business or commercial entities. Under such reforms, in as much as utilities are mandated to provide water for all people, they also become burdened with the responsibility of recovering the costs involved in delivering such services. To deal with the challenge of service provisioning to low-income areas without compromising their cost recovery principles, utilities are increasingly embracing the concept of ‘pro-poor’ water services. The concept entails a differentiation of services, by distinguishing the specific needs of low-income consumers from those of others – ‘normal’ – consumers. What service differentiation implies in actual practice is that instead of providing water on-premises or through individual connections, water supply in low-income areas is carried out through different infrastructural, institutional and financial arrangements. Infrastructural arrangements include water kiosks and shared or public standpipes. Specific organizational arrangements for low-income areas, that are different from how water supply is organized in the rest of the city, often entail the delegation of the more risky aspects of the supply to intermediaries, who then become responsible for ensuring that bills are paid on time, and vandalism and water theft are prevented. These technological and organizational arrangements come in combination with a specific financial system, one geared towards eliminating the non-payment of bills. This mostly takes the form of pre-payment by low-income consumers. In all, this service differentiation which separates low-income areas from the rest of the city allows the utility to shield itself against the financial and operational risks that water provision to these communities entails – which they attribute a larger percentage of vandalism and water theft and other illegal activities in these areas – by reducing non-revenue or unaccounted for water.

However, going by the definitions of equal/improved access as prescribed by the MII and more recently the Sustainable Development Goal (6.1.1) which defines improved access as on-premises access, service differentiation produces unequal or unimproved access to water. As critics argue, it is a strategy that prioritizes goals of economic or financial efficiency over those of equity and consumer protection. This critique is clearly aimed at those policymakers who emphasize the importance of cost recovery and entails a broader questioning of how the provisioning of basic services should be financed and of how these services should be distributed. Should the goal indeed be one of equality, providing the same service for all? Nevertheless it is also a critique that is often directed at those directly responsible for water provision, the employees of water utilities. They are the ones to negotiate and deal with the tensions stemming from having to combine neo-liberal principles with providing services to all. At the same time, with more than half of urban population living in low-income areas, water utilities are increasingly realising the potential of extending services to these communities. Making a call for attention to the water utility’s perspective in defining improved access worthwhile. For the most parts, instead of focusing on the actual practices of those responsible for providing the services, debates critical to the neo-liberalisation of water service provisioning focuses on principles. In these debates, the role of the service provider is interpreted as simply reinforcing or selling the neoliberal ideals. This reduces the tensions they face to “expressions of the contradictions inherent in neoliberalism itself” (Furlong et al., 2017).  Bringing the perspective of the water provider into debates on water access, will trigger an understanding of the complexities in urban water provisioning, especially within polarized cities and on how such complexities are managed in practice. Rather than interpreting the utility’s decisions on water supply in urban low-incomes areas as manifestations of neoliberal ideologies, an approach that acknowledges the complexities of such decisions, will put the debates beyond ‘institutional exigencies’ to the practicalities of urban water supply.


Furlong, K., Carré, M. N., & Guerrero, T. A. (2017). Urban service provision: Insights from pragmatism and ethics. Environment and Planning A, 49(12), 2800-2812.


Cite this blog post
Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah (2018, September 4). Water supply for the urban poor: bringing the utility into the discussion. FLOWs. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/os0a

Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah

I am PhD fellow at the Integrated Water Systems and Governance department of IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and the University of Amsterdam. Using an interdisciplinary approach, my research aims at understanding pro-poor water strategies used in urban water provisioning - using selected water utilities in Kenya as case study.

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1 Response

  1. Ebenezer says:

    Dr Boakye Ansa should get in touch with me, alumnus of IHE from Ghana and Director of CSIR Animal Research Institute.
    Jolanda Boots can confirm my identity

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