Study reveals immense importance of ‘invisible’ water to urban poor
A key water resource that will grow in importance as climate change takes hold is currently going largely unmeasured — with big implications for poor communities in developing nations, says research published today.
The IIED study shows that hundreds of millions of urban people in such countries already depend on this hidden resource.
Water taken directly from wells rather than being piped to users from surface-water supplies such as rivers and reservoirs is rarely taken into account, and it is therefore being used invisibly.
This might mean that it is being used unsustainably but it might also mean that groundwater has even greater potential to supply poor communities than is currently thought.
The study estimates that almost a third of urban households in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia rely on groundwater from local wells, and the share is considerably higher among poorer households.
It warns that policymakers, donors and others have neglected poor people’s dependence on wells, and it urges action to ensure that people can use groundwater in a safe and sustainable way.
"The policy trend is to promote the use of piped water but as our research shows, large proportions of urban populations are not served and must supply themselves with groundwater from wells," says co-author Dr Jenny Grönwall. "Unfortunately most official statistics, including those that measure progress towards the UN Millennium Development Goal on water, fail to acknowledge the value of different kinds of wells."
Grönwall adds: "It is critical that the neglect of this resource ends, as research suggests that climate change will make groundwater increase in importance in large parts of the world, not least in the urban areas of developing nations."
One problem is that the UN Millennium Development Goal system defines wells as being ‘improved’ or ‘unimproved’ when these terms do not reflect real differences in the importance of wells and can in fact condemn vital sources of water.
One of the reasons that groundwater gets neglected is an assumption that it is of poor quality or likely to be contaminated, especially if a well is located close to a latrine.
“It is a misconception that sanitation facilities near wells will automatically cause disease and that such wells deserve to be shut down,” says co-author Dr Martin Mulenga. “In reality, transmission routes for harmful microbes are much more complex.”
The researchers say that, overall, a greater availability of well-water can be better for people’s health as it promotes good hygiene, and not all water used must be of potable standard.
“Household treatment and good hygiene practices such as hand-washing may still need to be promoted to reduce health risks,” says co-author Dr Martin Mulenga. “Governments and donor agencies should take steps to enable poor communities to use groundwater in a safe and sustainable way, rather than discouraging their use of this resource.”
The researchers call for better monitoring of urban groundwater resources and wells and for groundwater to be included more often in plans and policies for integrated water resource management. Measures to improve recharge of aquifers and to protect both groundwater and wells from pollution are urgent.
“While water privatization and regional water scarcities grab the limelight, this study shows that a large share of the world’s poorest urban dwellers actually depend on local wells,” says Dr Gordon McGranahan, head of IIED’s Human Settlements Group.
“Far more needs to be done to support the efforts of local households and communities, and to make water supplies from wells more reliable and safe. This will be a challenge for water sector organizations more accustomed to working through large utilities and regional water resource authorities.”
The research — which includes extended case-studies of Bangalore, India and Lusaka, Zambia — adds that self-supply from local wells can be a cheaper alternative to piped supplies in situations where infrastructure for house connections is unfeasible or too costly.
For interviews, contact:
For other queries, contact:
International Institute for Environment and Development
3 Endsleigh Street
London WC1H 0DD
Tel: 44 (0) 207 388 2117
Fax: 44 (0) 207 388 2826
Notes to editors
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see: www.iied.org).
IIED does not edit and is therefore not responsible for any comments, but reserves the right to review/remove any comment at any time. If you wish to report a comment for any reason, please contact us or flag the comment on the comments system.