Urban water and sanitation

Water and sanitation have been recognised as human rights, but there is still little agreement on how these rights are best pursued. IIED has been working with local partners to identify how sanitation and water services can be improved in deprived urban locations that conventional urban piped water and sewer services have not reached.

A tanker delivers water to residents in Retiro, a shanty town in Buenos Aires (Photo: Mark Edwards)

Bad sanitation is degrading, disagreeable, unhealthy and far too prevalent, even in urban areas. Official statistics (PDF) indicate that the world's urban population without "improved" sanitation facilities increased from 547 million in 1990, to 748 million in 2012.

These figures almost certainly flatter since even "improved" facilities can include simple pit latrines, and bad sanitation is a public risk that harms even people with adequate facilities themselves. As an IIED blog laments, urban sanitation has gone from being the spearhead of urban improvement a little over a century ago to a laggard today, though there are some bright spots.

The situation with water is better, but still far from good enough. The statistics indicate that the urban population without access to improved water has increased from 112 million in 1990, to 132 million in 2012. Many urban dwellers without improved sources depend on informal water vendors, and we have worked to identify how effective they are at meeting the needs of low-income residents, and what can be done to improve the often high-priced services they provide, or to shift towards piped systems.

Almost a third of urban households in developing Asia and Africa, including many listed as having access to improved water sources, rely on nearby wells for water, which also raise challenges to both water quality and local resource depletion.

Much of the international debate on urban water and sanitation provision has focused on private versus public provision, but our research suggests that both private and publicly operated utilities are inclined to neglect the poorest urban dwellers.

Over the years we have documented innovative local efforts to provide water or sanitation to deprived communities cities from Accra and Luanda in Africa, to Buenos Aires in Latin America and Karachi in Asia. Learning from such efforts is critical, for other community-driven initiatives, but also for supportive governments and NGOs.  

Within the SHARE consortium on sanitation led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, we have focused on urban sanitation and on equity issues.

As part this work, we have been collaborating with affiliates of Shack/Slum Dwellers International, to support community-led action research, leading towards city-wide strategies of sanitation upgrading for deprived households in Blantyre (Malawi), Kitwe (Zambia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Chinoyi (Zimbabwe). This action research has proceeded through:

  1. Situation analysis, drawing heavily on community enumerations and mapping, documenting sanitation conditions
  2. Precedent setting, involving new or adapted sanitation solutions, developed to respond to the local situation (as above), and move towards city-wide strategies (as below), and
  3. City-wide strategies that can be supported by federations of the urban poor, and co-produced with local authorities and utilities.

Preliminary reflections on this work are listed in the publications below.


Realising the right to sanitation in deprived urban communities: meeting the challenges of collective action, co-production, affordability, and housing tenure, Gordon McGranahan (2015), World Development, Vol 68, pages 242-253

Sharing reflections on inclusive sanitation, Evans Banana, Chisomo Harawa et al. (2015), Environment and Urbanization (subscription required)

The 20-year sanitation partnership of Mumbai and the Indian Alliance, Sheela Patel and The Sparc Team (2015), Environment and Urbanization (subscription required)

Co-producing inclusive city-wide sanitation strategies: lessons from Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe, Evans Banana, Beth Chitekwe-Biti and Anna Walnycki (2015), Environment and Urbanization (subscription required)

Evolving urban health risks: Housing, water and sanitation, and climate change, Gordon McGranahan (2012), in The Urban Transformation: Health, shelter and climate change, Elliot Sclar, Nicole Volavka-Close and Peter Brown, (eds), Earthscan/Routledge, pages 15-41.

SHARE urban sanitation pathfinder, Martin Mulenga (2011), SHARE consortium, London

Groundwater, self-supply and poor urban dwellers: a review with case studies of Bangalore and Lusaka, Jenny T. Grönwall, Martin Mulenga and Gordon McGranahan (2010), IIED Human Settlements Working Paper Series 26

Urban water and sanitation in Ghana: how local action is making a difference, Kanton I. Osumanu, Lukman Abdul-Rahim, Jacob Songsore, Farouk R. Braimah and Martin Mulenga (2010), IIED Human Settlements Working Paper Series 24

Provision of water and sanitation services, Jonathan Parkinson, Martin Mulenga and Gordon McGranahan (2010), in Urban Health: Global Perspectives, David Vlahov et al., (eds), John Wiley, pages 269-282.

Further related publications can also be found via SHARE.


Development Workshop Angola (DW)

IIED-America Latina

Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI)

People's Dialogue Ghana (PDG) (PDF)

Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC)

Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity (SHARE)


Gordon McGranahan (gordon.mcgranahan@iied.org), principal researcher, Human Settlements Group