Connecting settlements, cities and basins: realising SDG 6 at scale

World Water Week is an important opportunity to tackle the gap between global ambitions to achieve fair access to water and sanitation – and realities on the ground.

Anna Walnycki's picture
Insight by 
Anna Walnycki
researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group
25 August 2016
Nearly 80 per cent of Dar es Salaam's residents live in informal settlements, and less than 10 per cent of the city has sewer access (Photo: Anna Walnycki/IIED)

Nearly 80 per cent of Dar es Salaam's residents live in informal settlements, and less than 10 per cent of the city has sewer access (Photo: Anna Walnycki/IIED)

High on the agenda at the upcoming World Water Week will be how to implement and monitor Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, seeking to 'ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all' by 2030.

And it is an ambitious goal. While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) met the global target to halve the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water, a breakdown of the figures showed many countries  ̶  particularly across sub-Saharan Africa  ̶  fell far short of this target.

Across the world, hundreds of millions of people are still without access to safe water and basic sanitation. 

In fact, the rapid growth of some urban populations between 1999 and 2015 has led to the percentage of people with better water or sanitation access decreasing in places

Access to water and sanitation in cities in the global South is still highly unequal, and low income communities rely heavily on informal vendors and sources. Researchers, policymakers and practitioners gathering in Stockholm from 28 August will consider these realities as they discuss how to effectively implement and monitor SDG 6.

Informality is the urban reality

Water provision in low-income settlements is still highly informal, particularly in sub-Saharan cities that have expanded rapidly without adequate planning. Dar es Salaam has been growing at just under six per cent a year and, with insufficient planning for such growth, nearly 80 per cent of people live in informal settlements (PDF).

Here, communities rely on boreholes to supply public standpipes, kiosks set up by the water utility Dar es Salaam Water & Sewerage Authority (DAWASA), and informal water vendors that rely on boreholes or DAWASA taps among other sources. Meanwhile estimates suggest less than 10 per cent of the city has sewer access, and households rely on septic tanks and pit latrines.

In light of these realities, how far do global agendas such as the MDGs and SDGs really tackle water and sanitation provision for low-income urban communities? 

A clear gulf between the logic of global goals, such as SDG 6 (PDF), and the realities of water and sanitation provision in informal settlements emerges  ̶  and is exacerbated as development agencies overlook the grassroots processes that can deliver these basic services, or when sufficient finance cannot be secured.

Examining need, use and resource – at three different levels

Realising universal access to water and sanitation must support different actors and institutions at different scales. 

Through the Connecting Cities to Basins project, IIED is exploring how water availability and other social, political and physical processes contribute to water and sanitation provision at three levels: low-income urban settlements, the city, and the river basin. 

This research focuses on securing rights to water and sanitation, and considers how far meeting the needs of the urban poor would impact water resources.

Rural-urban competition for water at the river basin level and unequal institutional arrangements for provision and access in cities are both barriers to realising SDG 6. In order to achieve this goal, we need better across-scale understanding of water needs, use and resources.

Work undertaken at the community level by the Tanzanian Centre for Community Initiatives, IIED and the Tanzania Urban Poor Federation (TUPF) includes mapping out the type, cost, quality and accessibility of water and sanitation services at community level, and estimating the related water requirements. This covers a broad spectrum of water and sanitation services.

Informal groundwater services from private vendors are commonplace because DAWASA does not reach these communities; despite the presence of the utility's pipelines and kiosks for almost a decade, there is no water in the pipes. One community kiosk has been standing for over 10 years, but has no water and its principal function is to sell mobile phone credit.

This water kiosk has no water: it sells mobile phone credit (Photo: Anna Walnycki)

This water kiosk has no water: it sells mobile phone credit (Photo: Anna Walnycki)

For sanitation, the majority of households rely on pit latrines which are often emptied informally by bleeding the contents into the lanes during the rainy season. As we heard from community members during a recent focus group discussion in Dar es Salaam, getting rid of wastewater and emptying pit latrines is unsurprisingly one of the biggest planning and environmental challenges at local level. 

The community uses the maps to discuss sources of water and sanitation they deem acceptable, what they would consider to be progress, and to identify and assess pathways towards affordable water and sanitation that would adequately meet their needs.

The community maps and progress pathways highlight the grassroots reality of formal and informal provision in low-income settlements and how they compare with global monitoring by the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation.

Informal water provision matters

Global goals to universalise access will shape how national governments develop water and sanitation strategies and monitor progress over the next 15 years. But provision will be driven by local government, utilities and, in unserved communities, informal actors. 

The community maps and progress pathways are proving an effective way to highlight the major gap between local and global understandings of acceptable water and sanitation provision. 

As experts from policy and practice gather next week to discuss how SDG 6 can be supported, implemented and monitored, efforts must be made to understand the role of informal water sources and providers in low-income urban communities, and the informal processes of urbanisation that underpin their existence. 

Pursuing infrastructural, institutional and water resource management strategies that fail to reflect why informal provision exists and how informal providers work, risks repeating the same mistakes of the past.

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