The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Lead agencies need to refocus on water and sanitation to prevent slums from growing

WaterAid Senior Policy Analyst Timeyin Uwejamomere calls on lead agencies including World Bank and UN-HABITAT to reprioritise their water and sanitation expenditure on informal settlements to prevent slum conditions from spreading as urbanisation intensifies.

Timeyin Uwejamomere

Timeyin Uwejamomere

Cities: Dhaka, Manila, Kampala

Topics: Water, waste and sanitation, Informal settlements, Development

If we are to tackle global poverty we need to refocus on pressing urban needs. We are all too aware that people are relocating to the developing world's cities in their millions every week. This is piling pressure upon pressure on land, water, sanitation, electricity and other basic services. There is simply not enough to go round, and more often than not it is the very poorest who are missing out.

The poorest people are living in conditions that can only be described as slums, characterised by lack of planning and makeshift settlements. The streets are often open sewers, and homes are constructed from any available material, on any available land. Whilst making your home on a tip or by railway tracks with limited materials is certainly resourceful, the lack of basic services makes for a life of poverty. It is currently estimated that over a billion people live in conditions like this, and this figure is rising daily.

These communities are blind-spots to international donors and national governments. They are routinely left out of plans and investments, as the funding and attention goes to more established and richer parts of the cities. Between 2000 and 2005 only 6 per cent of World Bank's funding for sanitation went to the slums. This is something that needs to change drastically if we are to tackle the growing problem of urban poverty.

These communities are blind-spots to international donors and national governments. They are routinely left out of plans and investments, as the funding and attention goes to more established and richer parts of the cities.

Water and sanitation are crucial services to improving the living conditions in the slums. We only need to look at the history of Europe and America and see how the investment into mass sewerage systems and the provision of safe drinking water saw a dramatic drop in the mortality rate. Before this, water and sanitation poverty killed more people than anything else. Today in Sub-Saharan Africa, it remains the biggest killer of children under the age of five, killing more than HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined. In Asia it is the second biggest killer of children.

It is easy to say 'we need more money', but what is most important is how that money is used. Any investment needs to be targeted to the poorest and most vulnerable if we are to avoid leaving people behind and condemning millions to a life of abject poverty. Poor people must be at the heart of planning. Listening to them, and encouraging them to participate in the design and implementation of water and sanitation policies is key to making sure that these services work and are sustainable.

What I find most frustrating is this continued idea that people who live in slums aren't viable customers for utility companies. Time and time again this has been proven wrong. Not only do they end up paying up to ten times more for their water from illegal water vendors, but there are growing examples of schemes to show they are reliable bill payers when a water supply is available. In Manila, for example, making the community leaders responsible for collecting the utility fees in their slum areas has resulted in 100 per cent bill payment.

In Africa, Uganda is leading the way with a scheme initiated with the National Water and Sewerage Corporation. This connects users for a minimal fee and uses pre-paid tokens for fetching water from stand-pipes, thus cutting out the middle man and the risk of inflated prices.

Issues over land ownership have been a huge sticking point in slum development, but there are ways around this problem. NGOs in Dhaka, Bangladesh successfully campaigned to change the law stating that the installation of water points by the Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority for slum dwellers did not constitute de facto recognition of informal or illegal land settlement, allowing settlements to be connected much faster.

These examples should be heeded by the urban planners and incorporated into city-wide plans which pre-empt population growth, not only in the megacities, but also in the small towns which are often even more ignored. It is estimated that for every large town there are ten small towns, and these towns are expected to double both in size and number within 15 years, and then double again within 30 years. When we look at these statistics it becomes starkly apparent that international donors and national governments need to take urgent action. As is laid out in WaterAid's report Sanitation and water for poor urban communities: a manifesto, we need strong leadership at the very highest level to champion the urban poor and drive plans and investments. The UN-HABITAT Governing Council needs to refocus and strengthen the agency, by prioritising the improvement of the lives of slum dwellers. Strong direction from UN-HABITAT could go a long way to ensuring that mass urbanisation doesn't become mass slumisation.

is Senior Policy Analyst for urban water and sanitation services and current Country Representative for Nigeria at WaterAid. He was the lead author for WaterAid's (2011) report, Sanitation and Water for Poor Urban Communities: a manifesto.