Saturday, 6 September 2008

Poverty: Water Vendors can make a difference!

Joachim Ezeji

As the world becomes more urbanized and poverty becomes an increasingly urban phenomenon, it is becoming clearer that a key contributing factor to the incidence of poverty is a shortage of adequate employment in growing cities and towns.

UN-HABITAT in 2005 conducted a detailed research study on the informal economies of six developing country cities, namely Bangkok, Delhi, Durban, Lima, Mexico city and Nairobi. The objective was to examine existing regulatory environment in each city and to identify innovative policies for improving the operational efficiency of the urban informal economy.

The final report, Innovative policies for the urban informal economy published in 2006, shows that complex and stringent regulatory requirements on the establishment and operation of micro-enterprises have contributed to the growth of the informal economy, notably in developing country cities.

The link between poverty and water in urban centers often seems convoluted to many, but this should not be so. As water vending activities expands, one need not look far to see that the expansion is happening mostly at the informal sector.

The reality is indeed ironically startling as the global urban population without access to improved water services rises from 107 million in 1990, to 170 million in 2004. Many of the inhabitants of these big cities live in slums and have no or inadequate access to running water.

Urbanization heightens the relationship between available water quantity and water quality as well as poverty. Cities are faced with mounting cost of water shortages, water treatment, well deepening and development of new sources. This is particularly true for cities in Africa.

They do not only have limited means with which to expand the water, and maintain the quality but they also need to expand water supply services to meet the ever increasing needs of industry and to support growing population with varying distribution of population and settlement patterns in rural and urban settings.

Compounding the existing difficulties facing these water utilities is the enormous task in providing water services for these expanding urban populations where population growth rates of 5-7% per year are raising fears of the doubling of existing population in the next ten years.

The consequence is that not up to 3 out of 10 people in many urban populations across the continent gets supplied water by utilities in many places. Worst hit are low income areas and/or people living in illegal estates or slums as squatters or settlers etc. To cover these water access gaps in many cities, alternative water suppliers now exist.

But who are these alternative water service providers? ……….They are mostly Non-state providers (NSPs) or informal water providers (IWPs) who provide basic water services to consumers on a long term basis and are paid for their services by their water customers directly. They could also be called Small Scale Independent Providers (SSIPs) and Small Scale Water Providers.

These alternative water service providers include water vendors using trucks, kiosk, carts and commercial boreholes. In a small city like Owerri in southeastern Nigeria these alternate water providers get their water mostly from privately owned but commercialized boreholes as well as from the Otamiri River, a major river catchment that drains the Owerri area.

The crucial support of alternative water providers to water utilities needs to be properly recognized by government in view of the fact that in creating access to water they aid in mitigating poverty. According to Collignon and Vezina (2000), over 75% of the urban poor in Africa get at least some of their water from such informal providers.

This is true because access to safe drinking water has been proven to have strong impact on wider development issues including poverty, a fact that has been summarized by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) based in Geneva, Switzerland.

According to the WSSCC, access to water mitigates poverty because; the security of many household livelihoods rests on the health of its members; adults who are ill themselves or must care for sick children are less productive. The illnesses caused by unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation generate high health cost relative to income for the poor.

Healthy people are better able to absorb nutrients in food than those suffering from water-related diseases, particularly helminthes infections, which rob their hosts of calories. Access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation helps reduce household expenditure on health care; and the time lost because of long distance water collection and poor health contributes to poverty and reduced food security.

In aggregate, the total annual economic benefits of meeting the Millennium Development Goals targets on water supply and sanitation accrue to US$84billion; while global estimates for the additional annual investment to meet the MDG water and sanitation targets all arrive at about US$11billion, meeting the targets translates into 322 million working days per year gained at a value of US$750million.

As part of its recommendations to end the global water and sanitation crisis; the UN Millennium Project Task Force on water and sanitation had emphasized that Investment in water and sanitation must focus on sustainable service delivery, rather than construction of facilities alone.

Appositely, the Millennium Project Task Force had reported in 2005 that “expanding water and sanitation coverage is not a rocket-science”. Therefore to get rid of this migraine, systematic overhaul in the areas of vital reforms and targeted investments should continue to move in parallel.

Coupled to this is the need to mobilize all water vendors to the table and duly recognize them as important stakeholders. This is so because in embarking on this enterprise they have created employment for themselves and in so doing are working to meet the water needs of millions of households thereby closing the service gaps created by the water utilities.

Restricting or banning their trade as well as imposing unrealistic regulation on them as was recently the case in Nigeria’s Federal Capital City Abuja makes matters worse. This is so glaring to us all because the government has over the years grossly proved itself incapable of meeting the water needs of millions of its citizens.

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