The basic services trap — the world’s poor pay more to get less water and energy

One in 10 people worldwide lack access to clean water sources and electricity, yet they end up paying more, on average, for both. 

In 2018, residents of Cape Town, South Africa, prepared for a horror film scenario that turned into real life. Called “Day Zero,” April 12 was the day municipal taps would go dry. Personal access to water would be rationed, the government announced, to allow for schools and hospitals to continue functioning properly. In the months leading up to “Day Zero,” Capetonians began to stock up on water.

In the end, they were saved by effective government planning methods — among them a “water tax” and an individualized water consumption mapping tool — along with a weather pattern that brought much-needed rain to the region. 

The fundamental message, however, was clear: water scarcity is on the horizon. 

For many people ― nearly one in nine people worldwide — lack of access to water is not an end-of-world scenario, but a current reality. Water scarcity, and a lack of access to other basic services, such as sanitation and electricity, disproportionately affect people living in poverty, everywhere from Flint, Michigan to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The effects will no doubt be exacerbated by climate change. 

Overall, the number of individuals who lack access to “improved water sources,” which includes everything from public taps or standpipes to tube wells, boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs and rainwater collection, is nearly 1 billion. In many African countries — from Mauritania to Tanzania — around half of all people have to travel at least 30 minutes by foot to get to the nearest well with clean water: this despite proximity to the African Great Lakes and two oceans. When it comes to sanitation services, the number is even higher — around 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation, including toilets and handwashing facilities. 

Water isn’t the only basic service many are lacking. Despite abundant natural resources — sun, wind and water — around one in ten people worldwide still don’t have access to energy and nearly half don’t have access to clean fuels for cooking. 

On both a local and a global level, the victims of a changing climate won’t be evenly spread out. In New Delhi, for example, the price of water in slums shot up by 40 percent during a recent water crisis, while it stayed unchanged in the richest parts of towns. Despite advances in global access to water — between 1990 and 2015 the percentage of people with access increased from 76 to 90 percent — some regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, have seen a rise in the total number of people without access, due to exploding population growth. 

Cities will be especially hard hit by water and energy scarcity. In many cases, cities have grown rapidly and somewhat chaotically, making it hard for government service providers to meet their growing water and energy needs. A number of cities across Africa (for example Bamako, Kampala, Lagos, Niamey and Abobo), Latin America (Mexico City, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Lima) and Asia (Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Chennai) are already considered to be water-stressed.  

On a global scale, countries will need to invest an estimated $1.7 trillion by 2030 in order to achieve universal access to water, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 6. In addition to enormous infrastructure needs — which will no doubt require heavy machinery to dig, dredge and build resilient water resource systems — community leadership in managing existing water resources will be equally important. 

There are some hopeful examples of this. In Buttah Windee, a small village in central Australia, indigenous residents have built and now manage six solar hydropanels — effectively addressing water and energy needs at the same time. A small town in the mountains of Peru installed micrometers to measure household energy use and ensure that the price burden will fall evenly on its inhabitants. And in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated power grids, the island of Puerto Rico saw a solar power revolution, led by Puerto Ricans themselves, not the inefficient energy monopoly. 

Perhaps the best example of community leadership in access to water are the Jalabandhu, in India. A brigade of water mechanics who are hired directly by the local community, they are the front line of water defense activists in a country already plagued by water scarcity. The meaning of the word Jalabandhu is simple: “friends of water.” 

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