In the wake of coronavirus, governments in developing economies are waking up to the urgency of providing water as an act of defence against infectious diseases.
Some short-term measures are important, but equally important is a renewed focus on long-term availability of water supplies, particularly for the poorest in cities.
Universal water coverage is not a luxury: it is an essential part of keeping people safe. Many governments in the Global South have responded impressively to the threats caused by Covid-19. They now need to use this momentum to look to the long term and create water access in informal settlements that will be sustainable for years to come, protecting against future pandemics or a second wave of Covid-19.
Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) has identified four steps to creating long-term water solutions that will last:
- Invest in stronger utilities
- Embrace the power of great customer service
- Improve regulatory oversight
- Strengthen cooperation between communities and utilities
1. Invest in stronger utilities
Utilities are the solution to comprehensive, safe water access in cities, with a remit to manage water supply from source right through to settlement. To have any chance of achieving access, cities need bring piped, treated water to households, and increase the number of people connecting to this water supply.
Investing in utilities and helping them improve services for the people who need them most is one of the most important steps that we can take to tackle the water crisis.
A key element to this is investing in continuous water supply. Intermittent water supply – where water supply is switched on and off – weakens infrastructure, can allow contamination into the water network, and crucially, means that water is not available when residents need it. Utilities have to be able to provide water 24 hours a day, seven days a week for all their customers.
2. Embrace the power of great customer service
Great customer service means customers are happy, bills are paid promptly and leads to more customers, which leads to more revenue – which in turn results in better, and expanded, services. It is a crucial, and often neglected, part of tackling the water crisis.
The current guidance from many governments that customers cannot be disconnected has meant some water providers fearing that poor customers will stop paying their bills. Utilities are concerned that their long-term financial viability may be threatened if this happens.
But our experience is that customers will keep paying if they receive a quality service. To create more water access, therefore, utilities need to visibly improve services for existing residents, building a more loyal customer base which will provide the launchpad for growth.
3. Improve regulatory oversight
Regulation is often over-looked but a crucial part of incentivising utilities to provide water to the poorest segments of society. If servicing the poorest becomes a matter of regulatory compliance, rather than an optional add-on, then it changes the focus for senior management of those water utilities.
In Kenya, for example, this is starting to happen, with the introduction of a metric that utilities must report to the regulator showing how well it is serving low-income areas. The better a utility does serve these communities, the better it does on the annual league tables.
4. Strengthen co-operation between communities and utilities
Poor relations between urban communities and publicly owned utilities are a significant reason for slow uptake of water services. When communities take matters into their own hands to source and distribute water to residents, this actually hampers the availability and quality of water across a city.
Community-led water services can result in poorly treated water, a lack of fairness in pricing, a proliferation of informal water vendors and often, different communities in effect competing to draw water from underground sources. Uncoordinated water abstraction is a major threat to water availability in urban areas.
To solve these challenges, water providers have to be much more proactive about showing how they can meet the needs of residents and winning communities over, so that residents can benefit from safely treated, piped water from the central water network.