In discussions around the MDGs, improved access to a safe water supply is often cited as a success story. The data supports this narrative – 2.6 billion have gained access to improved drinking water since 1990, and over half of the global population (58%) now have piped drinking water on their premises. While this is a huge achievement, the Sustainable Development Goals have an essential role to play in driving sustained change and guaranteeing universalaccess. Any set of figures can be framed in two ways and there remain huge numbers of people without access to even the most basic WASH services, including an estimated 663 million lacking access to an acceptable drinking water source.

Our organisation – Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) – is focused on a specific and growing aspect of this challenge. The urbanisation of developing countries is already a dominant global trend, with more and more people projected to migrate to urban centres in coming decades: by the time you finish reading this sentence, the world’s urban population will have increased by 10 people. Many of these people will move to one of the city’s low-income areas and all of them require access to WASH services. Water utilities in the developing world are typically mandated to serve the whole city – including these low-income areas – but may be overwhelmed by the pace of change and the scale of the task.

This is where WSUP has a role to play in bridging the capacity gap. We work closely with utilities and start with a basic principle: people living in low-income areas are customers too, and in most cases they can afford to pay for a utility-managed water supply. A dangerous misconception is that it doesn’t make commercial sense for a utility to serve low-income areas: wrong! Most of these people already pay high prices for their water, to an unregulated informal supplier; in many cases they pay more than the resident of a wealthier area with a piped utility supply.

In WSUP’s experience there are a range of measures a utility can adopt to address this situation. A powerful example is reducing levels of ‘Non-Revenue Water’ – the amount of water a utility produces for which it receives no revenue, either because of physical losses (e.g. a leaking pipe) or commercial losses (e.g. unpaid bills and illegal connections). NRW levels in these cities can be shockingly high – often over 50% – creating massive inefficiencies. Reduce that figure by just 10% (it can go much lower!), and the utility already has substantial additional revenue which can be channelled into serving low-income areas.

So that’s the theory but do we have evidence that this works? Let’s take Madagascar as an example. In 2008 WSUP signed a professional services agreement with JIRAMA, the national water utility, relating to service improvements in the capital city Antananarivo. WSUP agreed to provide capacity building assistance, with a particular focus on reduced NRW, in return for a commitment to improve service delivery to the city’s low-income areas. We have since seen a fundamental shift in JIRAMA’s approach and recognition that low-income areas form an important part of their customer base. This has translated into vastly improved outcomes for low-income consumers: over a half a million people have benefitted from an improved water supply since our partnership began, with water now available 24 hours a day in many of the target areas – up from just 3-4 hours a day previously.

To conclude by bringing this back to questions of universal access – in ‘development language’, this is often synonymous with the term ‘scaling-up’ or ‘getting to scale’. WSUP is committed to identifying and implementing solutions that contribute to citywide service provision, and ultimately to national-level improvements. Support to utilities in reducing Non-Revenue Water falls firmly within this category – in our view these types of efficiency gains are essential, win-win, and could be applied to improve service levels in any city. JIRAMA are also convinced – they have recently set up a dedicated NRW unit and extended their NRW programme to the coastal cities of Mahajanga and Fort Dauphin, as stepping stones towards a nationwide urban NRW programme. We recognise that all this talk of capacity building isn’t very sexy…but it really changes people’s lives for the better: in achieving universal access, let’s begin with what works!