One of the interesting things about purchase of water is that it works in a way that is counter-intuitive to anyone who buys groceries or indeed most commodities. That is, in many places in the world – particularly the ‘developing world’ – it is more expensive (per unit) to buy more water. This encourages low income consumers to meet their minimum water requirements* and also encourages water conservation.
As you’ve probably already realised if you’ve been reading this blog, the poorest are unlikely to benefit from this tariff system – though they should – due to not being able to connect to the formal water provider. Most will operate on standard market principles – paying more per unit on a smaller amount.
These cost issues have profound implications on the amount of water people use. The UN recommends that a person should not spend more than 5% of their income on water. If we think of a household of four earning 100/= (a little over $1) a day (this scenario isn’t crazy), even if they expend 10% (again plausible) of income, they may only get 10l each daily – and less during shortages. Imagine flushing your toilet once per day, and doing nothing else involving any water.** Alongside money constraints, the problem can be compounded by the issue highlighted here – time and energy spent collecting water.
So what happens when the amount of water available is pitifully small? Well, according to this paper (yes, again!), certain important or essential tasks are missed – e.g. bathing, washing clothes and cleaning the home. In bad times, usage may be reduced to drinking only. Believe me when I say a person can really find ways to cut down water usage (I’ve been there), but this is typically at the cost of hygiene – and may result in later illness.
What are we doing to help here? Well, it comes down to our work encouraging the utility to come in and provide better services than currently exist at more affordable prices. You may be bored with that message, but that is our sustainable long term vision for urban water provision, because we don’t on our own have the power to reach the whole of the informal settlements, but the mandated service provider has that capacity and the ability to do so sustainably.
We have also reached literally hundreds of thousands of people with hygiene education messages that highlight to them the importance of using well the water that they are able to obtain. This is important in ensuring that important tasks are not neglected for the sake of saving money, and to maintain the health of those we serve.
*In Nairobi, the minimum block tariff is 10 cubic metres per month. In South Africa, it is the first 6 cubic metres. The costs of these minimum tariffs are often below production cost for social reasons.
**On the minimum block tariff, this family could get 69l each per day, without exceeding the 5%. This would be comfortably enough to meet and go beyond basic needs.