The Problem of Clean Water and Sanitation in Cities

Diego Garcia-Montufar


  • David Satterthwaite and Gordon McGranaham. Providing Clean Water and Sanitation. In: 2007: State of the World – Our Urban Future. WorldWatch Institute, Washington DC, 2007. (Electronic Edition)
  • BBC News – The Ganges: troules waters.

My first idea for the presentation was to focus on the issue of cities and their environmental problems. After finding the topic too broad and the information I wanted to use too detailed, I decided to focus on one of the specific environmental problems that urban centers face today: providing clean water and sanitation.

The issue of access to clean water is mostly a problem mostly faced in cities in less economically developed countries. Thus, I felt this would be an interesting topic that would not only include environmental issues, but also economical, social and cultural ones.

Summary of Presentation

My first source, an extract from the WorldWatch Institute annual report “State of the World” was long and detailed. Here, I will aim to provide a summary of its most important points with a small elaboration or discussion where possible.

The second source was a news article that I read while still in high school. With it, I wanted to show how sometimes cultural practices can have unimaginable environmental consequences, the difficulty to implement recovery plans and get a small insight into the issue of hydropolitics.

Main Points:

Providing Clean Water and Sanitation

  • Access to clean water and sanitation is still a major problem in the world, of which health problems are probably the biggest consequence. For example, approximately 35-50% lack access to water in Africa. Worldwide, approximately a million people die from diseases related to lack of safe water and sanitation; the number of people affected (but not killed) by such diseases ranks in the hundreds of millions.
  • The problem of access to clean water and sanitation is mostly not a technologic one. The major problems are mostly managing and financial issues, or other framework problems. Informality, for example, is one of the biggest problems that cities face – people who don’t own their land don’t have a framework for clean water access and sanitation, among other issues. Another major issue is that most of the negative consequences and burdens fall on the poor population, who end up having to pay more money than the wealthier sector of the population for a worse quality service precisely because of the lack of adequate distribution systems that help reduce prices.
  • Having adequate data and information is a key in clean water and sanitation distribution – it operates as a system that is very complex and thus needs to be monitored closely. This makes improvements on any existing system also very complicated.
  • The population outside of the system has to rely on informal (extra-legal) ways of water distribution. Many times costs are too high for the consumers in low income households. For example, access to a public or communal latrine, the cheapest sanitation option after open defecation, has a cost of 12-40 dollars per household. This price may still seem ridiculously high in many parts of the world.
  • Communal provision of clean water and sanitation has proven to be effective in different parts of the world. In Pakistan, the OPP Project provides communal answers to sanitation problems, and is organized communally: through streets, and lanes. The inhabitants take responsibility for installation, management and reparation of water facilities.
  • The private sector, on the other hand, has not shown much capacity to deal with the problem; mainly a lack of interest in the areas that most urgently need attention is the cause. Such areas depend on small enterprises, many of which are informal or extra legal themselves.
  • Most urban water shortage situations around the world are most commonly the result of poor management, not of water scarcity. Better local management seems to be the key aspect to solving this problem.
  • Government planning agencies, the public sector, but most importantly, local governments, are the actors that need to improve the way they work. They must develop a closer engagement with the unserved population, which “summarizes the approach needed on water.”

 The Ganges: troubled waters

  • The Ganges plays a central cultural, social and economic role in India.
  • The source of the river is receding every year at an alarming rate. Global warming and dwellers who live around the area are the two main culprits of this problem.
  • Urban areas along the river discharge waste into its water, despite their “sacred” nature.
  • Ganga Plan launched in 1986, “ level of pollution has [at least] been contained.”
  • The river flows into Bangladesh, but very little water enters the country, which is a source of tension between the neighbouring countries.

Class discussion

Discussion was centered on the main points of the articles outlined above. In general, discussion was limited. The most interesting points were:

  • Consumers must be engaged in order to provide a framework for the distribution of water or sanitation.
  • Issues of saving water are specific to particular geographical areas within countries. Still, most of the problems we are talking about are not lack of water to clean a car (as in Arizona) but lack of safe drinking water. Mostly, its not an issue of lack of water, but lack of a system of distribution.
  • Is better local management a skill/technology?
  • In the Ganges example, it is unbelievable to see that people are dumping sewage and industrial waste into a holy river, and that religious practices themselves contribute to the problem.

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last updated 02/06/07