A Note on Images and Copyrights


If you read through any of the below posts, you may find that the text references figures and images that are not present. This is because I—the original author of these posts—have decided to remove them for legal reasons. I did not encounter any legal trouble, but I did learn that I was technically in the territory of copyright infringement for many of these images. Thus, I find it best to remove any image I did not create in its entirety. I am sorry for any gaps in information this leaves. I hope you can still find the information I present to be useful regardless.


The author


Kenya and Brazil: Water Issues in Urban Slums

Imagine you are forced to make the following choice: drink water from a heavily polluted river for free, or buy your daily supply of water for about half of your earnings that day from local vendors—which, by the way, is not guaranteed to be clean. Which would you pick?

About 180 million slum residents worldwide lack access to clean water, and many of them face this choice on a daily basis. This week’s post will focus on urban slums in Brazil and Kenya in order to compare and contrast WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) issues brought about by slum conditions. By examining the problems each country’s slums face, we can learn what causes WASH issues in the slums and what solutions offer hope. GWA hopes to engage the community through starting a dialogue and increasing awareness of issues like these.


World Bank data reports that Brazil had a population of about 202 million and a GDP of about 2.3 trillion USD in 2014. Despite its enormous resources and wealth, Brazil is home to one of the world’s largest slum populations.

The exact amount of people living in Brazilian slums depends on which source you cite. The official census of 2010 reports that there were 11.4 million Brazilians living in “substandard agglomerates,” or favelas, informal housing, and other types of makeshift buildings. This represented 6% of the population at the time.

However, the United Nations reports that, as of 2009, Brazil is home to a whopping 44.9 million slum residents—quite a different diagnosis. An article from The Guardian claims that there were 26 million urban poor who lacked access to clean water in 2013. A 2008 World Bank report on its project in Brazil claims that, as of appraising the project, 19 million urban poor lacked access to clean water, and 34 million lacked access to sanitation facilities.

Contrary to the World Bank and The Guardian, the Brazilian census claims that 88.3% of slum residents were connected to the water supply, 67.3% had a sewage connection or septic tank, 72.5% had access to electricity with a meter (99.7% total with access to electricity), and 95.4% had garbage collection. These numbers suggest that these are hardly slum conditions at all. Unfortunately, with differing definitions of “slum,” “water access,” and “sanitation facilities,” it is difficult to gauge the true extent of the problem.

There are some certainties about Brazilian slums, however. First, slum residents lack legal tenure for the property they live on, meaning that their housing technically doesn’t exist. This not only strips the slum residents of all of their land rights, such as the right to not be evicted, but also provides a huge governance challenge in providing infrastructure and services.

Second, Brazilian slums are built on steep slopes and dry ravines—places untouched by developers due to their great safety risk. Not only does this put residents in danger of landslides and floods, but it also makes it incredibly difficult to provide efficient infrastructure.

Third, drug lords and gangs control large sections of Brazilian slums, and they often battle each other and the government for territory. In 2011, for instance, the Brazilian government began a “pacification” process, in which over 3,000 police and soldiers invaded and occupied parts of the slums controlled by drug lords. In many areas, gangs essentially function as the government, providing security forces, sponsoring neighborhood associations, starting soccer clubs, and even hosting festivals. In a society where those from the favelas often face heavy discrimination from those outside, it is often easiest for youth to earn a living through working for the drug lords.

Finally, Brazilian slums are at least partially the result of the combination of population growth and urbanization. The total population has been rising, while urban areas have been draining rural areas of people. This suggests that urban growth has continually outpaced the government’s ability to provide infrastructure.

Brazil Population
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.
Brazil Population Growth
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.

One hopeful project has brought clean water to a community of 60,000 in Sao Paolo. Led by the Municipal Housing Council since 2002, this initiative aims to work with community leaders in order to make improvements to slum housing that already exists. This marks a huge shift from the government policy of attempting to move slum dwellers by force. Another initiative called “slum to neighborhood,” which is led by the government through a foreign loan, has brought infrastructure to 253,000 slum residents since 1990.


Compared to Brazil, Kenya is a very small country. According to the World Bank, Kenya’s population was 45.5 million and its GDP was 70 billion USD in 2014. Kenya is home to one of the largest slums in the world, and possibly the largest in Africa—the Kibera slums in Nairobi.

Like in Brazil, it is almost impossible to know the exact population of Kenya’s slums. One estimate puts Nairobi’s slum population at 2.5 million. According to the UN figures cited earlier, Kenya had a total of 4.7 million slum residents in 2009.

Infrastructure in Kenyan slums, including water infrastructure, is utterly lacking. While the favelas tend to be made from brick and cement, housing in slums like Kibera is made from mud and a corrugated tin roof. Roughly 20% of Kibera has electricity. Before the construction of a World Bank water pipe and a municipal council water pipe recently, residents of Kibera had to collect water from the Nairobi dam. This water causes water-borne illnesses, like cholera and typhoid.

Sanitation is also lacking. Technically the slums have pit latrines for sewage. However, depending on the slum, there may be one pit latrine available for 50-200 shacks. Additionally, gangs tend to wait around pit latrines, especially during the night, because they know people will come. All members of the communities face the danger of robbery, but women especially face the danger of rape merely by attempting to use these pit latrines. It should not be surprising, then, that most people prefer to defecate outdoors or in “flying toilets,” or one-time-use bags that are thrown in the street after use.

It is very common for gangs to serve as private water vendors when government and World Bank services fail. These groups either steal water from pipes, or sell from an often contaminated well. The prices can be as high as 50 shillings for 20 liters, which can be about half of a person’s daily wage who earns the equivalent of one USD a day. Considering that just in Kibera there is a 50% unemployment rate, this is absurdly expensive. Yet, people must drink water to live. The alternative is to drink from a river that receives the runoff of Nairobi’s industrial district.

However, Kenyan slums do share some similarities with Brazilian slums. For instance, residents lack property rights, as the government owns all of the land. The people of Kenyan slums can be removed overnight with no legal repercussions.

Additionally, Kenyan slums have sprouted from urban growth that far surpasses the government’s ability to provide infrastructure. Kenya’s urban population has doubled in the past fifteen years, while the rural population has only increased by about 140%.

Kenya Urban Rural Population
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.
Kenya Population Growth
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.

That access to an improved water source has declined in urban areas while the overall population’s access has increased suggests infrastructure has failed to meet population growth.

Kenya Improved Water Source
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.

Like in Brazil, there are also some hopeful developments in Kenyan slums. First, the new constitution in 2010 lists access to clean water as a basic right. Even if this only exists on paper, it is a major turning point in acknowledgment of the problem.

Second, only a month and a half ago there was a report of “water ATMs” bringing cheap, clean water to the Kibera slums. This joint project between the government and a Danish company has provided water kiosks where residents swipe a prepaid card to buy clean water. The price is only half a shilling for 20 liters. However, much more time is still required to see how successful this initiative is.


It is clear that Kenyan and Brazilian slums share several important similarities. In both countries, residents lack land rights, the slums are a result of massive urban growth, and gangs have taken hold of several communities.

However, the differences are perhaps greater. Kenyan slums certainly face far more extreme infrastructure issues, and thus, WASH issues. Additionally, poverty and unemployment are much more extreme in Kenyan slums.

It is difficult to tell what the underlying cause of this disparity is, but it is not unreasonable to think that at least some of the cause is a difference in national resources. After all, Brazil has a massive economy of 2.2 trillion USD, while Kenya only has a fraction of that. That Brazil had an overall rate of 98% access to an improved water source in 2012 while Kenya only had 62% access suggests that the infrastructure disparity encompasses the whole country, and not just the slums.

By examining particular cases, we can better understand the causes of these WASH issues in the slums. Only once we understand the causes can we hope to find a solution, which is why we must begin by at least bringing these issues to people’s attention through discussion. We hope that one day nobody will be forced to choose between contaminated water and water worth half a day’s wage.

La Guajira, Colombia: Drought Reveals Systematic Problems

On the northern tip of Colombia, the La Guajira department (the Colombian equivalent of a state or province) is experiencing its third consecutive year of drought. This region of roughly 900,000 people—most of whom are indigenous minorities—has historically been very dry. But, the recent drought has brought to light deeply rooted institutional problems that have left the people of the region wholly unprepared for this crisis. GWA focuses on La Guajira first, to bring awareness to the problem, and second, in order to emphasize, yet again, that it is good governance that is the key to solving many water crises.

In the second year of the drought, in 2014, the Colombian Agriculture Institute estimated that 20,000 cattle had died in La Guajira as a result of water shortage. Official statistics report that over 400 children have died from malnutrition in the past three years, but the actual number is likely to be higher due to the Wayuu practice of burying ones own children. As a result of these hardships, the people of La Guajira have demanded a stronger government response to the drought. In 2014, there was a widespread strike and protest, and around 70% of businesses remained closed. It ended with riot police being dispatched and nine reported injuries.

According to one community leader, less than half of the population of La Guajira has access to running water. Another leader who represents over 200 families reported that many families (mostly the women of the families) must spend up to five hours searching for water in a day. While there is little to no data available on water access in La Guajira, it seems clear that there is a problem. People are without access to water even for drinking, let alone for farming.

This would lead one to assume that Colombia either has very little water or very few resources to invest in water infrastructure. In fact, neither of these is true.

According to World Bank data, Colombia had 2,270 billion cubic meters of water resources in 2013, yet only used 12 billion cubic meters. In 2012, urban areas in Colombia had 97% access to an improved water source (piped water, a protected well, etc.), while rural areas had 74% access. Clearly, if La Guajira really does have less than 50% access to running water, there is an extreme disparity in infrastructure.

In terms of financial resources, World Bank numbers place Colombia as a mid-sized economy, with a GDP of 377.7 billion USD in 2014. Even further, the World Bank pledged 90 million USD towards a water infrastructure project in 2007, which has now cost 158 million USD and has been pushed back to be completed in October of this year. Overall, Colombia is in the top ten recipients of aid from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (a branch of the World Bank), owing 7.9 billion USD to the lending agency and accounting for 7% of its total loans. Finally, the Colombian Institute of Rural Development contracted a 223 million dollar dam that was supposed to bring water to over 350,000 people in La Guajira.

Local revenue is not short, either. The southern portion of La Guajira is home to Latin America’s largest open-pit coal mine—El Cerrejón. This mine, which is owned and operated by Anglo American, Glencore, and BHP Billiton, brought the department of La Guajira over 258 million USD in 2013 alone.

Despite all of this money floating around and Colombia’s abundance of water resources, the people of La Guajira remain without ready access to clean water. Locals report that the World Bank’s project has simply not been built. Additionally, the 223 million dollar dam has not been connected to the aqueducts that were promised, and thus, brings no water to people.

Many people cite corruption in the government as the cause. La Guajira in particular is infamous for its scandals, as the last five governors have been investigated for stealing money meant for public infrastructure.

Still, others cite World Bank policy as a portion of the cause. After all, it was a lack of oversight from the lending agency that enabled corrupt officials to sap money from the projects in the first place. Furthermore, the World Bank’s model of bidding for private contractors rather than direct investment into public works makes profit the core incentive of the project. Thus, even if there is no corruption, these private developers do not necessarily place the interests of the local population as a priority.

It is somewhat perplexing that Colombia needs to take a World Bank loan in the first place to build this infrastructure. Colombia’s economy is quite large, and the central government surely has the resources to invest in a relatively small region of 900,000 people. The sheer amount of money received from El Cerrejón that is not used to build water infrastructure in La Guajira further suggests that it is not a lack of resources, but a lack of political will that is preventing water from reaching the people.

Unfortunately, it is not so easy for the people of La Guajira to leverage any political influence. Colombia accounts for 63.12% of reported murders of trade unionizers globally. The Human Rights Watch reports that, “Armed actors frequently threaten or attack human rights defenders, journalists, community leaders, trade unionists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders” and several other groups. Additionally, the government’s own forces have frequently been linked to extrajudicial killings, and there are 3,500 such cases being investigated just from 2002 to 2008. In this context, it is easy to see how difficult it is to gain a stronger political voice.

The international community is not helping, either. In fact, the government of Colombia was the 8th largest recipient of US military aid in 2010. In total, Colombia has received over 5 billion USD in military aid. This suggests that the United States indirectly consents to the actions of the Colombian government, rather than pressures the government to provide much-needed water infrastructure.

Looking Forward

The most obvious solution for the people of La Guajira is to attempt to work within the framework that already exists. This would entail somehow linking profits of privately contracted developers to outcomes in water accessibility. It is unclear how this might happen, and even if it could, this would not account for the problem of corruption.

Alternatively, the people of La Guajira can attempt to change the framework that exists through political activism. But, the last protest ended with riot police being deployed, and it seems there is little that can be done about Colombia’s entrenched violence towards activists.

Finally, the people of La Guajira can instead focus on smaller, community-led projects. The United Nations Development Program has already helped to start one such project, in which residents of La Guajira were trained to repair and maintain wells and windmills. In La Guajira, 70% of the 1,200 wells and windmills are not working simply due to a lack of maintenance. Training people at the local level in this way could help secure water at least for domestic use, which is much-needed relief in this crisis.

In closing, GWA emphasizes the current water crisis in La Guajira in order to engage the community and raise awareness of issues like this. We can learn from cases like these that strong governance is required to bring water infrastructure, and, when that is not available, community-oriented projects can greatly help to alleviate suffering.

If you’d like to get involved or contact GWA, please see the “about” page. GWA is always looking for partners and volunteers.

Water Scarcity (Not Just in California)

Not all are created equal when it comes to water resources. The global distribution of freshwater is appallingly uneven, even within individual countries. This week, GWA would like to highlight the sheer scale of regional water deficits in the world in order to raise awareness of the potential consequences of the crisis we all share. We will focus on India and China as a comparison to the United States.

No doubt you have heard the news: the southwestern United States is experiencing a water shortage. Since Californian Governor Jerry Brown announced water restrictions in April of this year, coverage of the drought has been reverberating in the news—and perhaps rightly so. NASA estimates that, as of 2014, California alone is short on 41.6 billion cubic meters of water. One study from 2014 shows that the entire Colorado basin has lost 64.8 billion cubic meters of water since 2004. Another report claims that Texas has lost 93 billion cubic meters. Considering that the US used 490.5 billion cubic meters of water in 2010, with California accounting for 52.5 billion cubic meters, this number is staggering.

If America’s water problem in the Southwest is staggering, then there are no words for China and India’s shortages. In northeastern China, the deficit is almost three times larger than what we know America’s to be (the author currently does not have access to 2003’s data). Just counting from 2002 until 2013, six of China’s administrative divisions have racked up over 438.2 billion cubic meters of water deficit. Population stress only compounds the issue further. The Hebei-Tianjin-Beijing region—China’s most severely water-stressed contiguous area—was home to 105 million people in 2010.[1] Compare this to the 56.5 million residents of the seven Colorado basin states in 2010,[2] but fit into roughly half the area of California.

In total, there are eleven administrative divisions (including Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai) in northern and northeastern China that are regularly using more than 50% of their renewable freshwater resources—six of which are using over 100%.[3] This means that these regions must tap groundwater in order to meet demand, especially during drought (which, in 2014, northern China faced its worst of in 60 years). Once these underground water reserves are gone, they are gone for good in terms of a human lifespan.

The situation is not much better in India. Just underneath the southern rim of the Himalayas is one of the most densely populated regions of the world. It is no surprise, then, that this area is also facing extreme water scarcity.

While the Indian government has only reported water resource and use estimates for 2004 and 2009, it is still clear that India is facing a similar water scarcity crisis. India has three states using more than 100% of their annually renewable water, and a total of eight using more than 50%. The deficit of the three states in those two years totaled 33.82 billion cubic meters.[4] If we assume this to be constant for the same period of 9 years we examined for China, India would have lost 152.19 billion cubic meters of water in its parched regions. Even more shocking, the whole of India is using 58% of its renewable water supply, compared to roughly 20% in both China and the US.[5]

As India is even denser than China, population is an even greater problem when it comes to water shortage. India’s rough equivalent of America’s Colorado basin and China’s Hebei-Beijing-Tianjin region is the conglomerate of Rajasthan, Punjab, and Haryana, or the most-parched contiguous area. As of 2011, this area was home to 121.6 million people (it should be noted that Uttar Pradesh, just next to this region, had 200 million people).[6]

But it is not only large countries that face a shortage. The World Bank reports that many smaller countries are currently experiencing a water deficit—19 to be exact. Not surprisingly, most of these are in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Central Asia.

The core of this global problem cannot be summed up more succinctly than by this image generated using NASA’s GRACE mission, which uses two satellites in order to determine the changes in mass distribution on the Earth’s surface.

What you are looking at is a map of groundwater loss over time, with red areas losing water and blue areas gaining water (although Greenland, the southern tip of South America, and Alaska are likely red due to ice loss). Notice northeastern China, the south and southwestern United States, and northern India in particular.

It is critical to acknowledge global groundwater loss, and the loss in these regions in particular, for a very simple reason: food. We need water to grow food, and China, the US, and India grow the most food. However, groundwater is not a sustainable source of water. Once depleted, it’s gone for good. Essentially, our current level of crop production is the result of borrowed time in the form of underground aquifers.

Many of the 19 countries in a water deficit have already been importing more than 40%, and in some cases over 80% or 90% of their grain requirements as of 2002. Today, those numbers are likely to be much higher as the population has grown and water has depleted. If China, India, or the US were to follow in this pattern, the results would be catastrophic.

This is not even considering the numerous other consequences of water scarcity. We need a constant supply of water for just about everything—from growing corn, to washing clothes, to cooling power plants. Food production and domestic use are the most obvious worries when it comes to water shortage.

But, we should also consider the tremendous amount of water used for energy production, which means that everything we produce using electricity depends on our water supply. In the US, for instance, a whopping 45 percent of water withdrawn in 2010 was used for power plants (see this report for a detailed breakdown of water use in the US). In China, 23% was used for industry, which includes energy production. In total, 25 countries are using more than 50% of their water withdrawals on industry and power production, and the globe is using 18% of its water on industry and energy.[7]

Think of it like this: water scarcity doesn’t just mean lower food production. It also impacts production of almost everything, including phones, cars, computers, shoes, textiles, paper—you name it. Of course, this also means water scarcity is a threat to all of the jobs in those industries, not to mention the negative consequences of being without the goods we all rely on.

In closing, we highlight water scarcity on a global scale in order to emphasize that it is critical to look past just California and the southwestern United States. While the recent water shortages are severe, they are only a small part of a much larger picture. If we are unwilling to see the full scale of the problem, then we cannot hope to find a solution.

As always, please feel free to leave comments or criticisms. Sources used but not hyperlinked can be found below.

[1] “China Statistical Yearbook, 2003-2014.” Stats.gov.cn. National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2003-2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

[2] “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2014.” Census.gov. U.S. Census Bureau, Dec. 2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

[3] “China Statistical Yearbook, 2003-2014.” Stats.gov.cn. National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2003-2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

[4] “Ground Water Year Book- India, 2010-014.” Indiaenvironmentportal.org.in. Central Ground Water Board, 2011-2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

[5] “World Development Indicators: Freshwater.” World Bank, 2015. Web. 15 July. 2015.

[6] “Primary Census Abstract Data Highlights- 2011 (India & States/UTs)” Censusindia.gov.in. The Registrar General & Census Commissioner, 2011. Web. 17 July 2015.

[7] “World Development Indicators: Freshwater.” World Bank, 2015. Web. 15 July. 2015.

The East Kolkata Wetlands

This week GWA would like to focus on the East Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) Wetlands. This case is not only interestingly unique, but it also offers the lesson that water issues are deeply intertwined with political, health, economic, and social issues. This suggests that any solution to problems like this one must account for the complex crossroads of these different topics.

Kolkata is the capital city of West Bengal on the far northeastern end of India. It is the 3rd largest city in India, with a city population of roughly 4.5 million and an urban area population of about 14 million as of 2011.[1] The 12,500 hectare wetlands lie just to the east of the center city area, and they act as a natural filter for the city’s sewage and other waste—hence, the wetlands have commonly been dubbed the “natural kidneys” of Kolkata.[2]

Miraculously, the EKW enables Kolkata to function with almost no infrastructure for sewage treatment or waste disposal. In fact, Kolkata has no formal sewage treatment plant at all![3] Instead, sewage and waste are funneled eastwards into the wetlands, where the combination of sunlight and water forms the perfect breeding ground for algae. As sewage passes through the wetlands, the algal photosynthesis cleans it more effectively than a traditional waste treatment facility. This naturally treated water is then used to irrigate vegetables, which sit on composting trash.[4]

Even further, fish feed on the nutrient-rich waste and algae, which has spurred lucrative fish farming throughout the wetlands. According to the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority, there are 254 sewage-fed fisheries in the wetlands.

The Times of India reports that, in total, there are over one million fish and vegetable farmers (although some sources claim 1.5 million, and others as low as 60,000) living in the wetlands, and they produce 15,000 tons of fish and 150 tons of vegetables each year.[5] These foods, in turn, are sold back to the people of Kolkata—forming a natural cycle between the city and wetlands.

It is also highly likely that the EKW provide natural protection for the city on two fronts. First, the wetlands serve as a barrier to West Bengal’s frequent monsoon floods. Second, many believe that the vast amount of algae helps to alleviate Kolkata’s air pollution problems. Still, because of the lack of knowledge surrounding the wetlands, these claims cannot be made with certainty.

Despite the clear importance of the wetlands to Kolkata’s livelihood, the EKW are shrinking. While it does not seem that there is consensus on exactly how much—one source claims 0.97% per year, and others simply cite “relentless encroachment”—there are certainly many personal accounts of new developments. Satellite imagery appears to show some urban expansion, but it is difficult to see.

Regardless of uncertainties, urbanization and population growth certainly pose a serious threat to the wetlands. While the city center of Kolkata has not been growing quickly in the last decade, and has even shrunken in population recently, the greater urban area is expanding dramatically. In order to expand, the city must encroach upon the wetlands.

Technically, the city cannot expand into the wetlands. There are several regulations protecting the wetlands from development. The EKW were deemed a Ramsar location in 2002, granting the region some international attention. Then, the establishment of the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority in 2006 led to legal framework establishing the wetlands’ boundaries and prohibiting new development within that region. Anybody found to be violating these regulations potentially faces three years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Rupees (~1,574 USD).

Even so, development continues. This is the result of the combination of “land sharks” and corruption in the government, as the wetlands are a goldmine for profitable development projects. Recently it was reported that the workers of two cooperatives in the EKW have been made an offer: take 100,000 Rupees and walk away, or hired thugs will come take the land by force. One woman reports that, on June 21st of this year, she and her father were brutally beaten by a mob and the Ward Councilor for reporting illegal construction. They were forced to flee to the city with family.

It is clear that this problem is intertwined with several issues. The wetlands provide public health and infrastructure benefits for the region, an income for many people, and act as a natural buffer to threats from the elements. Yet, the combination of economic incentive, government corruption, and natural population growth is threatening to destroy the wetlands. The GWA highlights the case of the EKW in order to show that the problems of the global water crisis are complex in their nature, and therefore require solutions that account for these complexities.

Please feel free to leave any comments or criticisms. Sources that were not hyperlinked are below:

[1] Cox, Wendell. “The Evolving Urban Form: Kolkata: 50 Mile City.” New Geography. Newgeography.com, 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 06 July 2015.

[2] Suutari, Amanda. “India – East Calcutta – Making the Most of It: Wastewater, Fishponds, and Agriculture.” The EcoTipping Points Project. Ecotippingpoints.org, July 2006. Web. 06 July 2015.

[3] Dhar, Sujoy. “Wetlands Transform a City’s Sewage Through a Bit of Solar Alchemy.” Next City. Nextcity.org, 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 06 July 2015.

[4] Suutari, Amanda. “India – East Calcutta – Making the Most of It: Wastewater, Fishponds, and Agriculture.” The EcoTipping Points Project. Ecotippingpoints.org, July 2006. Web. 06 July 2015.

[5] Kundu, Nitai, Dr., and Ritesh Kumar. “East Kolkata Wetlands.” Ed. Mausumi Pal, Anjana Saha, Pranati Patnaik, Satish Kumar, and Kamal Dalakoti. Comp. Subhadeep Debnath. East Kolkata Wetlands 1 (2010): 1-19. Wetlands. East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority and Wetlands International. Web. 6 July 2015.

Lessons from the DRC: The Importance of Water Infrastructure

Hello all! This blog will be focusing on WASH issues, or Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene. Each week Global Water Alliance (GWA) will highlight a WASH issue that we find to be especially interesting; either because of its unique and extreme circumstances or because of the potential lesson it can provide for all water issues of its kind. We hope to raise awareness of particular challenges within the global water crisis so as to increase involvement in working towards sustainable solutions.

This week we would like to focus on the importance of water management and infrastructure. Without these, there are obvious implications, such as low access to potable water and higher incidences of water-related diseases. This is the case even if a country naturally has vast freshwater resources, suggesting that water management and infrastructure is key to securing safe water for a population. An extreme case of a country with many water issues despite its abundance of freshwater resources is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which presents an example that abundance of water is not a sole factor in addressing potable water supply—what also matters is how that water is distributed, and how the supply is treated and protected.

The DRC is far from the Millennium Development Goals of doubling access to clean water and basic sanitation by 2015. While data for 2015 does not yet exist, this is still clear even from a 2011 UN Environment Program report and World Bank report. For instance, only 31% of the DRC had access to improved sanitation (flushing toilets, etc.) facilities in 2012,[1] and only 46.5% of the DRC had access to an improved water source (a protected pump, piping, etc.). To put this in perspective, only two other countries still have a rate below 50%: Mozambique at 49%, and Papua New Guinea at 40%.[2]


Access to an improved water source does not necessarily mean access to clean water. Pipes can be rusted and contaminated, for instance. Yet, we can be fairly sure that not having access to an improved water source means likely contamination, as the alternative is to drink from unprotected wells or surface water. Thus, we know that, at best, 46.5% of the DRC had access to safe drinking water in 2012. In fact, the UNEP report mentioned earlier claims that almost 75% of the DRC, or 51 million people, lacked access to safe drinking water in 2011.[4]

One would think that a country with such little access to clean water must not have much freshwater at all. Otherwise, surely people would prefer to drink the freshwater available.

Yet, according to the World Bank, the DRC is by far the most water-rich country of Sub-Saharan Africa, with 900 billion cubic meters in 2013.[5]

SSA Pie Chart[6]

SSA Bar Chart[7]

How can a country with so much freshwater have such little access to safe water?

The answer lies largely in the fact that the DRC has been the center of an immense political and military conflict beginning in 1997 that claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives as of 2008. As a result, infrastructure deteriorated and was destroyed—including water infrastructure. Because there is no adequate water treatment and distribution in place, many people have been forced to drink contaminated surface water.

This is even more the case for rural areas. The 46.5% of people mentioned earlier who don’t have access to safe water is even starker when we examine the urban-rural split in water access.

SSA Bar Chart2[8]

The result has been almost perpetual water-related diseases for many people, and especially children—including diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera. As of 2011, one in five Congolese children under the age of five were “regularly sick with diarrhea.” One Congolese woman from Binza Météo reports that, “We have health problems—we get infections because we are not drinking clean water.”

One solution is to tap groundwater, which requires less treatment and is generally safer. The state water company REGIDESO has been focusing on doing just this. Yet, access is limited largely to urban areas. In 2011, an estimated 90% of rural areas still relied on forest springs for drinking water.[9]

An initiative led by UNICEF and the government to construct small groundwater pumps in remote areas has been having great success in closing this gap and meeting WASH goals. The strategy is to dig wells by hand rather than with a machine drill. Not only is this method four times cheaper, but it can also reach remote villages and rural areas. Since 2009, this program has brought safe drinking water to over 200,000 Congolese.

Despite the DRC’s shortcomings in the water sector, it is hopeful that the DRC’s clean water access is on an upward trend. But the reason why GWA highlights the DRC’s case is to show that, even if a country has immense freshwater resources, many people may still be forced to drink contaminated water. What is required in these cases is to have an initiative to build water infrastructure—whether from the government, NGOs, or both—that bridges the urban-rural gap in lack of safe water access.

Please feel free to leave any questions, comments, or criticisms. The sources used are below:

[1] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved sanitation facilities (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[2] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved water source (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[3] WHO/UNICEF. “Proportion of Global Population With Access to Improved Water, Total 2012.” wssinfo.org. WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation, n.d. Web. 6 June 2015. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.wssinfo.org%2Fdata-estimates%2Fmaps%2F>., World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved water source (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

*This image was adapted from images found on the WHO/UNICEF website in the citation.

[4] Partow, Hassan. “Water Issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Challenges and Opportunities.” Ed. Matija Potocnik. United Nations Environment Programme (2011): n. pag. Jan. 2011. Web. 6 June 2015. <http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/UNEP_DRC_water.pdf&gt;.

[5] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Renewable internal freshwater resources, total (billion cubic meters). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[6] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Renewable internal freshwater resources, total (billion cubic meters). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[7] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Freshwater. 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 6 Jun. 2015. http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/3.5.

[8] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved water source, urban (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015., World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved water source, rural (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[9] Partow, Hassan. “Water Issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Challenges and Opportunities.” Ed. Matija Potocnik. United Nations Environment Programme (2011): n. pag. Jan. 2011. Web. 6 June 2015. <http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/UNEP_DRC_water.pdf&gt;.