For the poor, water is often a luxury

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For the poor, water is often a luxury

More access to water does not mean fairer access. A study of water access in Jakarta found that the poor lacks fair access to clean water compared to their rich neighbors and the quality of groundwater is a culprit.

Kooy, M., et al., “Inclusive development of urban water services in Jakarta: The role of groundwater,” Habitat International (2016) . DOI: 10.1016/j.habitatint.2016.10.006.

The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set a range of eight global development targets to be reached by 2015 for improving the living condition of the poor, included reducing the number of people without access to good quality drinking water by 50 percent. By 2010, that goal had become a reality. Yet, critics have pointed out that those MDGs focus on the quantity rather than the fairness — or equity — of access across income groups.

In a recent study, a group of researchers from the University of Amsterdam and the Munich Center for Technology in Society evaluated the influence of groundwater quality on the equity of water access. Their study, published in Habitat International, examines access to water in Jakarta, Indonesia, where groundwater accounts for more than half of the city’s water needs. The rest of the city either has access to piped water networks or purchases water through informal transactions.

Between 2014 and 2015, the researchers interviewed water service authorities, government agencies, and 189 residential households. More than half of the households surveyed are classified as poor. For the study, the researchers selected two low-income neighborhoods — one sits in the coastal north and the other in the inland south. Both sites have access to a network of water pipes and groundwater. Furthermore, the researchers grouped households based on their income levels.

The study revealed several key findings. First, households closest to the northern coast have poor groundwater quality due to seawater intrusion. Therefore, households with higher incomes are able to connect their houses directly to a piped network. In contrast, lower income households often cannot afford the access or live outside of the network. Only 12 percent of this group have access to piped water network. These unequal access forces them to buy water from their neighbors who are connected to water network. This informal water transaction leads to a higher water cost for low-income households. Also, the amount of water they have access to is limited by storage constraints. Thus, the poorer households spend more but consume less water than the better-off households.

In the southern neighborhood, a majority of households are able to rely on groundwater because of the low level of salt in the water. This eliminates the needs for low-income households to buy water from their neighbors. Since groundwater is cheaper, these low-income households spend less on and consume more water than those in the north. However, for the low-income households in this area, the proportion of the water cost relative to their income is still higher than those of the high-income households. This is because both groups have the same access to a cheap groundwater but high-income households consume more. Low-income households spend around 20 percent of their income for water as compared to only eight percent by higher income families. Overall, the issue of water equity, spending on water, is less pronounced between the poor and rich households in the coastal area than those in the inland north.

This study exposes the equity gap in water access that MDGs have failed to address. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have replaced MDGs in the global agenda, might present a solution. SDGs aim to provide universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030. However, achieving this target is a challenge to many cities in developing countries, partly because water needs are often supplied by sources outside of community water pipes such as groundwater.  Also, this study points to the need for strong law enforcement — to regulate groundwater and limit the industrial and commercial over-extraction of deep groundwater. Over-extraction will drop the groundwater level, allowing seawater to enter the shallow groundwater as in the coastal area. As a result, the groundwater will be unusable and the problem of inequity will only intensify.

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