Working paper

Unaffordable and undrinkable: rethinking urban water access in the global south

Urban planning Urban water Drinking water Water supply


  • Equitable access to safe, reliable, and affordable water is a human right. Urban water provision is a social good, but one that will become increasingly difficult for cities and water utilities to provide due to climate change and population growth.
  • Widely used global data underestimate the urban water crisis, which contributes to ineffective planning and management of urban water provision. New analysis of urban water access in 15 cities in the global South shows that piped utility water is the least expensive water service for most households, yet almost half of all households lack access.
  • Households without access to municipal water self-provide or purchase water from private sources, such as tanker truck water which can cost up to 52 times as much as piped utility water. In 12 out of 15 cities analyzed, households connected to the municipal piped system received water intermittently, which compromises quality.
  • Decades of attempts to increase the private sector’s role in water provision and corporatize water utilities have not adequately improved access, especially for the urban under-served. Cities and urban change agents should commit to providing equitable access to safe, reliable, and affordable water.
  • Cities and water utilities should work together to extend the formal piped network, address intermittent water service, and make water more affordable. City governments should support strategies to upgrade informal settlements, which include improved access to water and sanitation services.
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Washington, DC