Urban poverty is growing. The cities in the developing world are overloading as millions of people each week arrive to find a way to survive. Most will be forced to set up home in makeshift slums with no safe water, sanitation, electricity or security. This is a reality right now for around one billion people. According to a U.N. report, by 2030 this figure is set to double.
These statistics are not anything new. We know about the numbers and chronic poverty in the slums. We know about the human waste, the mounting rubbish, the risks of cholera, the families crammed into tiny spaces, and the precarious shacks on landfills or by railway tracks. We just do not seem to know what to do about it.
Take the Korail slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. People have been settling here for over 30 years, and it is now the biggest slum in Dhaka. It sits on the Gulshan Lake, overlooked by one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the capital. Women can be seen washing their dishes at the lake’s edge, just meters away from where hanging latrines discharge directly into the water.
It is also suspected that the affluent side empties its septic tanks into the lake, which is one of only a few sources of water for the slum. The others are hand-dug wells and illegal water traders, who pipe water from the city’s main supply and charge a premium price. It is a perverse fact that the very poorest people have to pay up to ten times the price for water than people who are connected to the main city supply.
To put figures to this picture, a slum dweller in Korail can pay up to $20 per 1,000 gallons when getting water from a trader. The average cost per 1,000 gallons in the U.S. is just $2. The average wage for a slum dweller is around $40 a month, and up to a quarter of this can go on buying water. In the U.S., the average monthly wage is around $3800, and only around 0.5 percent of household income goes to combined water and sanitation bills.
It is clear that access to safe water and adequate sanitation in these areas would greatly improve the situation for slum dwellers. Water and sanitation are one of the most fundamental and sure-fire ways to lift people out of poverty. I have seen it for myself time and time again, and our own history proves it. Lack of safe water and sanitation was the biggest killer in American and European cities before the advent of proper sewerage systems and safe water on tap.
This is still the unacceptable daily life for millions of people in the developing world. They continue to live in squalor and risk diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation every day. These diseases are responsible for killing more children across the world than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Developing city-wide water and sanitation infrastructure, including in the slums, is the most basic investment any municipal authority could make to guarantee a city’s economic prosperity.
But this is not happening at the scale and pace it needs if we are to prevent mass urban migration from becoming mass urban poverty. Figures show that between 2000 and 2005, only 6 percent of World Bank commitments to sanitation went to slums. The lion’s share went to serve established and richer communities.
We desperately need to readjust the system and put the very poorest people at the heart of urban planning and investments. When we work with the communities we see how resourceful, empowered and industrious they can be. Water and sanitation gives them their first foothold to really improve the way they live.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for development in the slums is lack of land tenure. In Dhaka, NGOs including Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK), a WaterAid partner, overcame this by achieving a change in the law stating that the installation of water points by the Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority for slum dwellers did not mean de facto recognition of informal or illegal land settlement.
There are also examples to prove that slum dwellers are reliable bill payers, debunking the idea that it is not financially viable for utility companies to invest there. Pre-paid meters in Uganda are also proving a huge success. The ‘pay-as-you-fetch’ tokens are ensuring that middlemen cannot inflate the price of water, and that the cost remains fair and affordable.
Such effective work should be noted by the international community and integrated into robust plans as laid out in WaterAid’s recently released “Sanitation and water for poor urban communities: a manifesto.” Listening to the slum communities and putting them at the heart of these plans is key. They must have a voice and we all need to listen and respond.
We know that the slums will keep on growing. But we also know that we have the opportunity to avoid condemning millions to chronic poverty. We need to act now.