Published on The Water Blog

Many countries rely on private providers for access to water – but blindly embracing these sources as “clean” raises concerns

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Man collecting drinking water from community well in Sri Lanka Man collecting drinking water from community well in Sri Lanka

With the onset of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) agenda, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP) decided to bump water from private providers up the service ladder.1 The rationale was linked to increases in availability of information on water accessibility, availability and quality2 in developing countries.

But embracing private vendors, that is, water delivered by tanker trucks and small carts, and packaged water, from bottled and sachet sources, as “improved” raises some issues. For the most part, these are still substandard and problematic models of service, and a blind acceptance of them as clean may have unintended consequences. First, inadvertently endorsing and, as a result, expanding these second-rate models of service; and second, overestimating the rate of progress made in meeting the 2030 SDG WASH agenda – especially among low-and middle-income countries (LMICs.)

A significant percentage of the population still relies on private sources for drinking water, and in LIMCs, the percentage of people who depend on bottled water is on the rise. A 2018 paper, which used data from the top 10-bottled-water consuming countries, found that consumption of bottled water in LMICs increased by 174 percent between 2004 and 2016 (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Reliance on private providers as the main source of drinking water bears with it a series of negative consequences: These vendors usually offer poor water quality,3 and their costs are often significantly higher than those offered by other sources. For instance, a review of costs of access to water conducted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) across several cities in LMICs showed that piped water is significantly more affordable than water from tanker trucks (Figure 2), tanker truck water can cost up to 52 times as much as a city’s piped water.

Figure 2

Additional issues include: since the private vendor market is often informal, and operates outside of regulatory frameworks, it is often plagued by corruption and irregularities. Likewise, due to the informal nature of the service, consumers don’t have access to water subsidies. Moreover, tanker trucks are often highly inefficient in their service delivery, and their presence can increase urban congestion, thus resulting in a wide range of negative externalities on the environment.

Alas, a non-critical embrace of water from private sources as clean sources may perpetuate these sub-standard models of service. And overestimating access to clean water is worrisome, given that an exaggerated sense of progress may prevent financial resources from being injected into the water sector.

Thus, the gold standard - the aspiration - should be the universal migration to the highest facility-level: piped water, on premises, available when needed and free of contamination.4 Unfortunately, in the near future, given long-lasting evidence of reliance on private providers in LMICs, this goal seems unfeasible.

In the interim, recommendations to help mitigate the negative effects of over-reliance on private water providers include the following:

1. For the time being, continue to consider delivered and bottled water as improved sources of water, while strongly emphasizing the need to be wary of its quality.

2. Invest in continuing to improve household water-quality measurement in countries by expanding testing modules included in nationally representative household surveys.5

3. Regulate informal providers by registering and absorbing them into the formal market.

4. Exercise water-quality control by issuing guidance and accountability frameworks over the private water-delivery service.

5. Reduce the burden that the high-costs of private-water has on consumers by providing access to subsidies.

In building progress towards the 2030 WASH SDG agenda, the goal remains to expand access to safely managed services for all. But unambiguously considering private providers as improved sources of water can lead to a series of negative and unintended consequences. A more nuanced approach to mapping private providers onto the SDG access ladder, coupled with an expansion of regulation and quality control over delivered and packaged water, can help mitigate some of the negative effects associated with an over-reliance on the private market.

1 Improved drinking water sources are those that have the potential to deliver safe water by nature of their design and construction, and include: piped water, boreholes or tube wells, protected dug wells, protected springs, rainwater, and packaged or delivered water. In the era of the Millennium Develop Goals (MDGs), The JMP treated both bottled water and tanker truck water as unimproved due to lack of data on accessibility, availability and quality (and affordability). As of the time of the SDGs, these are considered improved.

2 See box 4, of document

3 For instance, a study of the quality of bottled and packaged water in Kumasi, Ghana found significant levels of heterotrophic bacteria total viable counts (TVCs). Likewise, a 2010 study conducted on water quality in Bangkok, Thailand found that average Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs) concentrations were higher in bottled water than in tap water.

4 Safely managed water services are the highest level of services. They are Improved source located on premises, available when needed, and free from microbiological and priority chemical contamination.

5 This is already being pushed as part of the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) module of the periodically administered, nationally representative household Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS), and will help ensure full alignment with measuring the 2030 WASH agenda of measuring access to safely managed water services.


Camilo Lombana Cordoba

Senior Water Supply and Sanitation Specialist

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