Some Cities in Industrialized Nations Also Threatened

Released from New York City and Washington, DC.

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Dr. Wally N’Dow is available for interviews at the Habitat office in New York on Friday, March 15. Please call (212) 963-4200 or (703) 820-2244 to schedule time.


Most cities in the developing world will face extreme water shortages by the year 2010, threatening the life and health of inhabitants, says Dr. Wally N’Dow, Secretary General of Habitat II, the global conference aimed at developing solutions to urban problems, to be held June 3-14 in Istanbul, Turkey.

The cities in the developing world that will have the most severe water problems are: Cairo and Lagos in Africa; Dhaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Bombay, Calcutta, Jakarta and Karachi in Asia; Sao Paulo and Mexico City in Latin America.

Water shortages will not be restricted to the developing world. Cities such as Houston, Los Angeles, Warsaw, Cardiff (in Britain) and Tel Aviv face severe shortages that are impeding further development and could threaten the health of inhabitants in the future.

“Water is going to be the most hotly contested urban issue facing the world community in the 21st century,” says Dr. N’Dow, who is also Assistant Secretary General and head of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), based in Nairobi, Kenya. “The water crisis is coming about not only because of a lack of water in some regions, but also from the inability of governments to make the necessary investments in a timely manner to ensure that water is available to all cities.”

According to the Habitat analysis, prepared for the fourth annual World Water Day, celebrated March 22, the three main causes of the impending global urban water crisis are:

  • Rapid urban population growth, increasing 170,000 per day in developing countries;
  • 50 percent of all potable water is wasted or lost in the developing world;
  • Pollution, with some 2 million tons of human excrement and an ever-increasing volume of untreated discharge from industry going into urban water supplies every day.

In the developing world, more than 1 billion people cannot get clean drinking water, and 1.7 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation facilities. The United Nations says that dirty water causes 80 percent of diseases in the developing world, and kills 10 million people annually.

In order to investigate and develop workable solutions for the world’s cities, the United Nations is sponsoring Habitat II. Some 20,000 participants from governments, international agencies, the private sector, non-government organizations and local authorities will participate in Habitat II, the last U.N. conference of the century.

The threat is already a reality in some cities. Mexico City, located on an arid plateau, must bring water in over large distances, as well as lifting it more than 7,000 feet above sea level, for its present population of 20-plus million. It does not have an adequate supply now, and its population is still growing rapidly. Billions of dollars must be spent if Mexico City is to have a sufficient supply, but its Federal Government lacks the money. Mexico City has sunk 10.7 meters (some 35 feet) in the past 70 years because of the withdrawal of water from the groundwater sources, or aquifer. Both Bangkok and Houston face the same problems as Mexico City, though not yet as severe.

A growing urban problem has been the intrusion of salt water into aquifers, a situation that Bangkok, Jakarta and other cities must face.

The Colorado River, which supplies precious water to many cities in the arid regions of the United States and Mexico, has registered almost a doubling of its salinity concentration during this century. Unless the process is reversed, these cities will have to seek alternative sources of water or face a water crisis. European cities getting their water from the Rhine River may face similar problems if pollution levels continue to rise.

More People Demanding More Water

The developing world is rapidly urbanizing:

  • By 2025, there will be 4 times more urban dwellers living in the developing world than in the developed;
  • 93 percent of urban population growth from 1995-2025 will occur in developing countries;
  • Currently, 3 of the 10 most populated cities in the world are in developed countries; by 2015, only 1 — Tokyo — of the 10 most populated cities will be in industrialized countries;
  • In Africa, the number of city inhabitants rose from 83 million to 206 million from 1970 to 1990, or 4.4 percent annually, compared to a 2.8 percent rise in the overall African population.

Despite the large and growing urban concentrations, household use accounts for only 5 percent of a nation’s water requirements, whereas agriculture uses 85 percent and industry 10 percent. Yet it is vital to ensure that city dwellers get safe water if countries in the developing world are to make progress. Urban areas generate more than 50 percent of the national produce in many countries. By the turn of the century, world water demand is likely to claim almost half the total global runoff water annually.

50 Percent of Potable Water Wasted

A major urban water problem is that between 40 and 60 percent of potable water in many cities, treated at high costs to be safe, is wasted because of leakages in pipes and illegal connections.

“This incredibly high rate of leakage means inevitably that there is insufficient water to meet customer demands,” says Dr. N’Dow. “If this amount of loss could be reduced to rates comparable to the United Kingdom or the United States, about 12 percent waste, cities would have twice the amount of water for consumers, particularly the urban poor.”

Some Asian cities with high rates of “unaccounted for water” include Dhaka, Bangladesh, 62 percent; Manila, Philippines, 58 percent; Jakarta, Indonesia, 57 percent; and Seoul, South Korea, 42 percent. In Kenya, the amount of water lost as “unaccounted for” in the capital city of Nairobi is enough to meet the water needs of the city of Mombassa, the country’s second largest city.

Some cities have demonstrated that the amount of waste can be cut. São Paulo, Brazil, for example, has reduced the amount of water leaking out of its system by 50 percent over the course of ten years.

Leaking occurs mostly as a result of aging network systems. In some cases, the pipes were badly laid in the first place, or they have been exposed by soil erosion. In other cases, the city plans have been lost and it is difficult to locate and repair leaks. Lack of technical capacity and funds for operation and maintenance compound the problem.

Another serious problem is illegal connections, which often result in leaks that are difficult or impossible to trace. Another problem comes from vandalism, as people try to obtain water by breaking into the pipes, which often results in major, unreported leaks.


Pollution may turn out to be the number one contributor to the escalating urban water crisis. With only about 5 percent of industrial and domestic wastes receiving significant treatment, the discharge of the untreated waste, along with agriculture waste, directly into surface water bodies and through seepage into groundwater aquifers drastically reduces the available freshwater resources, thus contributing to the urban water crisis.

One good example is the River Ganges, which receives mostly untreated domestic waste from 29 urban centers, each with a population of more than 100,000 inhabitants, three of them — Kanpur, Allahabad and Calcutta — having more than a million people. Treating this sewage would reduce the pollutant load of the river by 80 percent.

One reason why the urban poor are not provided with adequate water is that local and national governments think that the poor are unable or unwilling to pay for services. Yet the poor are already paying a price 10 times or more to private water vendors than their richer neighbors who have water piped into their homes.

Water vendors provide water to about 20 percent of the urban populations in developing countries. They bring it in containers on trucks, donkey carts or hand carts, selling it from door to door. The urban poor may pay even as much as half their income for such water, economically crippling thousands of family. In addition, this type of water is not always hygienically stored, and the consumer has no way of knowing how pure it is or where the vendor obtained it. Often, such water brings illnesses to the urban poor, already weakened by poor diets.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, the poor pay 20 to 60 times more to private vendors than piped water costs for the middle and upper classes; in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the poor pay up to 100 times more for such water.

“To millions of families living in such conditions across the developing world, high costs of water contribute to malnutrition and child mortality,” says Dr. N’Dow. “The higher the cost of water, the less a poor family will use, leading to a drop in hygiene standards.”

Economics of Bad Water

Bad or polluted water causes immense amounts of economic disruption, most of which can be prevented by spending lower amounts of capital than disasters impose on afflicted regions.

A cholera epidemic hit Peru in 1991, starting in the capital of Lima, as a result of poor water and sanitation facilities. The epidemic spread rapidly over a wide area, from low-income settlements across the city and into wealthy neighborhoods, and then into the countryside.

The cholera infected 320,000 people, 2,600 of whom died. The epidemic’s effects on the economy were even more devastating. The fishing industry collapsed, with a loss of $1 billion in three months. Tourism plummeted as well, with a loss of $500 million over the same period. Peru lost capital just in exports that would have been sufficient to provide a decent water supply and sanitation system for the entire population of Lima, at a cost of $50 per household.

“The epidemic could have been prevented had adequate systems been installed in time,” says Dr. N’Dow. “Similar problems to those of Lima can be found in many cities that are urbanizing at astonishing rates, making it difficult for city and national authorities to provide infrastructure and basic services to all.”

The International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, the so-called “Water Decade,” from 1981-90, brought access to safe water to 1.2 billion people in developing countries, and better sanitation facilities to 765 million people. Yet during the same decade, the population of developing countries grew by some 730 million.

“Despite the tremendous progress of the Water Decade, much more remains to be done, especially since the urban population is growing so rapidly,” says Dr. N’Dow.


Habitat says that a number of solutions, usually inter-acting with each other, will be needed to avoid a water catastrophe early in the next century.

The world community should treat water as an economic commodity, which would go a long way toward reducing current wastage of water, up to 60 percent in some cities. Under this guideline, governments should not subsidize water usage for wealthy neighborhoods or for industry, and leave the poor outside the national system.

Another answer is public-private partnerships. By bringing much needed additional investment into the sector, private providers can help to bridge the widening demand-supply gap in most cities, Habitat says. Moreover, being profit-driven, the private sector is more efficient at collecting revenue than public-sector institutions are, and more strict on care and maintenance of machinery and equipment.

Private sector involvement can vary from construction and consultancy contracts, through management, operation and maintenance contracts, to ownership of part of or all water and sanitation installations.

A good example of public-private partnership is the management leasing contract in Côte d’Ivoire, where the Government retained responsibility for sectoral investments and construction, and contracted operations and maintenance of the water services of Abidjan and 240 other cities to a private firm, SODECI. A similar type of contract has been entered into by the Government of the Republic of Guinea. These partnerships have resulted in improved services, consumer satisfaction and public accountability.

In Indonesia, private-sector partners are involved in build/operate/transfer (BOT) schemes that are promoted regionally; in Santiago, Chile, the public authority, the Metropolitan Company for Sanitary Works, has contracted three private firms for water distribution and sewerage. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the government put water and sewerage provision under private management.

A third solution is found in community participation, Habitat says. The community can help service providers to assist residents in meeting their own needs, with acceptable standards and costs. It also promotes the employment of local people and the acquisition of skills that are then usefully spread throughout the community. The women of each community are particularly important as agents of change.

The health benefits provided by better water and sanitation services were demonstrated in industrial countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. When services were improved, the impact on health was revolutionary. For example, life expectancy in French cities increased from about 32 years in 1850 to 45 years in 1900, with the timing of these advances corresponding closely to changes in water supply and waste water disposal.

Great progress could also be made in most developing countries just by improving the water quality from “bad” (more than 1,000 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters of water) to “moderate” (fewer than 10 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters). In the early 20th Century, some cities in the Ohio River valley used untreated water, while other cities treated their water. Over a 10-year period, death rates from typhoid fever which were constant in the untreated water cities, declined by more than 80 percent in cities that treated their water.

Other solutions include: integrated management of services; mobilizing other sources of finance, including private sector finance, and reducing the dependence on inadequate public sector funds; ensuring user satisfaction; ensuring full cost recovery for services — both investment and operation and maintenance costs; ensuring adequate operation and maintenance of infrastructure; and capacity building.

Category: Press Release