Written by Rahael Borchers, International Shelter Initiatives Fellow, Habitat for Humanity International
March 22, 2016
Why would a person living in poverty pay 200 times more for water than what a wealthier person living in the same city pays? This sounds outrageous, but it isn’t a hypothetical question. It’s a troubling one that should make us not only scratch our heads, but also take action – such as join a global advocacy campaign. Here is some “water for thought” this World Water Day:
In 2011, PUKAR’s Barefoot Researchers collected data on water distribution systems in a slum in Mumbai, the Indian city with the largest slum population in the world. The study found that those households spent a staggering 52 to 206 times more than the standard municipal charge for water. Nearly half of the families lived on less than 5 gallons of water per person per day. To put this into perspective, the average daily per-capita water consumption in the U.S. is 80-100 gallons. Moreover, the study found that 76% of the Indian households consumed water with traces of feces, and 43% consumed water contaminated with E. Coli. Poor water quality and insufficient quantity are associated with malnutrition, lower cognitive function, and preventable deaths, especially due to diarrhea. According to the World Health Organization, diarrhea is the second-leading cause of death for children under 5 years old.
In India, approximately half of slums are “notified,” or recognized by the government, and the other half are not. People living with notified status enjoy a degree of security of tenure, meaning that even though they do not own the land, they cannot be arbitrarily evicted without rehabilitation in formal housing. This privilege depends on where families settled, and when they settled there. In Mumbai, families who settled after the year 1995, on land owned by the central government, or who lack proof of residency before 1995, have no rights to the land or basic city services.
People living in the non-notified slums are legally barred from accessing municipal water. Residents must either illegally tap into city water pipes, which jeopardizes the quality of the water, or buy from street vendors at exorbitant prices. Residents who bring water back from other communities are fined by the police. PUKAR estimated that the yearly excess spending on water in one non-notified slum could fund new water infrastructure for the whole slum five times over.
Members of the Mumbai community and civil society took these grievances to the Bombay High Court. In December 2014, the court ordered the city to sell water to non-notified slums, asserting that access to water is a human right, and should not be contingent on property rights. While the situation is far from resolved – residents continue to face the threat of eviction, the city is allowed to charge them more for water, and the water supply is unreliable – new municipal water plans are underway, and this ruling provides hope for systematic change through advocacy and the law.
A lack of secure tenure obstructs access to water not only in Mumbai but across the world. Solid Ground is tackling institutional and legal barriers so that all people have access to land for shelter and basic services. Technical expertise and financial resources aren’t enough to achieve change at scale. It also requires advocates just like you to recognize and speak out for policy and systems change.
Join Solid Ground in doing just that. Donate your autograph this World Water Day.