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X.13 Urban Water Supply in Protracted Crises

The trends in human development shape the subsequent development of humanitarian operations, with urbanisation representing the defining trend of recent decades. Population growth and migration is such that over half of the world’s current population resides in urban areas, and is set to rise to an estimated 68% by 2050. Most of this increase is projected to take place in lower income countries across Africa and Asia, driven largely by economic opportunity, conflict and/or climate change. Large influxes of people into cities significantly increase the pressure on services relied upon by the host and displaced populations, especially with poor-quality services to begin with. Residents of urban areas are usually reliant on essential and interconnected services, such as water, sanitation and electricity, and are thus vulnerable to service disruptions, and the increasing pace of urbanisation adds additional strain on these systems. Water, in addition to direct supply to households, enables other services such as healthcare and education, so the failure of a single power line can completely or partially shutdown a water supply system for all end users. Such infrastructure deterioration can have dramatic and sometimes unexpected ripple effects on other critical infrastructure sectors, which are often difficult to predict during times of crisis without a proper emergency preparedness plan in place.

The quality of service in urban contexts is not necessarily homogenous, as poor or informal areas are often not as well served as affluent neighbourhoods. Even formal parts of the city may be neglected by local authorities for political or other reasons, which can exacerbate previously existing tensions or social grievances. A complex tapestry of technical, organisational and socio-political issues therefore exists that underpins water supply in urban contexts. As a result, classical humanitarian response mechanisms developed in rural areas or displacement camps are often poorly suited to the urban environment, and NGOs are frequently ill-equipped to understand and manage the complexities of large towns and cities.

Understanding Urban Water Supply in Protracted Crises

Essential urban services are understood to be the provision of commodities, actions or other items of value that are vital to ensure the subsistence of the urban population (e.g. water, wastewater, energy, solid waste, health care). All urban services require three elements in order to function: people (service provider staff, private-sector contractors and entrepreneurs), hardware (infrastructure, equipment, heavy machinery) and consumables (fuel, chlorine). External forces that negatively impact any of these three pillars of water supply will therefore degrade service delivery.

Unfortunately, while each individual incident can be handled and service levels restored, long drawn-out crises tend to cause cumulative impacts. The subsequent gradual but continuous decline in service delivery ultimately reaches critical points beyond which public health substantially deteriorates and the water supply system collapses. Crises that affect urban areas are diverse, such as armed conflict or prolonged violence (e.g. gangs), repeated natural disasters (floods, famines, hurricanes, epidemics, etc.) or recessions (commodity price fluctuations, sanctions, high national debt, excessive money printing, financing a war, etc.), and affect necessary income sources including government subsidies as well as the ability of consumers to pay. Under such circumstances the pillars underpinning urban water supply are gradually but significantly eroded. These pillars are:

  • People: The sophistication of large-scale urban water supply infrastructure requires specialist expertise. The delivery of services therefore goes beyond the technical capacity and the direct physical control of local residents. In such crises, trained professionals can often be killed or flee either for their safety or for the well-being of their family if their income is too sporadic or insufficient due to the service provider’s inability to cover salaries. Knowledge of the system therefore decreases, poor operational decisions are made, longer-term planning capacity reduces and the overall system becomes increasingly vulnerable to shocks.
  • Hardware: Considerable infrastructure and equipment may be required for the abstraction, treatment, storage and distribution of water. Direct destruction of, or damage to, any of these elements will limit service delivery. Furthermore, infrastructure will degrade over time if proper operation and routine maintenance are not performed. As such, a lack of funds over an extended period will lead to a lack of spare parts and non-functional tools and machinery, which collectively hinders preventative maintenance. Negative coping mechanisms, such as the cannibalisation of other equipment, can set in and even accelerate decline. As service delivery degrades, willingness to pay also diminishes, leaving the utility with dwindling income to cover the costs associated with ensuring proper operation and maintenance, which in turn feeds this vicious cycle. Even if a utility is successfully responding to repeated incidents of breakdown maintenance, it is already in a precarious situation and increasingly vulnerable to system collapse.
  • Consumables: Similar to hardware, stocks of fuel and chemicals for treatment can be destroyed by any direct impact (bombing, earthquake, etc.), and a lack of cash flow from an economic squeeze can also indirectly disrupt supply. In addition, there may be embargos (e.g. on gas chlorine, aluminium-based coagulants or chemicals for laboratory analysis) as well as disrupted supply chains due to security or access limitations. A lack of consumables will reduce distribution times and/or water quality at a time when demand is at its highest, considering situations where utilities have to serve both host and displaced populations. This will affect consumer willingness to pay, often leading to a decline in cash flow and accentuating the paucity of funds available to the utility. 

Overall, cumulative impacts lead to the long-term deterioration of urban water supply systems through incremental direct and/or indirect impact(s) on one or more of the critical components of service delivery. This is difficult to recover from due to the sheer scale of the infrastructural rehabilitation work needed to restore any service. The interconnectedness of urban services (such as water supply on electricity supply) creates additional vulnerabilities and complexity. For most humanitarian organisations, the expertise needed to address these interdependencies between services may not be within their capacity and capabilities, and the budget required to do so at scale could be orders of magnitude above that generally available in emergency contexts.

Notes for Practitioners

When involved in an emergency response in an urban context it is important to recognise the importance of the ‘organism’ that is the utility and avoid remaining focused on the beneficiary. For the utility, as a centralised entity, no action is carried out in a vacuum, and actions taken at one location can have unexpected consequences elsewhere in the system as well as on other interconnected critical infrastructure. For example, water trucking or pipeline extensions may simply deprive certain neighbourhoods of water for the benefit of others, which can lead to tension, especially if those areas are tribally, religiously or politically distinct. Additionally, even if water is abstracted for ‘humanitarian purposes’, a failure to pay deprives the utility of much needed cashflow for the maintenance of service delivery and even the salaries of their staff. Along the same lines, providing fuel or chemicals may be a worthwhile intervention, though it can breed dependence on handouts and should be avoided unless specific circumstances require it (i.e. sanctions) or a clear exit strategy is in place.

Protracted armed conflicts are characterised by their longevity, intractability and mutability, and as such it is important to invest in a relationship with the utility, and the earlier the better. It is by understanding the people, the hardware and the use of consumables that the most appropriate interventions can be identified.

The replacement of parts and donations of goods in kind are simple and may provide temporary respite, but without detailed knowledge of the entire system, they can often miss the critical underlying issues. Replacing a broken centrifugal pump, for example, will not resolve the preventative maintenance issue that could triple the lifetime of a pump. Similarly, providing more aluminium sulphate will not correct inefficient coagulation through improper pH control or reduce consumable costs, and paying salaries will not improve revenue collection that is suffering because of the utility’s poor image with consumers due to the unreliable service. Treating the symptoms will only temporarily mask the true challenges of the utility and could even lead to a misappropriation of funds. While potentially challenging, a systems approach will generally be cheaper and more effective in the long-term.

Whilst responding to clearly urgent needs may involve the quick-fix interventions alluded to above, taking the time to carry out technical and institutional diagnostic studies is essential for identifying and prioritising the critical weak points in the system to improve the targeting of interventions and help ensure service continuity. Support to service providers should also include developing emergency preparedness plans (e.g. locating and preparing alternative water sources), building in redundancies to boost system resilience or, if appropriate, constructing extensions to displacement settlements — though this requires decent spatial knowledge of consumption as well modelling of the infrastructure to avoid causing shortages outside the target location. A humanitarian organisation can also act as a convenor between interconnected sectors and service providers to ensure, for example, sufficient energy supply to critical water installations. The results will be a broader, multifaceted programme of interventions, including infrastructural improvements, technical or managerial capacity building plans and material support (fuel, spare parts, chemicals, excavators, vehicles, computers, etc.), which will boost a utility’s resilience in the face of a crisis and ensure a longer-term benefit for public health.

Once interventions to mitigate decline or reinstate capacity are underway, utilities can then be supported in planning for the future. In cases of armed conflict, development actors may withdraw from a country, either for safety reasons or as their statutes prevent them from working with ‘illegitimate’ governments. Depending on the context, humanitarian organisations can provide support by developing Master Plans that plot the required trajectory of a utility for 20 to 25 years in the future. These serve as both a financial and technical planning document for the utility as well as a basis for fundraising by the state or even the humanitarian actor. This ensures an anchor against service decline by providing first and foremost a preventative approach that aims to safeguard public health and mitigate other humanitarian consequences, while securing ‘development holds’ against the development reversals caused by protracted conflict, which can be built upon by donors upon their return during reconstruction.

More innovative options could also be attempted, but their relevance will depend highly on the context. Cash transfer projects (see X.17) that pay consumer water bills (especially for the vulnerable or displaced) could be piloted, as these will maintain cashflow to the utility and provide temporary respite from financial burden for families in crisis. However, this will require a significant effort in communication, registration and follow up as well as cost. In areas that are insufficiently dense for Water Kiosks D.4 to be financially viable, solar pre-paid dispensers could be tested, though they have yet to be proven to work over the long-term. Finally, remote data collection technologies can monitor the operation of a system and accurately inform decisions that guide maintenance operations by reporting on flow, energy consumption, aquifer level, and water quality amongst many other parameters. 

Stands for power of hydrogen; a scale used to specify how acidic or basic (alkaline) a waterbased solution is. A pH value below 7 indicates that a solution is acidic, and a pH value above 7 indicates that it is basic (alkaline).