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Water justice in cities: from distributional struggles to co-produced transformation

PascaleHofmann10 June 2015

Rapid urban expansion and the emergence of new urban centres in the Global South is frequently accompanied by a lack of adequate infrastructure and services. This is resulting in declining levels of access to water supply and sanitation for a large number of urban dwellers, with the State increasingly unable to fulfill its role as a provider of basic services.

I will elaborate on this using the example of Dar es Salaam, a city that has been the focus of my research for a while.

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Private vendors take on the responsibility for water delivery where formal infrastructure is absent. This usually means that those living in poorer areas end up paying more than those connected to the piped network.

In Tanzania’s largest city we see that formal service provision is limited to central and more affluent areas. The gap in service provision is particularly high in rapidly growing peri-urban areas such as Tungi and Kigamboni, whose inhabitants are among the worst served.

Both wards are areas that tend to absorb large proportions of the growing urban population, but with disproportionately high percentages of poor households. This is going to accelerate further once the construction of a new bridge that connects these two wards to the city’s main business district is complete.

Peri-urban areas may be incorporated into the city, but still lack services

At the same time, many informal areas previously labelled as ‘peri-urban’, like the Kombo and Karakata subwards close to the airport in the South, have become more consolidated and incorporated into the urban core. Yet they continue to suffer from non-existent or inadequate formal infrastructure and services.

As with the Kigamboni peninsula, the majority of those affected are lower-income people that experience varying degrees of water poverty, often with severe implications on their livelihoods; both in terms of the additional time spent to meet their needs and their income, if their economic activities rely on water.

Map of Dar es Salaam, with the area of Kigamboni highlighted in red. From Google Maps

Map of Dar es Salaam, with the area of Kigamboni highlighted in red. From Google Maps

Global efforts to meet water and sanitation needs

To address injustices in the current provision of infrastructure and services, there has been a renewed commitment globally towards universal access through the Sustainable Development Goals in order to activate people’s right to water supply and sanitation. Tanzania is one of the countries that have endorsed the right to water and sanitation.

In practice, however, efforts to tackle the shortfall have largely been seen as a problem of maldistribution. In other words, proposed solutions currently include expanding the water source, reforming the utility and improving the network – these plans assign major roles to utilities, the state and external support agencies.

Poverty, which is first and foremost conceived as people’s financial inability to pay, is regularly presented as the main reason for people lacking access to water supply and sanitation. This is in spite of evidence that Dar es Salaam’s lower-income households frequently pay more in relative and actual terms for a service that in reality is of a lower quality and lower frequency.

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More than just a distributional struggle

But water injustices in cities are much more than just a distributional struggle. They are created by socially fabricated political-economic structures, which have led to clear power imbalances that misrecognise those without access. Power relations play a significant role in Dar es Salaam where water has become a commodified good. Even though water supply is in public hands the utility is heavily pushed to be financially autonomous and commercially viable.

In Dar es Salaam and many other cities in the Global South the lack of entitlement and recognition is associated with the informal status of the urban water poor and their disempowerment. While the utility acknowledges their responsibility to provide Dar es Salaam’s residents with water regardless of their tenure status the proportion of their action contributing towards improving supply in informal settlements has been negligible so far.

Co-produced water practices

The deficiency of utility networks and supply in poor urban settlements has given rise to the emergence of a range of alternative practices. Many of them emerge out of poor people’s needs and can range from individual coping mechanisms to collectively organised and negotiated initiatives. Some of these communal efforts represent different forms of co-produced service provision whereby organised groups of poor communities are collaborating with the state directly.

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Goals of current DPU research

Earlier this year, I was part of a group of colleagues from DPU, in collaboration with a number of partner organisations, that embarked on the Wat Just research project – Translocal learning for water justice: Peri-urban pathways in India, Tanzania and Bolivia to explore alternative practices to access services with a particular focus on co-produced water management in three cities; Cochabamba, Dar es Salaam and Kolkata.

In each city we found a variety of service co-production arrangements that range from latent state support to fully institutionalised co-production platforms. However, very little is known to date about their actual performance and their potential to operate at scale.

The aim of our future research is to examine their transformative potential to address not only the current service gap – i.e. meet the urban poor’s practical needs – but also to investigate how far they can tackle more strategic needs such as challenging and transforming existing power relations that threaten to keep the needs of the urban poor hidden.


Pascale Hofmann is a lecturer at the DPU and is currently studying for an EngD at the DPU and UCL’s department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (CEGE). She has been working with Professor Adriana Allen on a research project with seed-funding from the ISSC (International Social Science Council) Transformations to Sustainability Programme.

The project, on Translocal learning for water justice: Peri-urban pathways in India, Tanzania and Bolivia, has brought together academics and NGOs from Bolivia, India and Tanzania to discuss and share the challenges and opportunities of co-produced water and sanitation services in their cities. How can these platforms contribute towards water justice at the city scale? A series of Water Justice City Profiles have been produced, elaborating on the challenges in each urban region, as well as a series of videos that explain the concepts and contexts in which the research operates – several of which will be released in the coming weeks.