The Geographical Journal

Piped dreams? Understanding the need for and values of informal community based water supply

By Amita Bhakta, Loughborough University

Image credit: Rod Shaw, WEDC 2015

It’s a hot, sunny day. Feeling thirsty? More than likely, you can go to the kitchen, turn on the tap and, there we have it, a glass of clear water, safe for consumption. But what if there was no tap, no pipe, no clean water? And should we assume that a piped supply of water is always the answer?

With World Water Day taking place this week, we’re reminded of the immense challenges we still face in providing adequate drinking water for all. As the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals emphasise, this remains a critical concern across many developing countries. In their paper in The Geographical Journal, Liddle et al (2016) highlight the importance of multi-faceted approaches to ensure that community based water supplies can be effectively provided and maintained in the longer run. That is to say, a mix of both formal and informal water supplies are needed in a community context.

Liddle et al (2016) discuss in great depth the reasons why people in Zambia turn to informal sources, they cite: intermittent water supply as the pipes previously put in place by the colonial powers struggle to meet demand; finance as individuals in Ndola spend 45% of their income on water; and the ever present problem of poor water quality unfit for people to drink.

But it is about more than these issues, the less formal, more intangible values of water held by the local users is important. The clue is in the name, World Water Day should be about the various perceptions about water around the world, and incorporation of technical solutions for the supply of water that meets local social values.

Further to that, it’s also vital that we learn from each other. Indigenous knowledges are a vital part of the way in which we can combat our environmental challenges, and if we’re to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, to ensure that everybody can drink safe water easily, we still need to sit, listen and learn at the grassroots. After all, until the formal sector can listen to those in need, to these ‘informal’ users, water supply issues cannot be understood, nor can they be resolved without their support. The grassroots too need to listen and see which technological solutions are best for them, and an effort on both parts is needed. ‘Piped’ dreams may remain distant for many, but these knowledges can indeed pave the way for different, holistic solutions to become a reality.

books_icon Liddle E, Meger S and Nel E 2016 The importance of community-based informal water supply systems in the developing world and the need for formal sector support The Geographical Journal 181 85-96

60-world2 Shaw, R 2015 ‘Woman holding a bucket of water on her head’ Drawing Water:  A Resource Book of Illustrations on Water and Sanitation in Low-income Countries Loughborough: WEDC, Loughborough University

60-world2 Wheeler A 2016 World Water Day 2016: How access to clean water can change lives, jobs and entire societies International Business Times


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