The world's poorest pay largest percentage of income for water, study says

Every 10 days or so Rajabhau Deshmukh buys enough water for his family of six to drink and to irrigate what farmland he can in the drought-stricken Beed district of southern Maharashtra state in India.

Seventy dollars gets him about 2,642 gallons, an allotment that falls so short of his farming needs that five acres of his arid land have grown useless. But for man who makes roughly $600 a year, it’s all Deshmukh can afford.

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Across India and much of the globe, the story is the same – the world’s poorest have the most limited access to clean, safe water, and pay the largest chunk of their incomes to obtain it.

According to a WaterAid study published Tuesday, water saps more than half of the meager earnings of many of the world’s poorest while those in developed nations spend only a fraction of their incomes on water. 

The study, “Water: At What Cost? The State of the World’s Water,” coincides with the international observance of World Water Day. It ranks nations based on rates of household access to water, calculated on the “typical low daily salary” in each country, WaterAid officials said. It also includes countries that have improved the most over the last 15 years.

The report concludes that at least 650 million people -- or nearly 1 in 10 people -- around the globe do not have access to clean and safe water and more than 2.3 billion lack access to basic sanitation. In 16 countries, even a basic water facility such as a protected well is unavailable to more than 40% of the population, according to the report.

The result is that those living in extreme poverty often have no choice but to buy water from water delivery trucks, or from vendors who seek inflated prices for the scarce resource.

“Ultimately it boils down to the fact that the poorest people often get the least attention and investment from their governments and they have the least power to demand their rights to these services,” said Lisa Schechtman, director of policy and advocacy for WaterAid America.

Papua New Guinea, Equatorial Guinea and Angola top the list of nations with the lowest percentage of households with access to clean water. In Papua New Guinea, for example, where 60% of the country’s 7.3 million population is without safe water, the poorest of the poor pay as much as 54% of their daily earnings for about 13 gallons of water from a delivery service, according to the report. Those 13 gallons, which is what the World Health Organization recommends as the minimum daily amount to meet basic needs, cost $2.60.

In Madagascar, people who rely on tanker trucks for their water supply would spend as much as 45% of their daily income to get just the recommended daily minimum supply, according to the report. And in Mozambique, families who depend on black-market vendors for water could spend up to 100 times as much for the resource than people who have access to a community tap subsidized by the government.

In developed parts of the world, a standard water bill is as little as 0.1% of the income of a minimum-wage earner, according to the report.

“Poor people are victimized because this is a resource they really cannot live without,” Schechtman said. 

India, China and Nigeria have the highest numbers of people without access to clean water. In India, where almost 76 million people lack safe water and where most of those survive on about $4.25 a day, the daily-recommended minimum supply of water could cost them 17% of their salaries, according to the data.

Ram Kunwar Nagarboje, who comes from a family of farmers in Beed, said the water tanker parks a couple of miles from her house, so at least once a week family members must haul their drums to be filled. The chore can take up to seven hours.

Nagarboje, 30, said the family of six goes two to three days without bathing to save water for their livestock, which is their livelihood.

“A lot of water is set aside for our cattle and we manage with whatever remains,” Nagarboje said.

Deshmukh said the water he buys is often dirty and his village has seen an increase in illnesses in the last year. But, he added, “the quality is not the issue as long as it helps us survive. The choice really is between dirty water and no water.”

According to WaterAid statistics, 140,000 Indian children die each year from diarrhea because they lack access to clean water. Globally, diarrheal diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation kill about 315,000 children annually and are the second biggest child killer after pneumonia. An estimated 50% of malnutrition cases are linked to chronic diarrhea, the report says.

“Time spent waiting for or collecting water could be used more productively for economic, education or family support,” Jennifer Sara, the World Bank Group’s director for water, said in a written response to questions. “Lack of access to sanitation poses genuine safety issues for women and girls. Poor sanitation facilities affect female attendance at schools.”

Some countries, such as Cambodia, Mali, Laos and Ethiopia have made progress in improving access to water for their populations over the last 15 years, according to the report. But tens of millions are still not being served and it is often the poorest who are paying the highest percentages of their incomes for water, the report says.

“Lack of access to funding is central to this issue, and is caused by a mix of weak governance, inefficiency, poor commercial activities and inability to generate enough revenue to maintain or expand services,” Sara said.

In India, for example, WaterAid cites poor management of water resources, embezzlement and failure to use adequate sources or pipeline to reach settlements as reasons why the resource is not reaching the entire population. 

Legal frameworks, such as discounting the right to water of people living in informal settlements, like slums, have also prevented the poor in some countries from getting access to water, said Schechtman. And climate change has contributed to the depletion of ground-level water sources.

Still, water advocates remain optimistic that access to clean, safe and affordable water for everyone is achievable.

The biggest step, said the World Bank’s Sara, is “to make water supply and sanitation a political priority in a country.”

Special correspondent Parth M.N. in Mumbai, India, contributed to this report.

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