Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Researchers draw attention to use of well water by urban poor

BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE
Girl fetching water from a well fitted with a pump

Researchers with the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), have strongly advocated for the inclusion of well water when measuring access to water by the urban poor, as most people depend largely on them.
In a study published last week Monday, 15 November 2010, the researchers maintained that a key water resource that will grow in importance as climate change takes hold is currently going largely unmeasured — with big implications for poor communities in developing nations,.
The International Institute for Environment and Development’s study shows that hundreds of millions of urban people in developing countries already depend on water taken directly from wells, which they classify as a hidden resource and thus ‘invisible’.
Specifically, the study estimates that almost a third of urban households in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia rely on groundwater from local wells, and that the share is considerably higher among poorer households.
Making the findings of the study public, a press statement issued by the IIED said water taken directly from wells rather than being piped to users from surface-water supplies such as rivers and reservoirs is rarely taken into account, and it is therefore being used invisibly.
“This might mean that it is being used unsustainably but it might also mean that groundwater has even greater potential to supply poor communities than is currently thought,” according to the Institute.
The study warns that policymakers, donors and others have neglected poor people’s dependence on wells, and it urges action to ensure that people can use groundwater in a safe and sustainable way.
“The policy trend is to promote the use of piped water but as our research shows, large proportions of urban populations are not served and must supply themselves with groundwater from wells,” says co-author Dr Jenny Grönwall.
He adds that “Unfortunately most official statistics, including those that measure progress towards the UN Millennium Development Goal on water, fail to acknowledge the value of different kinds of wells.”
Grönwall states further that “It is critical that the neglect of this resource ends, as research suggests that climate change will make groundwater increase in importance in large parts of the world, not least in the urban areas of developing nations.”
One problem is that the UN Millennium Development Goal system defines wells as being ‘improved’ or ‘unimproved’ when these terms do not reflect real differences in the importance of wells and can in fact condemn vital sources of water, the statement says, adding, one of the reasons that groundwater gets neglected is an assumption that it is of poor quality or likely to be contaminated, especially if a well is located close to a latrine.
“It is a misconception that sanitation facilities near wells will automatically cause disease and that such wells deserve to be shut down,” says co-author Dr. Martin Mulenga. “In reality, transmission routes for harmful microbes are much more complex,” Dr. Mulenga maintains.
To him, “Household treatment and good hygiene practices such as hand-washing may still need to be promoted to reduce health risks,” and that “Governments and donor agencies should take steps to enable poor communities to use groundwater in a safe and sustainable way, rather than discouraging their use of this resource.”
The researchers say that, overall, a greater availability of well-water can be better for people’s health as it promotes good hygiene, stressing that not all water used must be of potable standard.
They also call for better monitoring of urban groundwater resources and wells and for groundwater to be included more often in plans and policies for integrated water resource management. Measures to improve recharge of aquifers and to protect both groundwater and wells from pollution are urgent, the researchers say.
“While water privatisation and regional water scarcities grab the limelight, this study shows that a large share of the world’s poorest urban dwellers actually depend on local wells,” says Dr. Gordon McGranahan, head of IIED’s Human Settlements Group.
“Far more needs to be done to support the efforts of local households and communities, and to make water supplies from wells more reliable and safe. This will be a challenge for water sector organisations more accustomed to working through large utilities and regional water resource authorities,” Dr. McGranahan opines.
The research, which includes extended case-studies of Bangalore, India and Lusaka, Zambia — adds that self-supply from local wells can be a cheaper alternative to piped supplies in situations where infrastructure for house connections is unfeasible or too costly.

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