Researchers find what makes 'black market' water vendors work more reliably and fairly

December 15, 2015

In areas of the world with no piped water, people rely on 'black market' water—sold by informal vendors who have no oversight—which can be high-priced and have dangerously poor quality. But when informal vendors establish their own unions, they adopt rules that self-regulate and provide improved water pricing, quality and delivery.

This is according to a team of researchers from Arizona State University and the Graduate Institute of International and Developmental Studies in Geneva. Their findings, due to appear in print in World Development in early 2016, have been pre-published online at ScienceDirect.

Lead author Amber Wutich, an ASU anthropologist, says, "Our research shows that there are ways to ensure people have safe and affordable service, even when they are not able to connect to a piped water grid."

Her team used an institutional framework to analyze how the markets operate; how cooperation among water vendors helps or hinders fair water delivery; and the differences in how vendors and clients view fairness as applied to rules, quality, quantity, costs, distribution and service related to the water market.

The research involved long-term participant-observation in squatter settlements and interviews with water vendors and clients in Cochabamba, Bolivia, scene of a noted "water war" in 2000.

In evaluating interactional, procedural and distributive justice, the researchers acknowledge that 'black market' water poses many challenges but has the potential to bridge supply gaps in urban water systems. The solution has long been regarded as undesirable but is increasingly recognized as unlikely to change for many urban poor communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The researchers discovered that some informal vendors - who supply most of the water used by the region's urban poor - organize themselves in vendors' unions to ensure the delivery of safe, affordable water. Unionized vendors are better at setting up reliable delivery schedules, ensuring fair prices, and monitoring water quality, when compared to non-unionized vendors.

The team also found that vendors and clients share a desire to see everyone, even the poor, achieve a "human right to water." But the researchers caution that vendors tend to focus on issues like ensuring fair pricing, while their customers are more concerned with problems such as unreliable delivery and discriminatory treatment.

Among the team's recommendations is a greater role for water unions and increased community oversight over, and engagement with, these unions.

"Water vendors are often painted as the villains in the urban poor's struggle to get water. Our work shows that they can be allies, and points to ways that these informal water markets can become more reliable and just for the people who depend on them for survival," explains Wutich, an associate professor in the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Explore further: Desalination plant to be built in Gaza

Related Stories

Desalination plant to be built in Gaza

March 20, 2014

The European Union and UNICEF launched a project Thursday to build a desalination plant in the Gaza Strip to provide 75,000 Palestinians with drinking water.

Enabling dynamic prioritization of data in the cloud

April 14, 2014

IBM inventors have patented a cloud computing invention that can improve quality of service for clients by enabling data to be dynamically modified, prioritized and shared across a cloud environment.

Professor offers primer on energy usage and drinking water

November 20, 2015

In January 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that a staggering $2.6 billion worth of treated drinking water is lost each year due to leaking water mains and approximately 240,000 main breaks. ...

Recommended for you

Fighting deforestation alone fails tropical biodiversity

June 30, 2016

International efforts to conserve tropical forest species will fail unless they control logging, wildfires and fragmentation in the remaining forests, according to ground-breaking new research published in the world's leading ...

El Nino could drive intense season for Amazon fires

June 29, 2016

The long-lasting effects of El Niño are projected to cause an intense fire season in the Amazon, according to the 2016 seasonal fire forecast from scientists at NASA and the University of California, Irvine.

Country pledges overshoot Paris temperature limit

June 29, 2016

Pledges made for the Paris agreement on climate change last winter would lead to global temperature rise of 2.6 to 3.1°C by the end of the century, according to a new analysis published in the journal Nature. In fact, the ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ForFreeMinds
1 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2015
Markets serve people, even black markets. Unlike government which usually serves itself.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.