Study: Sub-Saharan Africans benefit from buying water

December 9, 2013 by Rob Jordan, Stanford University
In sub-Saharan Africa, about one in five people purchase water from neighbors connected to public or private utility lines.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60 percent of city dwellers live in slums, and population pressures have led to unplanned development lacking basic infrastructure, such as water lines.

Only a third of urban dwellers have access to a piped water connection in their homes. Other sources, such as public standpipes, are often plagued by poor maintenance, heavy use and high cost due to the need for attendants and other factors. They often require long travel and waiting times, too.

As a result, about one in five people purchase water from neighbors connected to public or private utility lines. This practice, known as resale, is either illegal or informal in many places.

Stanford researchers are challenging the logic of discouraging resale. Their findings show that resale is as good or better than standpipes in terms of quality, quantity, convenience and price of water, and that current tariffs on the practice penalize the poor. The Stanford findings were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development.

Resale's prohibition in most of sub-Saharan Africa for public health reasons is a red herring, said studies co-author Jennifer Davis, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. "The same concerns could be raised about standpipes and public taps that are operated directly by utilities," Davis said. "Legalizing resale is generally a good thing to do, so long as appropriate water tariffs are part of the program."

At the request of the government of Mozambique, Valentina Zuin, a doctoral student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources who led the research, is translating the findings into a policy and research agenda, which includes resale as a service option and a restructured water tariff. The agenda will help guide Mozambique water sector policy and infrastructure investments toward the country's goal of achieving universal urban water coverage by 2025.

Already, the Stanford research has influenced decision makers to include a water tariff reform component in a recently approved $178 million World Bank-funded project. The project will connect approximately 100,000 households in Mozambique's capital, Maputo, to the formal water supply system by expanding the city's piped-water network in unplanned areas and increasing coverage in poor inner-city neighborhoods.

Davis, Zuin and their fellow researchers make clear that the current tariff structure in Maputo, which is a typical tariff structure used in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond, penalizes the poor, including resellers and their customers, by pricing water higher for people who use it most, such as those supplying their neighbors. Resellers generally don't sell their water to maximize profit, the recently published research finds, but to meet subsistence needs, solidify relationships and reap other community-oriented benefits.

As in many other sub-Saharan African countries, resale's legal status is ambiguous in Mozambique: There is no law that either allows or prohibits it. Yet, the large majority of the population perceives it as an illegal practice. A 2011 Stanford study on the issue influenced the country's regulatory authority to launch a TV campaign to inform the public that the practice is not illegal. This has helped dispel penalty fears, and eliminated the ability of utility employees to extort "hush money," or bribes, from those who practice resale, according to Zuin. It is also expected that resale legalization will increase consumers' satisfaction with this service option.

Explore further: In sub-Saharan Africa, a shorter walk to water saves lives

More information: Read the full paper: … f/washdev2013065.pdf

Related Stories

In sub-Saharan Africa, a shorter walk to water saves lives

February 3, 2012

In the fight against child mortality in the developing world, simple things make a big difference. A new study by Stanford researchers recently published online by the journal Environmental Science and Technology shows that ...

Looking at sachet water consumption in Ghana

June 19, 2013

Many of West Africa's largest cities continue to lag in their provision of piped water to residents. Filling the service gap are plastic water sachets, which have become an important source of drinking water for the region. ...

Zimbabwe warned on risk of cholera outbreak

November 19, 2013

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday warned that Zimbabwe's capital Harare was at risk of repeating a cholera outbreak five years ago that killed over 4,200 people.

Smart water meters stop money going down the drain

November 6, 2013

A project by Griffith University's Smart Water Research Facility has discovered that using 'smart' water meters to identify leaks in and around the home can result in significant savings.

Recommended for you

Maximizing the environmental benefits of autonomous vehicles

February 15, 2018

The added weight, electricity demand and aerodynamic drag of the sensors and computers used in autonomous vehicles are significant contributors to their lifetime energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new ...


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.