Why can people get access to mobile phones, and not safe water?

Posted 11 Oct 2016 by Vincent Casey

Vincent Casey, a Senior WASH Adviser at WaterAid, looks at how comparison of two completely different services can offer new angles and provide lessons for reaching everyone everywhere with safe water.

At a conference in London recently I once again heard a question I’ve been asked on countless occasions: ‘If people can get access to mobile phones why can’t they get access to safe water?’

A village in Zambia with a mobile base station in the background.A rural village in Zambia with a mobile base station in the background.

According to this January 2016 Afrobarometer survey covering 35 African countries, 93% of respondents said there was a mobile phone service in their area and only 63% said there was piped water. This does not mean that all survey participants had mobile phone or water services, nor does it mean the survey results are representative of access in poorer African countries. The survey acknowledges that real access totals are likely to be far lower.

A report by Pew Global finds that mobile phones are as common in South Africa and Nigeria as in the USA. This is not the case in places like rural Zambia or Uganda, but a growing number of people in rural communities do have mobile phone access, and reception is improving dramatically. 3G high-speed mobile data services can be found in many remote places where the roads aren’t even tarmacked.

Meanwhile, access to piped water is lagging behind, with the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) reporting that only 16% of people in Africa have access to household water connections. Piped water does not necessarily mean safe water; it can sometimes be more contaminated than water from hand pumps. And people don't have to have access to piped water to have safe water, however piped water is certainly a means of getting safe water to people’s homes, if well managed.

So what could be behind the grave disparity in service access that keeps prompting the mobile phone/water question? Why aren’t increases in access to piped water keeping pace with a seemingly exponential increase in access to mobile?

The issue of public vs private sector service provision is sometimes offered as a reason. Mobile services are 100% delivered and managed by private companies, whereas rural water services are delivered and occasionally managed by a mixture of local governments, public or private utilities, private contractors, small-scale private operators, aid agencies, and service users. Is the success of mobile really down to it being 100% run by private companies? This would imply that countries like Zambia have a lucrative rural water market, which private piped water service providers could access with affordable tariffs and a full-cost recovery model. Is this the case?

Are aid agencies stifling private sector investment in rural water markets by supporting provision of basic services? Are private sector players being deterred from investing in rural water services because the human right to water is mistakenly understood to mean people shouldn’t pay for water? Or are there more practical reasons why mobile service providers have been able to reach people where piped water supplies haven’t? It seems the latter is true.

Water is heavier than airtime...

I believe one key explanation for this situation is the fundamental physical difference between water and airtime. One cubic metre of water weighs one tonne; one cubic metre of electromagnetic radiation passing through the air as a mobile phone signal weighs nothing. Clearly it is more difficult to get something that weighs a tonne to people than it is to get them something that weighs nothing.

Unlike a mobile signal, which a transmitter can generate anywhere, water operators cannot simply produce water from scratch. Often water is not where people need it, so must be transported. Distribution requires pumps, energy, pipework, storage, treatment and leakage management. Rural households can be vast distances apart, requiring large quantities of energy and infrastructure. It has not been practical to connect all remote rural households into large piped networks even in regions considered to have good coverage, such as Western Europe. Connecting households in sparsely populated locations like Zambia’s Southern Province would be infinitely more challenging.

A base station tower (left) which can serve thousands of people within a 32km radius, and a water tower (right) which serves approximately 40 people in a small hotel.A base station tower (left) which can serve thousands of people within a 32km radius, and a water tower (right) which serves approximately 40 people in a small hotel.

3G doesn't need pipes

Anyone within a 32km radius of a mobile phone base station can access mobile services with nothing more than a handset. Base stations transmit and receive wireless signals and the towers interconnect by microwave links. High-quality microwave links are expensive, but cheaper than laying the thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cable that would otherwise be required for a national data network.

Mobile coverage can be managed centrally

Mobile service management and maintenance is highly centralised around base stations and national-level data exchanges. A highly centralised management and maintenance structure, coupled with a product that can be transmitted in all directions from a central point, enables mobile operators to reach people over wide areas and get their calls out nationally or globally within seconds.

The physical necessities associated with providing water force providers to adopt a more decentralised method of service provision than that of mobile providers. This brings substantial human and financial capacity constraints, which take a heavy toll on service levels.

The service provider has full control over access to mobile

Mobile phone users don’t generally build their own handsets or set up their own mobile networks. Service control is in the hands of the mobile provider, who can be confident they will not lose their market share because people are drifting to their own makeshift mobile service options. Water users, however, have the option to dig their own wells or collect water from rivers and lakes. Where piped water supplies cost money, but water from hand pumps and wells is free, people generally opt for the latter, which makes revenue collection more difficult for piped scheme operators. There is nothing wrong with users developing their own safe water supply options; in fact, it should be encouraged as it can sometimes be a more realistic way of getting people a safe service.

A tap stand in rural Zambia.A tap stand in rural Zambia.

Asset management and greater potential for competition

When mobile operators started out, they all built their own base stations. Some had coverage in certain areas, others didn’t. Now they are increasingly pooling their assets by selling base stations to third party companies who take on their management. These companies rent space on the base stations to different networks, allowing them all to reach a wider area. This stimulates competition between providers, which drives down prices for users.

Attractive investment opportunities

Mobile markets are relatively new territory, providing exciting investment opportunities for fund managers. The mobile sector has attracted sufficient foreign capital to set up the infrastructure necessary to provide widespread coverage. Funds have been channelled through mobile companies themselves, reducing the potential for diversion.

Rural water, however, is not a new business area, nor has it been an attractive investment opportunity.

But mobile providers face challenges too

That is not to say it is easy to get mobile network coverage to people. As demonstrated in this report by the International Finance Corporation, running a base station is not cheap – low rates of rural electrification and frequent power outages mean many towers must be run off-grid, using 24-hour diesel generators at high monetary and environmental cost. There are also significant maintenance costs, and evidence of losses from theft and vandalism to infrastructure.

Poor roads bring high transportation costs, and many countries have uncertain policy and regulatory environments.

Behind the dramatic headlines about high rates of mobile phone access in Africa, operators are grappling with significant logistical and market penetration challenges. Still, they are pressing ahead and making great gains.

Despite the differences between mobile and water supply services, the water sector – comprised of governments, donors, NGOs, private and public sector operators involved in the delivery of water supply – have a lot to learn from the way mobile operators provide services in Africa. There is huge attention to service management, service maintenance, service levels, asset management, and customer support.

Bad for business

No mobile operator would construct a base station and hand it over to a remote rural community to manage without a fairly sophisticated ongoing service support mechanism. No mobile operator would give customers handsets and ask them how much they would like to pay for calls. No mobile operator would run a continuously bad service with frequent periods of downtime – they would lose revenue very quickly. No mobile operator would continue implementing a repeatedly failing model of service provision without revising it. No mobile operator would disregard user feedback about how services could be improved unless it wanted to become irrelevant.

These practices are all quite common in the rural water sector, and urgently need to become the focus for those involved in providing services, in addition to getting new access to unserved communities.

Potential models of success

There are some very promising models for provision of piped rural water with higher service levels.

Private operators running piped services in rural areas struggle to access credit for major maintenance, financial management, procurement of high-quality parts and access to training. In Uganda, regional associations of operators, known as umbrellas, have helped to improve service levels. These associations assist with training, procurement of parts, loans, and financial management. They strengthen communication between Government, service providers and users to ensure ongoing service issues are resolved.

The umbrellas focus on rural growth centres (800–12,000 inhabitants) and small towns, but with more support they could downscale further. As contributions from members don’t cover full costs, this service must be subsidised in the same way it often is in developed countries. People need services now, and in places where there is a limited cash economy the prospect of 100% cost recovery currently seems like an abstract proposition. Subsidy to umbrella support associations does not preclude private operators from entering the rural water market - it actually creates an enabling environment for them to do so. WaterAid have established a similar model to these umbrella support associations in Timor Leste. Look out for more news from colleagues in Timor Leste shortly.

All rural water sector players should pay close attention to such models and push for higher service levels. Without attention to service management, service levels, asset management, and customer support, coupled with efforts to encourage self-supply where possible, water services will continue to lag behind mobile.

Vincent Casey is a Senior WASH Adviser at WaterAid. You can read more of his work here.


Add your comment


  • Remi Kaupp said:

    11 Oct 2016 16:36

    Wow Vinny, great post and lots of ideas to respond to that constant comparison being made. Reminds me of that good debunking of "leapfrogging" (the idea whereby you can skip installing big infrastructures thanks to Silicon Valley-type innovation like drones) on

  • Ross Bailey said:

    12 Oct 2016 12:29

    Fantastic blog Vinny. Accepting that silver bullets are few and far between should encourage us to look at the systems rather than the technologies.

  • Akah henry said:

    12 Oct 2016 13:54

    One service(mobile phones) offers complete cost recovery and profits. The other(water services) is struggling and depends on subsidies to survive. Where subsidies are absent the water services are abandoned to themselves and failure is eminent. The cost for investment and the true value for operation and maintenance, rehabilitation and reconstruction must be known so that a balanced financing mechanism can be adopted such that clear responsibilities are assigned to all the stakeholders(state, funding agencies, service providers, users etc.) involved in water service provision.

  • Harold Lockwood said:

    12 Oct 2016 14:59

    Nice thoughts Vinny, thanks. It is also I think about what people want to pay for. In the early 1990s I spent a lot of time in rural communities in Nicaragua. These were out in the selva, but people could still buy soft drinks and beer which they chose to do over paying for their water, even when this was less costly. And this was the women and the men. So the challenge may also be one of how we make buying water as attractive as buying air time? (this was all pre-mobile phones, which rather carbon dates me).

  • F H Mughal said:

    12 Oct 2016 16:30

    A major difference is that the cellular companies make great efforts, with promotional materials and TV ads, to get you connected, and to buy cell phones. On the other hand, the water service provider would be happy to keep you away from water connection, by creating major obstacles.

  • Hannah Crichton-Smith said:

    12 Oct 2016 18:24

    Such a great blog, Vinny, thanks for sharing. I particularly like the section Bad for Business - it really brings home the importance of continued external support, accountability and strong institutions.

  • Alexander Nash said:

    13 Oct 2016 10:17

    The "mobile telephony challenge" is a good one and should make us think - perhaps a bit harder. Some thoughts and responses here:

  • Waled Mahmud said:

    13 Oct 2016 11:53

    With due respect to the concern authority, I’m humbly presenting my query for better understanding of the outcome. My query is did you analyze the mobile phone users’ view means why they are interested to spend money for taking a mobile phone? I didn’t get such analytical outcome on this article. Access on safe water is primarily a heath related issue where economic issue would be secondary considering factor . On the other side, any person, would be interested to spend money for having a mobile phone as it has direct relation with financial matters. It means nature of demand of these two aspects is completely different. Mobile phone operators have the opportunity to invest more money as its demand is huge and return possibility is also more compare with any health related issue. So, more strong rational is require for establishing the subject matter.

  • Andrew Foote-Sanivation said:

    16 Oct 2016 6:09

    Great and thorough post! This is something we think a lot about as a private sector provider of toilets.

    One thing we try to talk about, and that we have seen the private sector do well is push verse pull marketing. How do we make water and toilets pull products like cell-phones?
    We ask questions like: Why did it take so long for seat belt usage to increase and why is it as a life saving intervention still relatively low? The state of Massachusetts is still only at 75 percent usage. How did computer access scale so quickly? Again in Massachusetts 91 percent of households have a computer (85 percent have high speed internet).
    Lets keep this discussion going. The more smart people we can have solving the water and sanitation crisis the better!

WaterAid is not responsible for the content of any comments posted here and we do not edit comments. There may be a short delay before your comment appears on the blog post. 

We reserve the right to remove posts we believe contain inappropriate material. For further details, see our community guidelines. To report a comment, please email