The high price of water for the poor

3 min read

On World Water Day WaterAid Australia Policy Officer Luke Lovell reflects on the importance of water.

Today is World Water Day - a day dedicated to one of the most precious resources on earth. World Water Day is also a time to reflect on how fortunate we are. For most Australians clean water is readily available and affordable. This however is not the experience of many people in the countries who receive Australian aid. WaterAid’s new report ‘Water: At What Cost? The State of the World’s Water’, reveals the high price some of the world’s poorest people pay for this most basic need.

In Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby, roughly half the population live in informal settlements. Few of these communities are connected to the public water mains and sewerage pipes. This leaves people to purchase water for drinking and cooking from private vendors. At a cost of 7.5 Kina ($3.27) for 50 litres (the World Health Organization-recommended minimum to meet daily basic needs) people on low-incomes can spend up to 54 per cent of their daily earnings on clean water. People that can’t afford this price are left with a wicked choice: cut back their water use to potentially unsafe levels, or collect dirty water from ponds and rivers.

Papua New Guinea – Worst in the world for percentage of population without safe water
Image: WaterAid

With 650 million people worldwide without access to safe water, this scenario is all too common. While climate change and growing populations are putting stress on resources, the biggest barrier to improving people’s access to water is political will - in many countries this vital service is given little political priority and in turn receives little funding. This was true of Papua New Guinea until a year ago, when the PNG Government approved its first National Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Policy.

With the policy only recently introduced, there is now momentum in PNG to ensure everyone has access to clean, plentiful and affordable water. But there’s also a need for money and skills to turn the policy into reality. Overcoming these barriers is where donors and civil society organisations like WaterAid can, and have been, helping. WaterAid participated in the development of PNG’s policy and continues to be a member of the Government’s policy taskforce, advising on best approaches to water supply in rural, remote and peri-urban communities. We’re also working with Port Moresby’s water utility Eda Ranu to identify how the urban and peri-urban poor can be provided with affordable water and sanitation services.

However, broader progress is at risk of being undermined by cuts to aid. With the Australian Government making a cut of $66.7 million to aid for basic water and sanitation between financial years 2014-15 and 2015-16, investment in the basic necessities now stands at $48.2 million – the lowest level in a decade. That’s why this World Water Day we’re calling on the Government to restore this cut. If Australia is to work effectively with Pacific countries to address the challenges they face, it needs to put water (and sanitation and hygiene) much higher on the Government’s strategic aid agenda.

We see firsthand how with access to water everything changes: people are healthier, they’re more productive, and women and children can use the time they spent collecting water to go to school or pursue paid work. Improving people’s access to safe water by restoring this cut is one way Australia can help our neighbours to realise a brighter, more dignified future.