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Water and Sanitation in Informal Settlements and the COVID-19 Crisis (Integrity Talk 2)

How can we assess and address issues of exclusion and marginalisation in informal settlements from a water integrity perspective? How can different stakeholders use integrity and support the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation in informal settlements? What has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Water Integrity Network advocates for safely managed water and sanitation services in informal settlements by working with regulators, utility companies and small water supply system operators in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We see the exclusion of people living in informal settlements from access to decent water and sanitation services as a failure of integrity. This Integrity Talk highlights the experiences of utility companies, community-led initiatives, and international organisations in addressing this failure.

With special guests:

Alana Potter (End Water Poverty), Sudha Shrestha (UN Habitat), Marcelo Rogora (Aguas y Saneamientos Argentinos, AySA) and Nils Thorup (Grundfos Foundation).

Featuring a clip of the film Into Dust, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel.


  • Recognition: Residents of informal settlements deserve recognition as active members of the urban fabric with the same rights as other urban dwellers. Such recognition is fundamental if utilities and the sate are to engage effectively with these communities for the provision of decent water and sanitation services.

  • Affordability: Water and sanitation services must be delivered at an affordable price. Many residents of informal settlements actually pay more than wealthier neighbours for water of dubious quality. This needs to be urgently addressed with policies that recognise the specific needs of people living in informal settlements. Free basic water allocations or sustainable lifeline tariffs are good examples of how to materialise the principle of affordability of the rights to water and sanitation for those living in poverty.

  • Responsibility: There is a close link between land tenure and water provision. Many people living in settlements around the world are excluded from formal water and sanitation supply because their land tenure status is not recognised. However, there is still a responsibility to deliver services. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that even in times of crisis, utility companies can undertake immediate action, regardless of land ownership, to expand service provision.

  • Pro-poor anti-corruption: the failure to provide decent water and sanitation services in informal settlements leaves the door open for corrupt, discriminatory, and discretionary service, which can put health and lives at risk. Residents may be forced into informal arrangements with water mafias, which in a number of cases are given free rein by authorities. Such arrangements leave no room for accountability and are likely to leave behind the most vulnerable.

Water Integrity for Informal Settlements during COVID-19

What are the main conditions that hinder the provision of water and sanitation services in informal settlements?

Alana Potter (End Water Poverty): More than one billion people worldwide live in informal settlements and they are usually not recognised as legitimate citizens, participants and rights-holders. Informality is commonalty associated with lawlessness and criminality. However, many informal settlements do not exist by accident; they are historically rooted and can be traced back even to colonial times. They provide land for accommodation, and affordable housing near transportation and economic centres of activity. They persist because of state and market failures to provide poor residents with affordable accommodation in well-located areas.

Stigma, discrimination, poor integrity are beneath the reluctance to provide decent services in informal settlements. The results is that residents generally pay more for water and sanitation of uncertain or inadequate quality and do not enjoy the human rights to water and sanitation even when these are constitutionally recognised. During the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of informal settlements have been severely affected because of higher population densities, stagnant water, narrow pathways that reduced mobility and emergency response access.

When residents find ways to claim their rights, these are often criminalised or rejected by authorities. It is critical that we change the mindset and recognise residents of informal settlements as actors and counterparts to engage with.

In some settlements in South Africa, for example, residents organise their own residential and economic land uses, provision of water, sanitation, electricity and solid waste collection services. They defend themselves against evictions and organise local representation and leadership, engaging actively with the state through informal participation processes, in protests, and in the courts.

“People are the ones who claim their rights. Having the right to water and sanitation in the law is nothing until people claim it.”

- Alana Potter, End Water Poverty

What measures did UN-Habitat put in place to support the provision of WASH services in informal settlements in the COVID-19 crisis?

Sudha Shrestha (UN Habitat): In Nepal, in the first stage, UN-Habitat mobilised local partners to distribute masks, hand sanitiser and coverall suits due to the shortage in the market. We also launched a community close-watch using mobile phones to collect information on COVID-19 related issues, health, handwashing and sanitation, hygiene and cleanliness, and water. This information filled a database to assist municipalities in the formulation of policies and strategies.

We also used social media to spread news related to COVID-19 measures and created a WASH cluster in the border region between India and Nepal to facilitate migration in and out of the country. We also provided temporary handwashing facilities in healthcare facilities, schools, quarantine centres, public spaces (e.g., markets), and informal settlements while supporting food distribution in vulnerable areas.

What efforts were undertaken by the water utility of Buenos Aires (AySA) to ensure water access in informal settlements during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Marcelo Rogora (Aguas y Saneamientos Argentinos, AySA): AySA provides water and sanitation services to 14.5 million inhabitants in the city of Buenos Aires. We have developed concrete actions to strengthen participatory actions and accountability. In 2021, for example, we incorporated a digital platform called aysa.DATA into our website. This platform provides communication channels and open data to inform the public about concessions while also giving the opportunity to file complaints.

In informal settlements, AySA implemented two programmes: “Agua más Trabajo” (Water more work) and “Cloaca más Trabajo” (Sewer more work). Both programmes aim at expanding networked services in vulnerable areas though close cooperation with municipalities and local cooperatives. The benefits of these programs are numerous: first, they supported employment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, our workers are 50 percent women who are engaged in management tasks as well as technical work. This is important to us, as AySA supports gender equity. AySA covers the costs of both programmes and provides training to local cooperatives. Municipalities also play a key role in managing the financial resources provided by AySA and in hiring local residents. For us, these actions are associated with not only anti-corruption but also with integrity.

“When we talk about integrity we focus not only on measures to prevent corruption but also inclusion, participation, gender equality and respect for human rights such as universal access to potable water and sanitation.”

- Marcelo Rogora, AySA

What kind of legal mechanisms are available for residents in informal settlements to hold governments and service providers accountable?

Alana Potter: When people are delegitimised as formal participants they often turn to inventive forms of participation. I think multiple strategies are needed on multiple fronts. In South Africa, for example, the use of the Housing Act and the Expropriation Act have strengthened service delivery. In the housing sector, the Anti-Eviction Law, in particular, has helped people to secure land tenure so that they are in a position where the settlement can be upgraded and they can receive services. In some cases, the use of the law and litigation is more strategic than direct. In the Marikana informal settlement, it was impossible to relocate 60 000 residents, so the court ordered the city of Cape Town to purchase the land where the settlement was located.

“Even if you do not have the direct right to water and sanitation in the legislation, there are creative ways to use other rights.”

- Alana Potter, End Water Poverty

What advice would you have for other utilities that are struggling to navigate legal challenges to secure water and sanitation services in informal settlements? And has the COVID-19 crisis made these challenges easier or more difficult to overcome, and why?

Marcelo Rogora: What is important is the cooperation and coordination between different actors involved in water supply provision such as the government, utility companies, the community, as well as regulators. Otherwise, I see it as very difficult to achieve positive results, particularly when there are legal obstacles against extending the network into informal areas. In Buenos Aires, we have all been working together to make laws and regulation more flexible and to adjust technical guidelines to secure universal access to water and sanitation in marginalised areas.

AySA has faced serious challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, like in many other countries. But we acted quickly to respond to water demands. In a period of one month, we launched an emergency plan to intervene in vulnerable areas, despite complete isolation in Argentina. We equipped local cooperatives with basic instruments to guarantee safe working conditions (e.g. masks, disinfectant). We also focused our efforts on providing support to workers that were on the front lines during the crisis. When somebody got infected and could not work, their economic situation was severely affected. We created a plan to assist workers facing financial difficulties to protect their health and the health of the community.

Why did the Grundfos Foundation decide to support the creation of the “Into Dust” Film, which focuses on the work of Perween Rahman, mapping water mafias in Karachi?

Niels Thorup (Grundfos Foundation): At the Grundfos Foundation we primarily work in refugee camps and rural communities and we supply water pumps globally. We supported this film to raise awareness about water issues globally. As a foundation working with a close link to the private sector it is very important that we raise awareness about real issues such as corruption and that we address real problems. Water will be a huge issue in the future due to climate change and we need to address the problems directly instead of just talking about the good solutions that we see today.

There is the tendency to equate the human right to water with the idea that water should be provided for free. How does this discussion help us to understand possible ways to guarantee the right to water to poor residents without threatening the financial sustainability of providers?

Barbara Schreiner (Water Integrity Network, WIN): Currently, residents of informal settlements often pay much higher prices for poorer quality of water services than those in wealthier areas. This is a profound issue of integrity because the system is penalising the people that are living in poverty.

Obviously, when providing sustainable water services, funding has to come from somewhere. And we need to ask where the money comes from. How much time and money should be put into collecting small amounts of money from poor people? When should tax-based schemes be mobilised to subsidise tariffs, or cross-subsidisation? There are a number of ways to cover financial costs from different sources rather than sqeezing revenue out of poor residents. In South Africa, a Free Basic Water policy was introduced to ensure that nobody was denied access to water because they could not afford to pay.

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