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How can I improve safe water access in developing countries?

This was the question that drove me to apply for the 1+1 programme, studying Water Science, Policy and Management for my MSc and continuing to the MBA this year. While there are many facets to unpacking this question, I chose to focus on understanding the financial barriers faced by people living in poverty, particularly Kenya and India.

What have I learned over the past two years? It’s (unsurprisingly) complicated.

There are usually two broad areas of financial barriers to water access.

First are the capital costs of purchasing water infrastructure for the house (such as utility connections, tanks, filters, etc).

The second are the recurring fees to purchase water for that infrastructure. This could be per litre charges from water utilities but may also include purchase of water from vendors, local taps or water kiosks.

I wanted to understand the factors driving the amount of water a household would purchase every day, so focused my research on the recurring expenditure. Using detailed records of all household expenditures from 298 poor Kenyan households over a year (data sourced from FSD’s fantastic Financial Diaries Project), I tried to understand trends in water purchase behaviour, and try to distill broader understanding about water affordability.

This different pattern of purchasing behaviour has implications for how we think about water affordability. We have set affordability thresholds using Western norms – as a percentage of total household expenditure. In Kenya, water expenses are clustered over a few months – while overall water expenditure may be low, this clustered expenditure can represent a large proportion of household income during the dry reason, resulting in acute affordability issues.

Why is this important?

The Millennium Development Goals were instrumental in shaping international policy, particularly how water and sanitation was thought about, measured, and delivered. Water quality, reliability, and affordability were not measured and the majority of the data collected were on what hardware was used to access the water (such as a pump, bucket and rope, or piped water system). This misses all the harder to measure indicators critical in water service delivery, such as if the pump is actually working, if the water is safe to drink or if people can afford to pay for the water. These metrics are now being re-evaluated with the Sustainable Development Goals.

We currently have an opportunity to influence how the international community thinks about water access in developing countries, and ensure  that those who were excluded from the MDGs can be included in SDG approaches.

For anyone who is interested in the full article, I will be presenting the paper at UNC’s Water and Health conference this autumn.

Author

Water pump with Ashley Thomas and African community2016-17 Skoll Scholar, Ashley Thomas, has spent her career designing clean water and energy technologies to improve the lives of marginalised communities.

She spent seven years working in East and Southern Africa designing, manufacturing and selling products for bottom-of-the-pyramid customers. During this time she has developed and sold over 200,000 products, providing clean water and energy to over 2 million people in 7 different countries.

Not only does Ashley hold an Oxford MBA, she holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, and has completed a MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, also at the University of Oxford.

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