The Shanty Town Water Dowser

The poorer one is, the dearer one pays, is it this “double penalty” that your NGO, Water and Life, is tackling?

P. D.  R. : Exactly. Having worked several years in microcredit, I noticed that the most underprivileged dealt with loan sharks when they needed to borrow money. It is also true for water in shanty towns, where inhabitants go and buy it from illegal resellers that pirate the network, corrupting company agents and expensively reselling water stocked in dirty cans. In 2008, I began our water action with Valérie Dumans, co-founder of Water and Life. The option taken by the majority of NGOs is to create hydrants where women and children can supply themselves. But this solution is unsatisfactory: we observe conflicts of interest between communities, non-payment of providers and, in the end, domination by the most powerful. In reality, managing water is a skilled trade. We said to ourselves that people were ready to pay to have water in their homes, provided that there is a real service, and that we would trust them and adapt to their situation.

How does your solution work?

P. D. R. : In each country, Water and Life relies on two structures. On the one hand, there is an NGO that deals with advocacy, community mobilization and raising awareness of hygiene or fire prevention. On the other, there is a local social enterprise, a true multi-service operator that provides each home with running water, organizes garbage collection, cleans the streets, forms a volunteer fire brigade and installs clean public toilets. In exchange for these services, the populations make regular per household payments of mutualized bills. The social enterprise is situated in the shanty town and 80% of its employees are also recruited on site. In case of non-payment, a secure individualized account system allows them to control, or eventually cut, the flow to those who refuse to play the game. It is this alliance between the proximity of the service and professional management that explains the success of our solution.

To what extent does this management by a social enterprise impact the price of water?

P. D. R. : Our prices are five times lower than those of canned water on average and currently benefit 22,000 people. In the Philippines, water represents 25% of a family’s budget, but only 6% with our system. In Bangladesh, it is different: the prices are subsidized, but the water is of poor quality, which results in significant health care expenses. The water that we distribute is a little more expensive, but clean! When speaking about impact, everything must be taken into account: the diminution of healthcare costs, the gain of time, the decrease in school absenteism… Near slums districts, water losses due to pirating and leaks make up nearly 80%. With Water and Life, we are at around 6%. When your networks are under your control, you control the quality. That is what we often say to city mayors: rich and poor share the same germs.

Do you only work in developing countries?

P. D. R. : Historically, we are established in the Philippines, in Bangladesh and in Ivory Coast. But we are also involved in a process of “reverse innovation”, seeking to apply what we have learned in developing countries in Europe. In this way, we work in France, in La Grande Borne in Grigny, the largest housing project in Europe. In this urban enclave, the problems pile up: building degradation, elevators out of order, colossal debt of the condominium syndicate… all while the costs are higher than in Paris. Just as we did in shanty towns, we will create a social enterprise, charged with acting as a multi-service operator, with 850 people to start with. The inhabitants of the area will be recruited and trained to insure the proper functioning of the services, to collect bills and to conduct awareness campaigns. The common water units will be renovated, the current services individualized and billed according to use: water, electricity, gas. We have also been sollicited by Veolia to support a large Romani camp in Sofia, Bulgaria.

It seems that water having a price is important to you. Don't you think water should be free?

P. D.  R. : I am a member of the Water Coalition, which fights against cutting off of water. But it is necessary to be aware that all that is free is not sustainable, it is as simple as that. A contribution by the people is essential to control consumption and put an economic model into place. At the same time, the costs must of course be partially subsidized, as “water doesn’t pay for water”. In Europe, the installation of the network was paid with taxes. The rich zones paid for the poor ones, as has been done with education, and that is great. Did you know that during fifty years Paris consecrated 40% of its budget to clean up its water supply? Montmartre and Butte aux Cailles used to be shanty towns in 1860. Thanks to public policy, they are now ranked amongst the most prized neighborhoods of Paris. In a world that tends to put up walls with massive urbanization, the city must be treated as a whole. Urban inclusiveness is the key.

By Côme Bastin