At a roadside water tap in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a woman cups her hands for some water. Photo credit: Asian Development Bank
According to Citiscope, an estimated 830 million urban residents around the world do not have access to running water in their homes, and that number continues to rise as more and more people in developing countries move from the rural countryside to cities.
These residents must travel distances – sometimes long – to collect the precious resource from communal service points or local vendors, often wasting time journeying to and fro and waiting in line. Additionally, it can be unhealthy, as water carriers that have not been sterilised beforehand are susceptible to contamination; it has the potential to be hazardous for the girls and women who are more often than not saddled with the task of fetching water; and it can be a costly endeavour as well – according to WaterAid, a charity, families may spend up to half their income on water bought from private vendors on the black market.
But Grégoire Landel, a Franco-American engineer who has dedicated the past decade to studying the relationship between water and finance in developing countries, thinks technology may play a large part in the solution. CityTaps, his start-up based in Paris, France, has made bringing running water to every urban household its goal. It was something Landel began pondering over when he lived in Uganda, when he comprehended that not all the residents in his street had access to running water.
“It was a mystery that needed understanding,” Landel told Citiscope. “Because it’s an abhorrent situation to be in.”
Landel believes the underpinning economics of water service in developing cities is crippled by the double challenges utilities are faced with when struggling to realise financial sustainability: On one end, governments control their pricing, and leave their services subjected to it; on the other, late and unpaid bills invariably lead them to issues concerning cash flow.
After he conducted an analysis of financial statements some companies provided, according to Landel, going after the payment of bills took up some 20 per cent of operating costs.
“So it’s hugely expensive and not particularly efficient,” he concluded.
Unfortunately, it also makes utilities risk-averse and unwilling to expand their water services to places where households are perceived to be on the rocks finance-wise. However, according to Landel, in closing themselves off, they miss an opportunity to make around US$20 billion in revenue.
According to Citiscope, CityTaps’ goal is to assist water utilities hedge against these risks, while also encouraging them to reach out and serve more urban residents. To address issues in cash flow, CityTaps subscribes to a prepaid billing system, and to optimise water delivery and utility efficiency, CityTaps deploys “smart” water meters.
“It’s not very complicated to provide running water to people,” Landel said to Citiscope. “Technologically speaking, it’s very simple. But what’s really complicated is the economics of it.”
Already, CityTaps has established a pilot project in Niamey, the capital city of Niger, with a partnership with Veolia’s local subsidiary, installing smart meters in 20 residences. With the smart meters, issues associated with late payments have been removed, and customers have found that they hold a greater amount of control over their water consumption and finances, bringing them down to a fraction of what they originally were.
Now, Landel is looking to expand to other nations in sub-Saharan Africa, along with Latin America and South Asia, with lofty expectations of installing 10 million smart meters in the coming decade.
But persuading financial backers will be an uphill task; international development communities tend to lean toward quick and low-cost solutions for water delivery, frequently advocating the use of standpipes for communal water delivery. Landel, instead, pushes for running water in all urban homes.
“We need utilities to break even or make money,” he explained. “So that in the long run, they are able to serve everyone, rich and poor.”