Two days in the WASH: Part 2, urban and housing

July 17, 2008 | Cities, Housing, Sanitation, Speculation, Water and sanitation

 [Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]


Yesterday I described some basic insights from my two days in London, participating as one of about thirty practitioners in a Gates Foundation roundtable on the subject of WS&H: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.



It’s good for you, and good for the world


[For more context, see my seven-part exploration of the economics of water: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, and extracted essential principles, Part 1 and 2.]


6.         Urban and rural WS&H are distinctly different problems.  To oversimplify the case:


Rural WS&H problems are mainly technological, with the goal of finding a low-cost, low-maintenance solution.  Land is cheap and plentiful.  Many of the world’s urbanizing nations in the global south are low-lying coastal areas, where natural aquifers lie near the surface, and one can punch down into fresh water. 



A well and a drilled hole aren’t expensive


Similarly, with more ample land and a less densely populated landscape, some low-tech and organic sanitation solutions are viable.



Water-disposal toilet, Bangladesh: remarkably, it works well


There are challenges, as we heard in London.  In Bangladesh, after a nationwide and hugely successful mid-1970s campaign to drill tube wells, arsenic was discovered in unsafe concentrations, and millions of people were affected, many of whom died.  


Urban WS&H problems are mainly financial.  As I mentioned yesterday, for rural people, WS&H is a labor good.  You solve your problem by your own efforts: walking somewhere, carrying something, pumping something, digging something.  In an urban environment, WS&H is a money good – aside from having to get somewhere to find it, you pay money to obtain it:



Water vendor in Nigeria



Counter, membership and pay-per-use toilet, Dharavi, Mumbai, India


To be sure, the divide – technology in rural areas, financing in urban ones – isn’t quite that simple.  Even small-scale technology costs money, which must be sourced from somewhere.  (In rural, the amounts are so small that BRAC, among others, can offer microfinance loans that many very poor rural customers can afford and will repay.)  But the divide is material – the money cost to help one person or one family is much higher in urban environments.


7.         WS&H in urban environments is massively complex.  In other contexts, I’ve developed theories about urban complexity and interdependence:


The other problem of poverty is interdependence – every problem is related to every other problem, and there’s no way to isolate one.  Cities, being the most complex human constructions, are the most interdependent, one of the many reasons improving slums is such a challenge.


Cities get even more interdependent when we think about WS&H – which seems to be involved in every slum upgrading scheme I’ve seen, such as Cingapura and Guarapiranga in Sao Paulo,



Drainage channel added to favela, Cingapura project, Sao Paulo



Site regarding, drainage, and hookups: Jardim Iporanga, Guarapiranga project, Sao Paulo


or Parivartan’s neighborhood upgrading in Ahmedabad, India.



Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India: paving, drainage, and piping from the Parivartan program


The challenge is that urban land is scarce, and urban land has enormous and generally rising value.  On the one hand, you have the difficulty of clearing the land for WS&H infrastructure (a Gordian knot that is usually cut only by government with eminent domain or writing a big check. Because of this, you can’t crack WS&H in an urban environment unless you crack the financing.  Technology is the starting point, not the ending point, and not even the controlling variable. 


In short, we have to get the WS&H techno’s out of their silos.


8.         The best WS&H solutions involve housing.  To a houser, this is self-evident – the tough WS&H challenges are in personal consumption – getting the utility ‘the last hundred yards’, as I posted in there ain’t no such thing as free infrastructure.  It was less obvious to WS&H practitioners – many of whom regarded housers as curious aliens —



We come in peace — to provide homes


— and hard-headed financiers as downright untrustworthy aliens.



I’m an ethical financier and I’m here to help you


Still, as I posted in you are what you live in:


If you’re going to change something to help change people’s poverty, it starts with housing. 


You are what you live in.



Change your housing, change your self


Of the major slum upgrading programs I’ve seen, WS&H has formed a core element of improvement. 



Ahmedabad, household water tank


This isn’t surprising, since in terms of a municipal definition, a slum is a place where private investment (in housing) has outrun public investment (in infrastructure):


A slum is an urban environment where informal housing has outstripped formal utilities

of which water and sanitation is the most primitive and most essential


This definition is consistent with others I’ve proposed:


Slums are spontaneous communities because they are formed by people who choose to move to a place — almost always in search of money income.

Slums are economically rational because they sustain themselves out of a stable set of bargains among tenants (who want to consume as little housing as possible, because that’s all they can afford) and landlords (who want to provide as little maintenance as possible, because that’s how they make money despite low rents).

Slums are a wealth-extraction machine because the effect of under-investment is wealth transfer from the very poor to the landed.


Slums have existed ever since humanity urbanized. 


To fix a slum, fix its housing.  When you fix its housing, fix its water and sanitation.



Inner street, Jadibanagar, Ahmedabad: a little paving and it’s a proper neighborhood


9.         Cities must solve WS&H, because its externalities hit rich people.  If you want to get things done politically, leave aside the moral case except insofar as you can package it to appeal to self-interest: self-interest of voters, self-interest of elected officials, self-interest of administrators.


Ever since cities existed, the aristocracy and plutocracy have periodically fled them for country villas, whether Hadrian to Tivoli, or the Venetians to the Brenta Canal, or Charles II decamping to Richmond to sit out the plague. 



A good place to wait out the malaria


Though the rich could hide for a few hazy summer weeks, in our interdependent and ever-more-densely-inhabited world, unsolved WS&H has externalities that hit rich people (e.g. water contamination).  Guarapiranga in Sao Paulo, that city’s largest slum upgrading program, wasn’t undertaken by the housing ministry, but by the water company (SABESP) in self-defense, to clean up the reservoir. 


Water runs where it will; pestilence blows on the wind.  In an urban and global world, even those who might wish to cannot escape the reach of hygiene and disease.  Set aside your sense of right and wrong if you will; sublimate your sense of equity and your compassion.   


If we want a healthy world, we have to have a healthy poor. 


Though he’s describing the wrong liquid, Edgar Allan Poe had the right instincts in his miasmatic nightmare, the Masque of the Red Death:


But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.



I am Prince Prospero, and the world cannot touch me


When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself.




In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”




Comes a visitor:


“Who dares?” he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him –“who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him –that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!”


[…]  It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer.  There was a sharp cry –and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero.  


[…] And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.