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Measuring water scarcity

October 2019: There is a lower level of access to clean drinking water in urban areas in the global south than previously thought. Access to piped utility water is often limited due to affordability, reliability, and quality of the water provided. The paper calls for a re-focus on public utility water provision.


A new study from the World Resource Institute states that only 22% of households across 15 major cities in the global south have access to piped utility water. Some of these cities have abundant supplies, but affordability, reliability and quality of drinking water challenge wide spread accessibility. Alternative sources of water, such as from private providers, can cost up to 25% of monthly household incomes and increasing reliance on the private sector in water provision has not adequately improved access. These paper states that these findings contradict indicators used by UNICEF/WHO measuring access to water to achieve SDG: Clean Water and Sanitation.

Implications & Opportunities

The report calls for consideration of affordability, intermittency, and quality when assessing global urban water scarcity. Re-thinking equitable access to water in urban areas and shifting towards public utility provision may improve reliable access to clean water. The paper recommends increased political commitment in aiming to improve access to clean water such as reducing the cost of water, investing in water infrastructure such as extending the formal piped water network, and re-structuring provision models. The report estimates that increased access to sanitation and clean water could deliver global economics savings of $260 billion per year.


The study focuses on water scarcity in urban areas in the global south and recommendations should be seen within the context of the study’s parameters. Further research is needed to address water scarcity in urban areas in developed countries.


World Resources Institute. (2019). Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Rethinking Global Water Access in the South. Retrieved from

International Business Times. (2019). Taps to Run Dry in Cities of Africa, South Asia, Says Report. Retrieved from

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Adele Wiliams

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.