Drinking Water for the Poorest in Developing Urban Areas

By Bill Garthwaite

Despite global economic turmoil, our world and our cities are increasingly economically integrated. But will economic integration improve drinking water distribution to the least-well-served in urban and peri-urban areas in developing countries?  My paper posted to the Scholarship@Cornell Law repository poses this question.  Fundamentally this is a public policy issue that implicates many disciplines including science and engineering, foreign and international law, economics, and social science.

UN-HABITAT estimates that roughly half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and about one third of this group lives with serious infrastructure deficiencies, including deficiencies in water distribution.  In urban areas, a combination of poverty and high population density mean that many people have limited options for securing water for drinking, cooking and other uses.

The disparities among cities are dramatic.  For example, according to Collignon & Vézina, at the time of their survey, citywide water infrastructure provides connections to 71% of households in Dakar, Senegal, but only 18% of households in Bamako, Mali.  The gap is often filled by a mixture of formal and informal distributors including tanker trucks, vendors, hand carters and neighbor resellers.  Thus, the “sector” that encapsulates drinking water distribution in developing urban areas is a very complex and evolving mixture of distribution modes and different public and private actors, each with different capabilities and characteristics.  Understanding this mixture is crucial to understanding the potential effects of economic integration on the poorest segments of the population in urban areas in developing countries.

Accordingly, my paper surveys the literature on development studies in water supply and sanitation for the current understanding on what institutional and regulatory characteristics are thought to best foster improvements in drinking water distribution for the poorest in urban areas in developing countries.  I then analyze how the trend towards global and regional economic integration might affect these goal characteristics.  The paper builds off of the significant work already undertaken by several other authors studying effects of economic integration on the water sector generally and aims to use the development literature review to focus the discussion on the least-well-served.  The conclusion of this analysis is that the broad effects of growing transnational economic integration on water distribution to the poorest segments are likely minimal but also potentially positive.

Bill Garthwaite is a 3L in the JD/LLM program in international and comparative law at Cornell Law School, and his paper Improving Drinking Water Distribution under Increasing Global and Regional Economic Integration won the 2011 Cornell Law Library Prize for Exemplary Student Research.   Some of the paper’s sections were written as part of a seminar class in global and regional economic integration and others for a class on foreign and international legal research.  It benefited from thoughtful comments from Professor Barceló and Professor Emerson from Cornell Law School.

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