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Water to Drink

Water to drink, for cleanliness, for cooking and as habitat

Water is a basic need for all living organisms, since it constitutes around 60% of our body mass and must be replenished on a regular basis. Humans also need it for purposes of cooking and of hygiene. In addition, water is required to grow food, whether in the form of naturally occurring rainwater, river water, groundwater, soil water etc., or brought to the growing plants via irrigation systems. Water is required in food processing and numerous other industries, either to be incorporated into the final product (e.g., beer), or as a cooling agent, or as a medium for chemical reactions, or for cleaning purposes. Finally, water is also used for purposes of waste disposal, to carry wastes down river and into the sea. The latter use of course leads to water pollution, impairing its usefulness for other purposes and degrading or destroying animal and plant habitats.  So water is a key ingredient for growth and health, for both all living things and the human economy, with implications for all other resource uses.

This “needs” section focuses on water as a direct need for humans and animals and plants. It thus focuses on the delivery of water to households, and on ensuring that our wastes do not pollute the surface and ground waters around us via the sewage systems. It recognizes that our definitions of "needs" is complex, and must be placed in the context of a whole system, thinking like a "home-maker" rather than as a "conqueror".   


Context within NORA

Related resources

Water: The water resources section delves into the maintenance of clean and abundant water resources, including freshwater, brackish waters, the oceans, glaciers and ice caps. It also addresses uses of water for production purposes, both for irrigation in agriculture and for numerous industrial purposes. For further related resources, check the water resources section.


Relationships to other Needs

Like clean water, clean air is a basic need for all breathing organisms. Pollutants can move from air to water or vice versa, and thus the two needs are physically closely interrelated.

Like clean water, food is a basic need for all animals. In addition, if we humans do not have clean water as an ingredient for our food, in which to cook our food and with which to clean our utensils, the quality of our food is seriously compromised.

Water in the form of rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, rainfall, snow, fog and clouds contributes to the nature of each and every place on the surface of the Earth. If the nature of water in a place is changed, its viability as a home for humans and all other life forms will be impacted.

Some forms of mobility depend on water, as for example boats on canals and rivers. Changes of the flow of water can affect their viability. Numerous plants (including plant seeds) and animals also depend on flowing water for their migrations, and will be impacted if the patterns of flow are altered.

Lack of water leads to deep insecurity, because water is required for life on a daily basis. Hence, ensuring security in times of drought, and for urban populations must be of prime concern in every society.

We need water in order to wash our clothes.

Every shelter must have access to water, for purposes of drinking, cooking, cleanliness, and hygiene. Middle-class people around the world expect this in the form of kitchens and bathrooms with running hot and cold water and sewage disposal, but at minimum clean water needs to be available within a short walk of the house, and dirty water must be transported away efficiently.

Clean water is essential for health, to prevent the spread of infectious disease, as well as for numerous medical treatments.

Managing water effectively and keeping it clean, and preventing water-borne diseases, all require appropriate learning.

Water is a common-pool resource if there ever was one. It is alive only if it flows; hoarding it benefits no-one. It is therefore inescapable that we need effective collective economic and political decision-making about how to use and manage water to fulfill our needs.

We often spend time to relax, to think, to imagine, to enjoy life, to play, to be alone in the presence of water, as at the shore of a lake or sea, by swimming or sailing.

We often find such spiritual connection in the presence of water in the landscape, since water is such a large part of who we are, and since water joins with all living things on the planet.


Relationships to Organizational Forms

Water can be obtained by self-provisioning, where there is access to surface water, to a well or cistern, or if one harvests rainwater from one's roof; these structures are typically shared among more than one household. Somewhat larger systems of water provisioning can be established through community solidarity. Yet larger systems involve utilities, that are classified under the committed services or sales cluster. The latter usually involve currencies and markets of some kind.

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Understanding patterns of abundance and scarcity

For discussion of the patterns of abundance and scarcity of water resources, see the water resources section. This section will focus on issues of distribution of water to households, with as much discussion of water resources as needed for this context.
Water resources available for a settlement consist of the rain that falls in and around the settlement itself, naturally available freshwater in the area (including surface water in lakes and streams as well as groundwater), any distant freshwater brought in through aqueducts using gravity flow and/or pumps, and any nearby seawater or saline groundwater that is desalinated. All of these sources of water may be more or less polluted by either local or distant human activities. Distribution of water to households consists of the transport of water from where it is naturally available to the places where it is to be used. A very simple distribution systems merely involves the collection of rainfall from a roof into a barrel; this water can be sufficiently clean for some purposes. Another very simple distribution system consists of a hand-dug well providing water for one or several households. The most complex distribution systems transport water over hundreds of miles, filter and treat that water for high standards or safety, and include sewage systems to return reasonably clean water to rivers or the sea. Although the more complex systems may be “better” in terms of being able to serve more people, they also require far more resources to build and maintain, and require strong institutions of accountability and management in order to serve their customers efficiently and equitably. It is therefore essential to develop some mix of technologies and institutions adapted to each particular context.
Small-scale systems based on collecting rainwater from rooftops (rainwater harvesting) or lifting water from wells can supply a single or several linked households or buildings, and may supply their users' entire needs or supplement water supplies from a larger distribution system. They do not require complex institutions to run, though they may need to be enabled by law (one of the reasons why the citizens of Cochabamba, Bolivia, engaged in a “Water War” in 1999*** was that such local autonomous systems had been made illegal). (Install link to small-scale water distribution systems.)
Larger scale water distribution systems can be organized on a public, private, or cooperative basis. In all cases, considerable up-front investment costs are required in order to build pipelines from a water source, and to build a sewage system in order to get rid of the polluted water. Filtration and pumping systems are also typically needed. It is inefficient to build more than one such system for any particular area, so the resulting infrastructure consists of one supplier and many customers, who do not have a choice about who is going to supply their water. This is referred to as a “natural monopoly.”
A widespread approach to delivering water to cities consists of establishing a municipal entity under direct or indirect local governmental control, that collects water dues from all customers (residential as well as business). Water rates are determined through a political process, and are intended to provide affordable water supply and sewage treatment while covering the costs. Public water supplies of this kind are often highly successful, especially in countries where there are effective methods to keep local government accountable to its citizens. However, in some cases municipal water utilities may become inefficient (providing a service of low quality or at high cost) if insufficient incentives are built into the system to ensure that service is continually upgraded. In extreme cases, municipal utilities may fall seriously behind in provisioning growing cities, or may provide jobs as a form of political patronage. It is problems of this kind that have led to calls for privatization of water utilities.

Privatizing water (and other) utilities encounters another problem, however: there is no competition between suppliers. Private suppliers of any good or service are supposed to be more efficient than public services for only one reason, namely that they may be out-competed by other private companies and must therefore always strive to work at least as well as the competition. If a private company has exclusive control over a water distribution system, it does not face competition. In such a case, shareholder value actually dictates that the company raise prices as much as possible, up to the extreme of customers' willingness to pay, and cut off the water supply to those customers who are unable to pay the increased rates. This means that, if water is supplied by a private company, government must step in and regulate prices in order to ensure that the company does not exploit the situation at the cost of its customers. Then, it will be in the company's profit-making interest to reduce expenditures, for example, by reducing investment in maintaining the integrity of the pipelines. Government will then have to regulate a large part of the company's daily operations to ensure quality control. Furthermore, in order to restore some sense of “competition,” the government may open the operation of the water supply system to periodic bidding – but the necessity to recoup the bid will push the company to do even more to cut costs or increase profits. Hence, the effort to enforce efficiency through competitive bidding actually reinforces pressures to run the system either unsustainably or at excessive cost to consumers. These contradictions mean that  privatized water supply systems generally do not live up to the claims made for them; if they do, that is only possible as a result of intensive government involvement (meaning that it is more of a public-private partnership, whether it is called that or not).

A third type of water distribution, beyond public and private, is a cooperative system, where the distribution system is owned by its customers. The existence of this alternative is too often ignored, but it is by no means rare. For example, in the United States, there are over 3000 rural water cooperatives, which were set up since the New Deal in order to cheaply build up and maintain a water supply infrastructure in the rural areas of the country. Having the customers own a utility has several advantages; most importantly, the customer-owners have an interest both in efficient management (avoiding unnecessary costs) and low prices for customers. Furthermore, since their main interest is in obtaining a water supply for themselves, they need not achieve a specific profit margin to justify their investments; all they need is a reasonable cost of service. It is precisely because neither private nor public utilities were willing to make the investments to serve the rural areas of the US that the government decided to support the establishment of rural water cooperatives to make numerous small investments all across the country in order to supply themselves with water. The cooperative model can be scaled up to the urban scale as well, however, as in the case of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where a coop successfully provides water to around 750,000 people, and has been operating successfully since 1979.

Regardless of the ownership of a water utility (public, private, or cooperative), a utility may return polluted water to a river or the sea – especially if downriver users are not able to make an impact on decision-making, or if “dilution is [seen as] the solution to pollution.” This points to the need for larger communities to assert their rights to clean water, and the development of institutions at those larger levels to manage water commons such as rivers and river basins, seas and oceans. This topic is discussed in the water resources pages.

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Approaches to creating greater abundance


Small systems (by individual households or neighborhoods)

  • rainwater harvesting
  • wells
  • cisterns
  • small-scale distribution systems

Large systems

  • integration of rainwater harvesting into existing systems
  • technical solutions for greater efficiency
  • effective management of public systems for efficiency and equity
  • examples in affluent countries
  • examples in the majority world (e.g., Porto Alegre, Brazil; Bogotá, Colombia; Phnom Penh, Cambodia mentioned as examples by Bakker, 2010)
  • effective regulation of private systems for efficiency and equity
  • cooperative management or community-based systems
  • examples of Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water; Finnish water coops, US rural water cooperatives
  • example of Santa Cruz, Bolivia (see Ruiz-Miers and Stories Coop references below)

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Related Links and Stories

Appropedia: Water Sanitation in Developing Countries

Centre for Science and Environment (New Delhi, India): Decentralised/Sustainable Wastewater Treatment.

Centre for Science and Environment (New Delhi, India): Rainwater Harvesting

The Humanitarian Water and Food Award  If you are involved in an initiative that seeks to ensure abundance of food and/or water in a community, you may want to apply for this award!

International Water Association

P2P Foundation: Water commons

Rights to Water and Sanitation Website

United Nations

Universidad Complutense Madrid, Instituto Universitario de Desarollo y Cooperacion. Observatory of Human Right to Water; Observatorio del Derecho Humano al Agua

University of British Columbia, Program on Water Governance

WaterLex: Shaping Water Law and Policy Frameworks

Women for Water Partnership


Agarwal, Anil, Sunita Narain and I. Khurana. 2001. Making Water Everybody's Business: Practice and Policy of Water Harvesting. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

Bakker, Karen. 2003. An Uncooperative Commodity: Privatizing Water in England and Wales. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

____. 2010. Privatizing Water: Governance Failure and the World's Urban Water Crisis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Barlow, Maude. Our Water Commons: Toward a New Freshwater Narrative. The Council of Canadians and On The Commons.

Kavarana, Gita, and Sushmita Sengupta. Catch Water where it falls: Toolkit on Urban Rainwater Harvesting. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

Olivera, Oscar, with Tom Lewis. 2004. Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia. Cambridge: South End Press.

Ruiz-Mier, Fernando and Meike van Ginneken. 2008. Consumer Cooperatives for Delivery of Urban Water and Sanitation Services. A World Bank publication. On the water cooperative in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Srinivasan, R.K., and Suresh Babu S.V. Do it Yourself: Recycle and Reuse Wastewater. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

Stories Coop. Clean Water, Cooperative Principles (a story on On the water cooperative in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. Study on cooperatives in the United States, section on water cooperatives.

WaterLex: Publications; List of Recommended Publications (by others); Legal Database on the human right to water; Toolkit for development practitioners.

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