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Clean Water and a Decrease in Poverty

By Phil Bartle, PhD

Dedicated to Andrew Livingstone

Training Handout

Assumptions to the contrary; water is not free


In the document, Principles of Income Generation, it was noted that there are three things that can be done with anything (good or service) of value (ie wealth). It can be (1) consumed, (2) saved (stored) or (3) invested.

Wealth, by the way, is anything that has both utility (usefulness) and relative scarcity; it is not the same thing as money, which can be used to store, exchange or measure wealth. Wealth has more value if it has more scarcity and/or more utility.

Those definitions sound a bit academic, even pedantic, but they are essential in understanding how to fight poverty and to empower communities.

You as a mobilizer have the task of uniting a community, getting that community to identify its priority problems, to seek the solution as its goal, develop a plan of action, take action and monitor its actions, in order to become stronger (empowered). See Mobilization. Today, as water rapidly becomes more scarce relative to rising populations, communities, rural and urban, are increasingly choosing potable (drinkable) water as their primary concern. What is the role of water, therefore, in community empowerment and poverty reduction?

Investment or Consumer Good?

When we hold a drink of water in our hands, and pour it down our throats, we are clearly consuming the water. That image we have can muddy our view of water as a social investment, rather than clarify it, no matter how clear is the water. Unfortunately, water is seen as a consumer good by journalists, politicians and many donor officials. The construction (or rehabilitation) of a water supply system, however, is not consumption, it is investment. This is important to you the mobilizer, and needs your consideration when setting your strategies.

The resources you can guide your community to obtain can be increased by changing that misperception, and demonstrating that a water supply system is a genuine investment, not just something consumed.

The role of clean water in reducing disease (see: Water and PHC), is one aspect of a water supply being an investment. By decreasing disease, it decreases poverty. Note, however, that it can not do so alone: it needs (1) a change in behaviour to break the water-borne disease cycle, and it needs (2) a public understanding of how and why that behaviour change is essential to disease reduction. By implication, that change in behaviour implies also a need for sanitary facilities. Water is necessary but not sufficient to reduce disease and therefore reduce poverty.

Another, non-medical, aspect of water as a social investment, is the time and energy used by the community as a whole to collect uncontaminated water. Distance is an important factor here.

If people drink water collected from puddles and contaminated streams, then it is a health issue, poverty and disease will continue. If people understand the nature of water borne diseases and faecal borne parasites, so avoid puddles and contaminated streams, or if it is dry season and there are no nearby sources of any water, then the issue becomes one of distance to the water supply.

In many parts of rural Africa and other parts of the world, it is necessary to walk ten kilometres of more to obtain water. By custom and history, this task has often fallen to women and children. When it takes four or five hours in a day to obtain a few litres of water, that four or five hours becomes unavailable for other productive work in the home, farm or community. It lowers available labour resources and contributes to poverty.

By building a new water supply facility, or by rehabilitating an existing one, the number of hours, and the human energy, needed to obtain water, is drastically reduced.

Investment means to channelling of wealth away from immediate consumption in order to increase wealth in the future. That water supply facility construction or rehabilitation requires resources, but results in freeing up a large number of resources worth a great value. It is investment.

The actual provision of water (to be consumed) itself is only a minor aspect of the reduction in poverty. The freeing up of resources used to collect it, and the decrease in disease (if the other factors are included), are the two major aspects of a water supply being a major factor in decreasing poverty and increasing community empowerment.

The job for you, as a mobilizer, therefore, is to find ways to change the commonly held perception of water as a consumer good, and to see a water supply facility as an important and valuable investment. The increase in wealth of having a convenient source or water is a minor decrease in poverty. The huge amount of value (human time and energy) freed up by reducing the distance to a water source is the big value of the investment, and a big contribution in the war against poverty.

Not only should you lobby local authorities, politicians, donors and journalists, as a mobilizer, you need to stimulate and guide the community in doing that kind of lobbying. You strengthen the community by pushing them to do the work; you weaken it when you do the work for the community members. Approach that awareness campaign (advocacy, lobbying) as you would any other community action or project.

If community members see a clean water supply facility as their priority goal, and do not have available local resources, do not hand those resources over to them. Stimulate and guide them in an advocacy and lobby campaign, so that they contribute their own energy and time, and become empowered in the process. If you lobby for them you contribute to their increased dependency.

Water is Not Free:

Historically, when the world was cleaner and more free of industrial and urban pollution, when population was smaller and more dispersed, we obtained water without any money changing hands. We just took it from rivers, lakes, wells and the rain. We thought it was free because there was no money, without recognizing that, even in the past, labour, capital and land had to be given up to get it. (Remember genuine wealth is not the same as money; wealth has value if it is useful and scarce even if money is not involved).

Water has value.

The common assumption, incorrect even in the past, was that water is free. It is not. Water can not be brought to a community without expense. If someone else does it, the community is weakened and is infected with more dependency. If the community does it, then some resources of the community must be contributed to the action.

Your job as mobilizer is not to educate community members. It is to stimulate them to educate themselves. How you go about this is explained throughout these training modules. See: Mobilization. Treat a campaign of raising awareness as a community action, and encourage and guide the community in undertaking this action just as you would if their priority were to build a school, clinic or water facility.


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2012.08.13

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