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Informal water vendors too can give safe water services

New Delhi : In areas of the world under- and un-served by municipal water entities and without piped water supply, informal vendors can offer a way to provide safe and affordable water, a new study has found.

The role of informal markets in urban service provision, including water, which was once considered lamentable and temporary, now is increasingly accepted and unlikely to change, the study from the Arizona State University and the Graduate Institute of International and Developmental Studies in Geneva, noted.

The study - 'Can informal water vendors deliver on the promise of a human right to water? Results from Cochabamba, Bolivia' - found that while ”black market” water can be high-priced and of poor quality, when informal vendors establish their own unions and adopt rules that self-regulate, water pricing, quality and delivery can be improved.

Despite challenges, the informal economy may play an important role in advancing the human right to water, the study found.

The researchers based their conclusions on long-term participant-observation in squatter settlements, as well as interviews with water vendors and clients, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, as well as previous studies and research.

They used an institutional framework to analyze how informal water markets operate; how cooperation among water vendors helps or hinders fair water delivery; and the differences in how vendors and clients view fairness as applied to rules, quality, quantity, costs, distribution and service.

It was found that both water vendors and clients shares a desire to see everyone achieve the "human right to water." But vendors tended to focus on issues like ensuring fair pricing, while customers were more concerned with unreliable delivery and discriminatory treatment.

The study also tackled two important issues -- pricing and quality. On the questions of whether the prices informal vendors charge for water fair or unfair, "the high price of water sold by distributing vendors has been established indisputably; estimates for the cost of vended water typically range from 4 to 30 times the cost of municipal water", the study noted.

"Early studies assumed that the high price of privately delivered water was the result of vendors’ abusive pricing practices. Later studies, which closely examined vendors’ initial investments and operating costs, concluded that many vendors made only a relatively modest profit. Blame for high water prices consequently shifted away from water vendors and toward the broader governance practices that exclude the urban poor from municipal watersystems and subsides", it said.

Unlike pricing, questions about the quality of vended water — including its microbial and chemical content— remain largely unresolved. Several studies indicate that informally vended water poses significant human health risks and is often much lower quality than municipal water, particularly when water sources are unregulated or water carrying equipment is unsanitary, the study said.

The study recommended greater role for water unions and increased community oversight of and engagement with these unions.

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