Individual choices and universal rights for drinking water in rural Africa

Authors: Rob Hope and Paola Ballon

More than 500 million rural Africans lack safe drinking water. The human right to water and United Nations Sustainable Development Goal SDG6.1 promote a policy shift from building water infrastructure to sustaining water services. However, the financial calculus is bleak with the costs of “safely managed”’ or “basic” water services in rural Africa beyond current government budgets and donor funds. The funding shortfall is compounded by the disappointing results of earlier policy initiatives in Africa. This is partly because of a failure to understand which attributes of water services rural people value.

The authors modelled more than 11,000 choice observations in rural Kenya by attributes of drinking water quality, price, reliability, and proximity. Aggregate analysis disguises alternative user priorities in three choice classes. The two larger choice classes tolerate lower service levels with higher payments. A higher water service level reflects the smallest choice class favoured by women and the lower wealth group. For the lower wealth group, slower repair times are accepted in preference to a lower payment. Some people discount potable water and proximity, and most people choose faster repair times and lower payments.

We argue policy progress needs to chart common ground between individual choices and universal rights. Guaranteeing repair times may provide a policy lever to unlock individual payments to complement public investment in water quality and waterpoint proximity to support progressive realization of a universal right.

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