Affordable WASH for all? A human-rights based approach to affordability

Measuring affordability is key to managing it

What cannot be measured cannot be managed, or so they say. In the realm of the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, great attention has been paid to measuring one particular aspect of services: their affordability. Such emphasis on having reliable affordability metrics is due to several reasons. First and foremost, they facilitate the design of appropriate and effective strategies to address the potential economic barrier to access. Second, they help policymakers (and utility managers) understand the effect of their decisions on the people they serve. Finally, they allow to hold these actors accountable for such decisions.

Affordability indicators do not provide the full picture

However, just because measuring affordability is important does not mean that it is an easy endeavour — far from it. First and foremost, they facilitate the design of appropriate and effective strategies to address the potential economic barrier to access. Second, they help policymakers (and utility managers) understand the effect of their decisions on the people they serve. Finally, they allow to hold these actors accountable for such decisions. pointed out by Hutton in his 2012 review paper, none of the four indicators [1] often used for global monitoring is flawless. For instance, the infamous ratio of WASH expenditure to total household spending (or income) does not reflect the costs of non-networked services, on which the most vulnerable and disadvantaged rely on. Moreover, thresholds values for such ratio — generally set between 2% and 6% [2] — can be arbitrary and do not account for the diversity of households’ composition and needs. By focusing only on household expenditure, we might overlook those households not accessing minimum acceptable service levels because of their cut-back in WASH consumption.

We must therefore go beyond affordability metrics, and take a closer look at the needs and concerns of the most disadvantaged segments of the population, on whom the burden of unaffordable services lies. This was precisely what the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to drinking water and sanitation highlighted in his 2015 report on the issue of affordability. In his words, such generalizations [of affordability indicators] hide whether individuals can actually afford services in their particular context, and thus end up neglecting the very real challenges that the most disadvantaged people and communities face in access water and sanitation.

Acquiring a more comprehensive picture of affordability requires considering three interconnected aspects of WASH service provision: (i) service types, and their associated costs; (ii) policies and plans, and how they address affordability issues; and (iii) financing mechanisms, and who they are targeted to.

First part of the picture: what are the costs of accessing WASH?

First, not all people use the same type of WASH services. Many people living in disadvantaged or marginalized areas rely on non-networked services such as individual on-site or communal services. As a result, the costs for accessing WASH are not uniform across communities. For example, those living in rural areas or informal settlements are often faced with the material costs of self-supply, the time costs of accessing shared facilities, or the costs of petty corruption and mismanaged services. As explained by the Special Rapporteur, determining and monitoring the costs of non-networked supply […] is particularly challenging, but essential from the perspective of human rights.

Second part of the picture: how is affordability addressed in policies and plans?

Second, the legal framework behind WASH is complex and diverse, with various policies and plans covering different aspects of service provision. And, although affordability is sometimes tackled in such policies and plans, it is not always done from a fully-fledged human rights perspective. For instance, according to the latest GLAAS report [3], national policies and plans tend to focus on ensuring the affordability of water services over sanitation, and also favour urban areas over rural ones (as seen in Figure 1). That is why the Special Rapporteur recommended to focus on ensuring affordability for the most disadvantaged, including those who are often overlooked or deliberately ignored in current policymaking and planning.

Figure 1. Existence of financial mechanisms for affordability of WASH services in national policies and plans (Source: GLAAS 2019 report, in parenthesis the number of countries consulted).

However, addressing affordability in a human rights-based manner is not an easy task, especially when it comes to setting and implementing affordability standards. On one hand, such standards are essential to ensure that tariffs are set in a way that is affordable to people, as well as to ensure accountability. But, one the other hand, they must reflect the challenges people face in practice and the context in which they live. Thus, it is impossible to set a generally applicable affordability standard at the global level […] and States should therefore determine affordability standards at the national and/or local level.

Furthermore, there is one important element to consider when looking at how policies and plans address affordability: service disconnections. As the Special Rapporteur emphasized, the affordability of water and sanitation services and disconnections are inextricably linked, as in many instances the failure to pay for services leads to disconnection. Policies must prohibit disconnections due to inability to pay, because such disconnection is a retrogressive measure and constitutes a violation of people’s rights to access water and sanitation. In this vein, the deployment of pre-paid meters should also be carefully evaluated, as they might lead to “silent disconnections” when available credit is exhausted.

Third part of the picture: who are the target groups of financial mechanisms?

Third and finally, it is crucial to ensure that financial mechanisms for affordable WASH benefit the most disadvantaged. For instance, it is important that tariffs schemes are not only relevant to those connected to piped services, and that subsidies are reaching [4] the people who rely on them the most. Due attention should also be given to cross-subsidies, especially between water and sanitation services, to ensure that the disadvantaged do not end up subsidizing better-off households. According to the Special Rapporteur, this makes it necessary to assess what financing mechanism and subsidies are in place — including hidden subsidies –, and who benefits from them, as well as to ensure the transparency of such measures.

Mechanisms such as “social protection floors” can be a good instrument to overcome affordability issues of the most disadvantaged. These are nationally defined sets of basic social security guarantees that ensure access to essential services, including water and sanitation. Indeed, a recent review by the International Labour Organization (ILO) [5] of 50 country cases shows how social protection systems and floors have helped extend coverage to otherwise excluded groups.

The conclusion? A human-rights based approach to measuring affordability

Complementing affordability metrics with in-depth analysis of these three elements — i.e., service types and costs, policies and plans, and financing mechanisms — might be demanding and time consuming, but it is the only way to complete the picture. Affordability will only be achieved when the needs of the most disadvantaged are understood, and targeted actions are adopted to address the specific barriers they face.

Indeed, understanding (and measuring) affordability as a human rights criterion entails that the use of WASH services is at a price that does not limit people’s capacity to acquire other basic goods and services guaranteed by human rights, such as food, housing, health, clothing, and education. It also means, as argued by Ezbakhe and colleagues in their research article, that affordability cannot be isolated from other dimensions of the human rights to water and sanitation [6].

The Special Rapporteur said it best: ensuring affordable service provision for all people requires a paradigm shift — starting from the perspective of human rights. Such human-rights based approach to measuring affordability is particularly needed in the context of SDG 6 [7], where the aim is to achieve a universal access to safe and affordable WASH services.

*This post was prepared as part of the 2020 campaign to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the UN General Assembly on the human right to water and sanitation: a campaign by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

For more information on the campaign see here.


[1] All four indicators analysed by Guy Hutton in his 2012 review paper were based on a ratio between WASH and the overall household income or expenditure, and encompassed: (1) subset of financial costs, i.e., regular expenditures on services such as tariffs or charges; (2) capital financial costs, which adds non-regular expenditures such as connection fees; (3) full financial costs, which also includes other recurrent costs such as household water treatment and storage; and (4) full financial and economic costs, which takes into account the ‘hidden’ time costs of WASH access.

[2] In his recent global analysis, Smets showed the fluctuation in affordability thresholds across countries: for instance, 2% in Lithuania, 3% in France, 5% in Kenya, and 6% in Mongolia. He also revealed the different affordability thresholds adopted by international agencies: for example, 3% by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 4% by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and 5% by the African Development Bank.

[3] The Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) is an UN-Water initiative aimed at providing policy- and decision-makers with a reliable, comprehensive and global analysis of the investments and enabling environment to make informed decisions for WASH.

[4] There are various reasons why such measures often fail to reach the most disadvantaged. In his 2015 report, the Special Rapporteur provided nine different causes, including that target groups are generally uninformed about their existence, that they are required to provide excessive paperwork that they may not have, or that they are not eligible to apply because of their non-formal land tenure.

[5] The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations agency whose mandate is to advance social justice and promote decent work by setting international labour standards.

[6] Water and sanitation were explicitly recognized as human rights by the United Nations General Assembly (resolution A/RES/64/292) and the Human Rights Council (resolution A/HRC/RES/15/9) in 2010. These rights encompass five normative criteria: availability, accessibility, quality and safety, affordability, and acceptability.

[7] The two official monitoring mechanisms of SDG 6 — the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) and the UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) — have recently launched a joint initiative to review methods and indicators for monitoring affordability of WASH services. Case studies are underway in six countries — Cambodia, Ghana, Mexico, Pakistan, Uganda, and Zambia — to test the validity of different measures and to assess the availability of data that could potentially be used for national and global monitoring.

Further reading materials:

2020 marks the tenth year since the UN General Assembly adopted resolution explicitly recognizing the human rights to water and sanitation.

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