Accès à l'eau, accès à la ville
Article Index
From Informal Service to Essential Service: MIREP…

For many people, providing access to drinking water and sanitation in urban areas means extending water utilities. However, the very nature of urban growth in developing countries renders this solution questionable, both technically and socially. Today, cities in developing countries offer a wide variety of water delivery services, depending on each locale's physical constraints and income. These new services require new utilities-management institutions, which must define common rules, consider consumers' needs, and become incorporated into cities' policies.

In this chapter, the concept of "urban integration" refers to urban processes that encourage four levels of cohesion: (1) "technical-functional cohesion," or unity through infrastructure systems; (2) "spatial cohesion" through equitable access to urban resources and amenities; (3) "social cohesion" through a redistribution of wealth and guaranteed minimum income for everyone; and (4) "political cohesion" through democratic, inclusive governance. Conversely, the concept of "fragmentation" refers to mechanisms that weaken ties of interdependence between citizen - diminishing cohesiveness and shattering a sense of community and shared purpose among social groups and urban spaces.

An intense debate has emerged about how liberalization and privatization affect the relation between water utilities and urban spaces. In developed countries, urban fragmentation is often viewed as a potential threat, because it simultaneously destabilizes earlier models for both utilities management and the city. Conventional utilities - based on monopolies, egalitarian access standards and government's power over consumers - are being transformed, as is the "Fordian" urban model - domestic mass production with a range of institutions and policies supporting mass consumption, along with Keynesian demand management. In cities in developing countries, where "integrative" water utility networks remain a rarely attained ideal, economic efficiency has dominated policy over the last thirty years, albeit with little success. New forms of unconventional utilities promise greater progress in social cohesion, urban integration and economic balance, if they can be effectively governed and regulated.

Indeed, renewed interest in the integrative function of utility networks raises questions of accessibility and social justice, while the relative failure of conventional utilities drives the formalization of private, informal offerings, previously kept outside of legal and statistical frameworks. Thus, in cities with mixed populations, the diversity of service needs becomes a vector for technical, managerial and institutional innovation. This leads to the emergence of "composite" water supply systems - a combination of conventional and alternative distribution systems - that are directly based on the diversity of service needs and their evolution. These multiple, composite water distribution systems turn the paradigm of a unitary network and its economies of scale upside down; they prompt a reinvented vision of infrastructure policy, in which the unitary model may not best support the public interest.

Utilities and Cities in Developing Countries: An Ongoing Disconnect

Weak institutional capacities, a lack of capital, and poverty restrict utilities' integrative role, leading to three different situations. Water distribution networks may be nearly completed, but remain unable to offer affordable services to the poorest people, as occurs in South Africa or Chile. Or, as in Brazil or Morocco, a high percentage of citizens may be connected, but large pockets remain of excluded illegal and/or very poor residents, raising questions about the network's technical and commercial suitability. Finally, in areas such as West Africa, water distribution networks still need to be built, with subsidies for the poor. "New" ways of addressing urban water access issues in developing countries spring from the reconsideration of conventional utilities: these are now seen as expressions of simplistic, socio-technical compromise, instead of as solutions for real urban conditions.

Conventional water utilities' business models have led to rationing. Proposals for change first focused on the respective merits of public and private interventions in water management services. The national or local public enterprise model dominated up to the 1980s, with varied success. Thereafter, the presumed efficiency and superior management models of private enterprises led to an international "consensus," incarnated in public-private partnerships and various types of leasing, concession and management contracts. These arrangements have achieved only modest results, and no empirical analysis has shown their efficacy beyond doubt. The defects of delegation, so well analysed in developed countries, often amplify in developing countries because of information asymmetry, lack of transparency, inadequate investment, and so forth. Contractual frameworks often fail to ensure the fair sharing of risk over time. In addition, regulatory agencies created to resolve these problems fail at their task. Finally, performance and results, in terms of pricing, investments and attention to the needs of poor people, do not meet expectations. The rate of contract signings has slowed since the late 1990s, and continuance of existing ones has come under closer scrutiny, particularly with regard to improving their governance.

What lessons do the institutional reforms of the 1990s teach us? While largely considered failures despite the substantial means invested, the reforms indicate that the form of ownership matters less than the nature of services in achieving urban integration. The conventional water utility model, based on large infrastructure, centralised management and service equality for everyone, has entry costs that are too high for the poor (Kayaga and Franceys 2007) because of technical factors (too-high standards) and judicial ones (illegal land tenure) as well as political issues. In many cities, governments' financial and political commitments to the water sector are too weak, and people without access have few ways to voice their needs. Furthermore, water sector reforms have been incapable of reconciling formal institutions (and the rapidly-changing organizations that are supposed to represent them) with informal institutions such as beliefs, customs and values that evolve more gradually. This discord proved crucial in some conflicts that terminated delegation contracts. 

In nearly all cities, unsatisfied needs mean that conventional utilities exist alongside other uncontrolled - and most often illegal - commercial modes of water supply. Recourse to conventional and unconventional water suppliers nearly always combines use, price, taste and accessibility criteria. Alternative offers develop primarily in the spaces not served by the dominant operator, in inverse proportion to its extension of services. Financially autonomous, the alternative water operators do not receive government subsidies and typify the informal economy - excluded from census data, untaxed, weakly capitalistic, legally vulnerable. They are very active in water delivery services and sometimes in water production, using private borehole wells. Even if they copy each others' practices enough to show some uniformity, alternative commercial offerings remain varied, artisanal, and more expensive per unit compared to conventional utilities' services.

These characteristics do not exclude social integration. The widespread use of these decentralized suppliers leads to standards of water access compatible with the lack of a network. Consumers are integrated in social and commercial networks that assure various water qualities (drinkable or not, free or fee-based) and services (home delivery through door-to-door sales, from a public or a private standpipe, with or without quality and reliability guarantees, with or without subscriptions, and so forth). But given their dependence on non-regulated markets, households are rarely in a position to negotiate supply terms; they pay ten to twenty times more for each unit of water than households connected to a conventional utility's distribution network. Given the catastrophic delay in sanitation services, consumers reap only some of the health benefits commonly attributed to drinking clean water. In urban areas lacking individual private entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and decentralized aid sometimes provide infrastructure-financing initiatives. Infrastructure management generally relies on commercializing (selling) water, contracting local small operators, and organizing consumers' collectives into not-for-profit groups or committees that take over infrastructure operations and regulation. These more or less formal community groups resemble "community privatizations" and are a variant of commodification (Jaglin and Bousquet 2009).

This abbreviated overview of alternative commercial water channels does not represent all real modes of supply, because forms of free water access also exist. Fee-based drinking water is often only one option among many - others include rainwater, ponds, borehole wells, rivers, and so on. In fact, individual or collective water network connections can also encourage different consumption patterns according to sanitary criteria (drinking quality) and/or practices (water in the home) rather than relying solely on the utility's network. Consequently, the first challenge in improving water services' integrative function is to rethink their expansion and generalization, starting with the diversity and dynamics of existing supply systems.

Diversify to Integrate?

While policy analysts agree on the diversity of situations, there is no consensus on the definition or choice of the best water-services solution. Meeting this challenge requires rethinking all the rules that organize and frame the services: functional parameters, participants, standards and regulatory tools. However, if one starts from existing systems and practices, one soon confronts the corporate interests sustaining conventional utilities' professionals and their representations of urban "acceptability" standards, as well as the power struggles between conventional water operators and smaller, alternative operators.

Despite these restrictions, recent changes indicate that the search for new arrangements depends on "untangling" this diversity, based on two important innovations: abandoning the "one-size-fits-all" principle of unitary systems, and adopting the principle of "progressive standardization." The main challenge is to think about the coexistence of all formal and informal channels of service delivery and to regulate their interactions, whether these be competitive or cooperative. Several scenarios can be imagined, such as the integration of delivery channels in a hybrid system, their coordination in composite systems, or their juxtaposition. Juxtaposition describes many current situations; integration remains the least probable outcome in the short term, because it requires mixing cultures and making culturally incompatible socio-technical compromises. On the other hand, coordination of composite utilities systems is a plausible scenario now gaining visibility (Blanc, Cavé and Chaponnière 2009). It requires shifting traditional standards and experimenting with innovative operational arrangements, for which we will provide some examples below.

Innovation and Services Differentiation

Thinking about drinking water has long centred on binary distinctions: water utility networks for city dwellers, wells and boreholes for villagers. These two modes of distribution reflect distinct rationales for technical and institutional channels. The effects of the urbanization of poverty and the resurgence of health issues on the one side, and the demographic and spatial dynamism of urban peripheries and small towns on the other, upended the imperviousness of supply systems in the mid-1970s. These factors pushed a progressive hybridization of water supply systems, offering new technologies: mini-networks linked to surface water pumps or motorized borehole pumps - with power supplied by the electricity grid, solar panels or generators- and water pipes feeding street fountains and private connections. Created in response to the needs of small towns and villages, these hybrid systems have expanded as legal frameworks are overhauled and decentralization implemented (Jaglin and Belbeoc'h forthcoming). The idea of service differentiation has also gained ground in large cities (Jaglin 2008), propelled by the need to articulate supply with ability to pay. Current experiments adapt conventional solutions for customers of modest means and irregular incomes, by lowering the cost of connecting to the network and by applying innovative sales technologies. Local governments and private enterprises have initiated these experiments whenever an operator confronts the cost of secondary networks and managing low-margin customers. Efforts initially address connection costs, which include license fees owed to the operator and expenses associated with plumbing and supplies. Aid for connections rests on micro-credit in some cases, but may incorporate costs in mortgages, subsidies and even cash contributions.

The municipality of Windhoek, Namibia, adopted a frequently-amended development and upgrading strategy at the end of the 1990s. It defines service levels according to income categories, and connection costs may be included in the sales price of land and payable on credit. Durban, South Africa, has bolstered this approach by thinking about ways to control consumption and costs. Innovations such as electronic pre-payment systems also attempt to reconcile the accounting requirements of a water-supply business with piecemeal purchases and the low-income culture of extended micro-payments. These experiences - to which the large Latin American concessions of La Paz-El Alto and Buenos Aires have also contributed (See Box 1) - take into account the diversity of water supply modes on one hand, and urban socio-economic disparities on the other, thus supporting compromises between the right to water and cost recovery.

Box 1 | Participatory Water Service Management Models in Buenos Aires

Since 1993, the Argentinean water authority, Aguas Argentinas, has sought ways to extend the water supply network within its concessionary area. In 1999, a community development division was created; its aim was to define a policy for low-income neighbourhoods. The division launched a series of approximately forty projects known as "participatory management models," which aimed to extend or normalize services based on a tri-party contract, as follows:The neighbourhood community initiates the service request, and at least 80% of residents must be in favour of the project. The community must be able to organize, choose representatives, and furnish labour during the works phase.The municipality ensures it will undertake works under its purview, such as opening roads, and will provide gloves, shovels and other tools, along with distributing government subsidies of 150 pesos per month to heads of households who participate in a community work programme.The contractor ensures project feasibility, furnishing supplies such as pipe and keys, training labourers, and communicating with the entire community. This methodology, based on social intervention, makes it possible for low-income neighbourhoods to become Aguas Argentinas' customers, and avoids creating a second-rate service.

Source: Botton (2006: 75-89)

Private water supply operators use various entrepreneurial models. The many small, informal private operators working in urban water supply can appear unacceptable at times because their services are substandard, and providential at others because they provide services conventional utilities cannot. Although long-denigrated and considered uncompetitive, small private operators now seem attractive because of their entrepreneurial and proactive character and their flexibility. They provide a counterpoint to larger public-private partnerships that have disappointing results, and promote renewed interest in the virtues of the private sector and poor residents' "ability to pay." They push the boundaries of public and private, legal and illegal, commercial and non-profit, thereby opening new opportunities for collective water service solutions. Different arrangements emerge according to geography and proximity to water networks, and unorthodox partnerships form around the edges of conventional water utilities.

The reorganization of public water supply for two million people, centred around street fountains in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, exemplifies a partnership between neighbourhood organizations and the municipal water utility, Camep. The programme, started in 1995, organized water supply to slums through mini-networks of fee-based street fountains managed by not-for-profit neighbourhood water committees. Such an arrangement guarantees infrastructure compatibility, as well as management autonomy for the slums' water supply: behind the collective metre, the water committee takes care of its internal network, buying water wholesale for far less than the normal retail price. After paying Camep (the wholesaler), the committee pays its saleswomen, indemnifies its members, finances maintenance operations, and may invest excess funds (Matthieussent 2004).

In Maputo, Mozambique, the individual entrepreneur model dominates. The large, private water management operator, Aguas de Moçambique, excludes about a third of residents from service: they turn to small private operators for water from private connections or street fountains. Private operators own pumping apparatus that they connect to mini- "spaghetti" networks equipped with individual water metres and flexible above-ground pipes (Blanc et al. 2009). Propelled by international donors, Maputo's water policy aims to give small private operators a greater role in providing urban water in cooperation with Aguas de Moçambique. The policy envisages formalizing licenses, providing a legal framework for financial partnerships, providing technical and professional training, and reorganizing the water market through mergers of "informal" supply channels. Other models also exist, such as the "collective entrepreneurs" of Zamcargo, a settlement neighbourhood in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania. It had a population of approximately three thousand people in the mid-2000s. Water arrives through a micro-network made up of three fee-based "water kiosks" (installed via international donor funds, together with a few private connections for wealthier residents. An elected committee manages the service, using fee income to pay operating and maintenance costs.

These decentralized water supply channels suggest several avenues for further exploration; they respond to variations in demand based on socio-demographic changes and transformation of the built environment. They are not very "capitalistic," meaning they do not need high investment levels to start their activities, and offer technical flexibility, with systems easily redeployed to new areas. Hybrid governance structures assure their management, mixing communitarian with commercial purposes in a manner especially well-suited to prevailing socio-economic conventions. However, these arrangements only develop at the edges of conventional water utilities where market conditions are favourable, without any pretension of becoming universal. Their inclusion in composite systems comes from their articulation with conventional networks and through their extension into yet-unserved urban areas.

Key Factors for Urban Integration through Composite Systems

How can planning, management and regulation of these composite systems preserve their vital diversity? A conventional utilities network addresses technical, pricing and socio-political solidarity issues in specific ways unsuitable for composite systems: the latter require new and different governance as well as administrative rules and guidance to address these key issues. We hypothesize three conditions for reducing fragmentation and promoting urban integration and solidarity through composite service systems: common rules, principles and values; mechanisms to share competencies, financing and natural resources; and redistribution through rates and taxes. Integration of composite systems thus rests on the ability to "govern" diversity. "Poly­centric governance" approaches (Falk, Bock and Kirk 2009) furnish useful analytical and theoretical approaches for the shape of such governance systems. Each utility unit or sub-system should have sufficient autonomy to conceive and adjust its operations quickly - i.e. allowing it to solve a collective problem (such as water supply) while benefiting from support and resources from higher levels of the system.

Government subsidies must be reinvented and costs adjusted for financing requirements. After certain dogmatic excesses in the 1990s, discourse and practices have given government subsidies a new image, especially for infrastructure extensions and connecting housing to supply networks. Cross-subsidies between users, loans, various land and property taxes and rates, and social housing policies that include the cost of infrastructure: such have been the main mechanisms for subsidizing the poor in relatively rich cities such as in Cape Town, South Africa, or Santiago, Chile. Other approaches are necessary elsewhere, especially for public financing of private connections in poor cities. Development projects relying on international donor funding tend to use "output-based aid," which targets grants to specific beneficiaries contingent on their meeting performance criteria. This aid mechanism, designed to reinforce a sense of public responsibility, leverages public funds; it is disbursed based on actual results achieved. It could be used to finance public funding of private connections in Senegal and Burkina Faso, for example. However, there are few extant cases of large-scale applications, and mechanisms to extend such aid to informal channels do not yet exist, although they are under discussion. Cross-subsidies mean some customers pay higher rates than others, in such a way that the services provider can still achieve adequate revenues based on all customers' payments.

Subsidizing poor peoples' water consumption is still controversial. South Africa's change of policy at the beginning of the 2000s is significant: it now guarantees a minimum of six square metres of free water per month per household, after imposing water rates on all services previously. However, the failure of private water management services in Mali between 2000 and 2005 demonstrates that funding water consumption via user cross-subsidies does not succeed everywhere: middle-class customers' excessively high rates caused the breakdown (Leborgne 2006).

Subsidizing informal channels is crucial for financing some externalities. In Cambodia, a development project chose to concentrate on water quality as its priority because there was little regulatory or popular pressure for it (Mahé 2006). Funding informal channels is also critical in providing water access to the very poor. Unconventional services propose sales and payment terms that suit the needs of low-income consumers, such as very small payments over time, purchases on credit and deferred payments. However, beyond socio-economic arrangements based on proximity and trust, such transactions do not include redistribution or solidarity mechanisms. In Maputo, Mozambique, small private operators cover highly-populated neighbourhoods that Aguas de Moçambique does not serve, but that nonetheless have electricity service. This means that the water services, more expensive than those of Aguas de Moçambique, primarily benefit households with average rather than low incomes. In another urban context, the same logic asserts itself with less dramatic results: in small towns in Cambodia, only 10% of households are excluded from water supply services. The incentives and tools to finance social and spatial equity in composite systems have yet to be invented.

Regulatory issues and terms must adapt to each situation. Funding is strategically central, but does not ensure the continuity of a water supply system. New arrangements bring increasing numbers of participants into play. Contracts that identify the parties involved and clarify their roles are preferred for organizational stability. The contract is a "must-have" tool for guided apprenticeships. Despite its rapid diffusion, however, it remains fragile in many circumstances, no more than a list of reciprocal commitments with no real legal guarantee, a partnership whose essential terms of operation remain undecided.

Composite water distribution systems are also distinctive because they offer differentiated services. How can they be regulated to encourage urban integration without making them uniform? It is certainly necessary to separate "universal" elements, such as sanitary standards and a definition of minimum acceptable service, from characteristics that may vary from place to place. Such clarifications may create conflicts, requiring subtle judgements that can only function if backed by large groups of consumers and all water producers. Composite systems face the challenge of "relative standards." Sharing low-cost techniques and using inexpensive manufactured products is essential to ensure informal supply's profitability. How can regulation of their relative standards coexist with the other, more stringent standards used by the system's conventional operator?

Environmental issues also spark questions. Pumping groundwater in large cities conjures the risk of depletion, or else contamination of water tables through uncontrolled discharge of grey water. While neither conventional nor informal water supply models account for environmental conditions, they produce unequal consequences in this area. These arise immediately in informal channels poorly equipped to deal with ever-deeper or more distant water sources; conventional services, by contrast, have the means to obtain and treat such water before distributing it. How can "companies" with very different levels of responsibility and means share the burden of environmental efforts? Rapidly growing cities experience changing situations, and conflicts between conventional and unconventional services are inevitable. How can the development of their respective services be regulated, i.e. through competition, eviction, complementarity, and cooperative arrangements? Evidently, some urban integration concerns play out in the strategic management of these interactions: one risk of composite systems is that they can make intra-urban inequalities concrete and enduring. Monitoring this presupposes use of tracking tools and indicators for the entire composite water supply system - tools that do not yet exist. Finally, these interactions put competing "visions" of water service into play. Simply acknowledging existing supply sources will not ensure their peaceful coexistence. For example, the goal of widely-available, essential services at minimal consumer cost requires different modes of exploiting fresh water than that of services complying with modern environmental standards. These goals are equally legitimate and difficult to reconcile with other concerns: allocations of public or private resources, lifestyles, contributions of city dwellers still awaiting supply, and consumers historically responsible for the degradation of shared resources. Composite systems internalize many conflicts that conventional services seem to escape; creating cooperative processes that bypass such conflicts is critical to public water service continuity in developing countries.

Governance systems must also be adjusted. Once we accept the principle of progressive urban deployment of composite systems, we must also recall that their governance is neither neutral nor unequivocal. One approach encourages optimal autonomy for sub-systems, each creating service standards and rules using the values and framework of collective action, as well as forms and modes of monitoring customers within its purview. This path limits entry costs for operators and is inexpensive to coordinate. It encourages multiple supply systems endowed with their own mode of governance, and relies on competition to regulate their coexistence. However, autonomous sub-systems pose higher risks for urban integration objectives. Conversely, a second approach favours a polycentric perspective aimed at drawing all channels of water supply into a multilevel architecture. Composite systems take advantage of the diversity of participants and arrangements to stabilize local solutions, framed in "all-encompassing" regulations for water quality, service minimums, and price limits; these solutions guarantee the coordination and mutability of all of the systems, in addition to a shared vision of the service's social utility (Jaglin 2001). Both the municipal water company of Lusaka, Zambia (since the 1990s) and GRET, a French non-governmental organization acting with a conventional water utility, Camep (Centrale autonome métropolitaine d'eau potable)  in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, have implemented this strategy in very different urban contexts. It also underpins the programme known as the Mirep (Mini-réseaux d'eau potable)  in Cambodia (see Figure 1), scaled to an ensemble of small towns (Mahé 2006).

From Informal Service to Essential Service: MIREP MODEL

Show Media



In many cities in developing countries, the business model for integrated utility services has denied the composite character of the real water supply, while maintaining the fiction of service based on national and egalitarian standards. Composite systems provide a promising alternative, but do not yet constitute more than a very incomplete model. They cannot emerge as a sustainable solution until policy-makers impose the coexistence and standardization of various sub-systems from above. That is the full challenge of their regulation and governance. While available technical, managerial and spatial engineering offer diverse management tools, only a political power can impose the regulations that will enhance a composite system's cohesion, solidarity, inclusion and urban integration.



Andersson, K. P. and Ostrom, E. (2008) Analyzing decentralized resource regimes from a polycentric perspective. Policy Sciences, 41(1), 71-93.

Botton, S. (2006) L’accès à l’eau et à l’électricité dans les pays en développement. Comment penser la demande? Paris: Iddri (Collection Idées pour le débat 9).

Blanc, A., Cavé, J. and Chaponnière, E. (2009) Les petits opérateurs privés de la distribution d’eau à Maputo: d’un problème à une solution? Paris: AFD (Regards croisés, working document 85).

Falk, T., Bock, B. and Kirk, M. (2009) Polycentrism and poverty: experiences of rural water supply reform in Namibia. Water Alternatives, 2 (1), 115-

Jaglin, S. and Bousquet, A. (2010a) Conflicts of influence and competing models: the
boom in community-based privatization of water Services in sub-Saharan Africa. In B. Barraqué (Ed.), Urban Water Conflicts. London: Taylor and

Jaglin, S. and Belbeoc’h, A.(2010b) Décentraliser le service pour améliorer l’accès à l’eau? Expériences ouest-africaines. In G. ScheinerMadanes (Ed.), L’eau mondialisée: la gouvernance en question. Paris: éditions La Découverte.

Jaglin, S. (2008) Differentiating networked services in Cape Town: echoes of splintering urbanism? Geoforum, 39 (6), 1897-1906.

Jaglin, S. (2005) Services d’eau en Afrique subsaharienne: la fragmentation urbaine en question. Paris: CNRS éditions.

Jaglin, S. (2001) L’eau potable dans les villes en développement: les modèles marchands face à la pauvreté. Revue Tiers Monde, 166(XLII), 275-303.

Kayaga, S. and Franceys, R. (2007) Costs of urban utility water connections: excessive burden to the poor. Utilities Policy, 15 (4), 270-277.

Leborgne, F. (2006) La privatisation de l’eau au Mali. Responsabilité et environnement, 42(4), 44-58.

Mahé, J.-P. (2006) Construire un service public d’eau potable avec les entrepreneurs locaux. L’exemple du
programme Mirep au Cambodge. Paris: GRET.

Matthieussent, S. (2004) Le cas de l’approvisionnement en eau potable des quartiers défavorisés de Port-au-Prince. Seminar report, 17 novembre 2004, Network Impact - Politique africaine, Politiques publiques de lutte contre la pauvreté et les inégalités: L’influence des acteurs sociaux sur
la gouvernance d’État. Retrieved from