Water Security in Developing Countries


When considering global water security, it is important to keep in mind that not all countries can economically or politically tackle all of the solutions outlined on this website. Many either new or newly-modernizing countries – which we will refer to as “developing” – lack the financial capital necessary to implement these solutions, so we must analyze how they can still solve the problems that they face.

The unfortunate problem with these countries is that they feel the greatest symptoms of the water security issues yet have the least funding and lowest priority to do anything about the causal factors. According to the World Health Organization, of those affected by water scarcity and sanitation issues in the world, the majority live in developing nations [1]. Conversely, those who live in developed countries – which have the financial capital to implement the solutions outlined throughout the website – typically have the funding necessary for the upkeep of water purification, distribution, and extraction facilities, which help curb the symptoms of water security. In this way, the countries that have the means to fix the problem often have little need to; those who lack the means to fix the problem often have the greatest need. To quantify this problem, of the 3.4 million people who die every year from water-related causes, 99 percent live in the developing world [2].

Approximately 1.1 billion people in developing countries are currently living without an adequate supply and access to water [3]. In a world with slightly over 7 billion people, this is an outrageously high fraction of people. In order to ensure the water security of the world as a whole, it is vital to start with these 1.1 billion impoverished people whose governments lack the funding necessary to help them. Throughout this article, we will discuss what it means to be a developing country and what needs to be done to ensure water security to those who need it most.

How do we define “developing”?

Every country in the world is classified in terms of development level. There are many ways to distinguish which level of development a country falls under. The World Bank – a multilateral financial institution that is responsible for providing loans to countries in need – has developed a system that classifies countries as one of low, middle, or high income based on its gross national income per capita [4]. In this system, a country is considered “developing” if its gross national income per capita is $4,085 or less [4].

The United Nations has also devised a system to classify the level of development of countries. This system is much more complex; rather than just considering the gross national income per capita, it also incorporates a Human Assets Index that takes nutrition, health, education, and literacy into account and an Economic Vulnerability Index based on the instability of both agricultural products and exports of goods and services, the importance of non-traditional economic activities, the concentration of merchandise exports, and any handicaps of economic smallness [5]. This method seems much more well-rounded and all-encompassing, yet a country must satisfy all three of the criteria in order to qualify as a developing country, leaving out many countries who might not be fully developed.

Problem Overview

Developing countries – while none are entirely the same – face many of the same problems pertaining to water quality and supply. Foremost, these countries have diminishing reliable access to water, particularly for the poor and marginalized populations [6]. The US Agency for International Development, Bureau of Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade breaks down the overall problem into three major divisions:

  • Poor access to water supply
  • Poor water resource management
  • Poor water productivity in the agricultural sector

Each of these subproblems is described and analyzed below.

Access to Water Supply

Developing countries, in particular, have immense problems with access to water.  In order for people outside of major cities in these countries to access water domestically, they need roads, pipes, treatment plants, and wells to bring clean and ample water to them.  This particularly is a major issue in developing countries because 80 percent of people globally who lack access to water live in rural areas [7].

Yet in many of these countries, this infrastructure is nowhere to be found, generally because of a lack of funding for creation and upkeep. People in these countries must collect water from far away sources, trekking large distances and carrying large weights of water.

For example, a study of water access in Mongolia by Dore and Nagpal [8] showed that only 44.6 percent of Mongolia’s population has reliable and immediate access to treated, sanitary water sources. The remaining 55.4 percent of the population relies on dirty, polluted water or water of any degree of sanitation that is located outside of the home.

To understand how a country could provide less than half of its population with clean water requires historical context. Mongolia, a country occupied by a traditionally nomadic people – who would move to water sources – has just within the past few decades begun a process of modernization.  In this transition, the people have started to occupy towns and cities [8]. However, the nomadic lifestyle of Mongolia’s past has left a country with a significant lack of permanent infrastructure. With a developing government that has a limited economy and is still working its way into full power, Mongolia will have a difficult time getting funding for and approving projects for full-scale infrastructure construction. While Mongolia is a somewhat unique case, many other developing countries see similar inadequacies in access to clean water.

While the overall solution for water access provides excellent remedies for accessibility issues in general, many of these solutions become difficult because the finances may not be available to fund these projects in developing countries. For example, water distribution systems are effective in providing better access to water, but they are extremely costly. Developing countries overwhelmingly lack the financial capital necessary to pay for projects like these. However, greater political support and help from multilateral organizations such as the World Bank can help these countries implement necessary solutions.

Water Resource Management

Developing countries often young politically, meaning they are just starting out, so there is often poor or nonexistent government regulation of water. However, as a developing country, a political window exists through which new solutions and new regulations can be implemented. One way that this problem can be approached is through the ideology of Integrated Water Management (IWM).

IWM is a resource management theory that attempts to promote the “coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems” [9]. It has four principles that it adheres to in its attempts to preserve and distribute water: consider water an economic resource, recognize that water is a finite resource, encourage democratic participation in the development of water, and require that women play a fundamental role in the management of water [10].

Because of the nature of the ideas at hand, IWM is much more of a goal than something that can be implemented. IWM is not a policy; it is a set of ideas and beliefs for techniques of water management. Mission 2017 recommends that countries adopt the basic principles of IWM to the best of their abilities.

There may be problems in the process of achieving the goals of IWM specific to developing countries. One of the main pillars of IWM, for example, is a stress on the importance of women having a role in the management of water. Many cultures do not hold women to equal status, and may be averse to giving them more rights than men in this area. In a traditionally patriarchal society it will most likely be very difficult to convince many people in these cultures to give women a significantly more powerful role in the management of water. As a response, independent social reform groups can work with the people by implementing policies that promote the participation of women in the politics of water. This also proves challenging for many countries as governments are wary of the influences of outside groups involving themselves in public affairs. However, this is necessary because many governments will have the same cultural beliefs as the people they govern.

Poor Water Productivity in the Agricultural Sectors

Much of the unnecessary water waste in developing countries is due to inefficient use  in both the agricultural sector of their economies. Currently, the agricultural sector uses 75% of global water supply [11]. There are many ways in which this quantity of water can be greatly reduced. Mission 2017 has proposed a few means by which it plans to decrease the amount on a global scale, one of which would be greatly beneficial to developing countries is genetically modified crops.

In the past decade or so, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become increasingly popular and many of them have proven to have positive effects on water usage. The techniques recommended by Mission 2017 include the genetic modification of plants to make them resist drought and transpire less. The incorporation of these plants into the agricultural industry will greatly reduce the required water for agriculture by having the crops planted conserve water themselves.

Naturally, there are many issues associated with changing the structure and culture of an industry. Large companies, a popular example being Monsanto, own patents for their genetic formulas, which make it illegal for a farmer to have these plants growing on his field without purchasing the rights to them, even if they were carried by the wind from another farm that did purchase it. This puts the small farmers in developing countries at risk of serious financial troubles. In addition, GM crops may damage natural biodiversity of seeds in the area through natural selection [12].

To combat these issues, Mission 2017 supports the imposition of government regulations of biotechnology companies through antitrust laws to prevent monopolies and protect the local farmers. Mission 2017 also supports the implementation of price floors for certain crops to ensure crop stability.

Similarly to the issues associated with water access, converting the agricultural sector to planting GM crops that they must import the seeds from large companies becomes difficult because it is very expensive. The capital necessary to undertake these projects could once again find roots in multilateral economic groups, microfinanciers, and charity organizations.

How Multilateral Economic Groups Can Help

Multilateral groups exist with the purpose of redistributing aid money from many different governments to whoever is in need of the funds. One good example of a multilateral economic group is the World Bank, which uses investment project financing to help countries who need the funding [13]. In many past examples, the World Bank has been effective at providing developing countries with sufficient capital.

One such example was the World Bank’s assistance in the Ouagadougou Water Supply Project [14]. This project aimed to build a dam 60 kilometers away from this capital city of Burkina Faso. In this project, the World Bank helped the project by funding an environmental assessment prior to the construction. This is a vital phase of the construction of a dam that most developing countries cannot afford. By providing this assistance for Burkina Faso, the World Bank helped make their dam possible.

However, the World Bank has also loaned at historically high interest rates that make it extraordinarily difficult for developing countries to pay back. Recently, it has implemented debt-relief programs with the sole purpose of avoiding the economy-crushing debt that it instilled upon lender countries in the past. To further remedy this, it is recommended that the World Bank, and other similar groups, reduce these interest rates, so it would be more realistically feasible for the countries to pay back. This benefits both the World Bank and the countries because the countries would be able to develop water-related infrastructure or implement water-related governmental policies and the World Bank would be at less risk of defaulting on a loan.

How Microfinancing Can Help

Microfinancing is a process by which investors can loan small denominations of money – typically ranging from one hundred to a thousand dollars – to people in developing countries, so they can apply that money directly to remedy their symptoms of water security. One advantageous feature of microfinancing is that the people themselves can directly apply for loans. This money can go to install in-home plumbing or water filtration devices at a very small-scale. However, it is small-scale, so it cannot help to finance large infrastructure projects such as dams or city piping, for example. Another drawback to microfinancing is that the loans are typically given at a high interest rate. This puts a large risk factor on the many impoverished people, who – by definition of a developing country – live off of an average of $4,085 or less per year.

How Charity Organizations Can Help

Charity and not-for-profit organizations are another possible source of funding for water infrastructure projects. Not-for-profit organizations are effective at raising money to finance projects in countries that lack the necessary funds. Unfortunately, these are not a viable long-term solution because they only tackle the symptoms of water security and not the actual problems. If the goal of the mission is to provide global long-term water security, the charity organizations would only help in the initial phases to provide short-term relief while the long-term changes are being funded by other means.

One example of an important not-for-profit organization is Charity SA, which has a database of 1,096 charity groups within South Africa [15]. This organization works to provide information about and organize the efforts of the nonprofit groups in South Africa. This is a really efficient way to organize what problems still need attention in South Africa.  Charity SA also conducts research on the current issues in the country to provide these groups with information on areas specifically in need.

Another type of charity is an international government effort. The United States, for example has been a major player in the international water crisis, and has led a series of relief efforts to try to fix it. The United States Bureau of Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade and Agency for International Development put out a “framework of action” of ways to improve all three of these major issues that developing countries are facing in the attempt to establish water security [16]. For example, the USAID’s ECO-Asia Program is a multi-faceted approach at bringing water services to the urban poor, creating sustainable sanitation solutions, making water services more efficient, and finding ways to finance these problems. One of the successful efforts of this program was a program in Marikina, Philippines that facilitated a partnership between a water company – Manila Water – and the city to create a sewage management program to clean up the water supply in Marikina. This kind of foreign not-for-profit is much more effective in the long-term than monetary or supply donations; it tackles not only the short-term issues but the long-term ones as well. The biggest drawback of this form of charity is that it is also unreliable; a developed country could stop providing these foreign services at any given time. However, it is recommended that developed countries such as the US continue these efforts in the developing world, as it is a global issue and all countries must work together to fix it.

One important benefit with charity organizations is that the countries have no obligation to return the money. This avoids any long-term debt that countries could have to other governments, their own people, or microfinanciers. The lack of debt associated with non-profits is helpful for attacking symptoms of water scarcity. A charitable donor from a developed country can send a family in a developing country a water purifier, for example. This would greatly benefit this one family, but does not have an overall effect on the water security in that region, and much less in the world as a whole. However, donations such as this one are beneficial in that they combat the most basic problems at a very small scale.  In the fight against poor water quality, that one purifier goes a long way for that one family.

However, the problem with these charity organizations is that there is no guaranteed, consistent supply of funding from any organization. Donations fluctuate year-round and could stop coming at any moment. Because of this inconsistency, charity organization efforts can only act as part of the financial solution. The other methods would need to be instituted alongside these donations.

Is There Hope?

Water security is not a new issue, so many case studies exist that explore and expose the aforementioned issues and solutions. One such case study is that of Indore, India, where water was a critical issue for the survival of the people.

Case Study: Indore, India

Indore, India is very similar to thousands of developing cities. Rapidly growing population, insufficient infrastructure, and climate change have forced Indore into a position of severe water scarcity. For this reason, an extensive, three-year case study was performed by the NOAA Indore Research Team to discover the roots of this city’s problems and to establish potential solutions.

One of the central problems in Indore is the lack of water distribution infrastructure. Indore’s current water infrastructure system, the IMC (Indore Municipal Corporation), is capable of supplying 100 liters of water per day per person, which is five times more than the UN’s estimate of minimum daily water need [17][18]. However, 25 percent of the distributed water is lost to leaks in piping, and the IMC only reaches 54 percent of the population, supplying each person with only 75 liters of the available 100. Those with access to running water are primarily city dwellers, and many of them have running water for less than one hour each day [17].

Apart from being vastly underdeveloped, Indore gets 80 percent of its water from a single river, the Narmada River [17]. Not only does this jeopardize Indore in the case of drought or severe contamination of the Narmada, but it also forces the people to be reliant on a river whose water is currently categorized as “unfit for human consumption” due to large amounts of agricultural and industrial pollution [19].

National interests have served as a strong, negative influence in local water issues. In the case of Plachimada, India, the Coca-Cola Company singlehandedly ruined the region’s agricultural business by extracting 1.5 million liters of groundwater daily. Despite a series of protests against Coca-Cola’s practices, the Indian government continued to favor the company over its own people on the basis of revenue [18]. Similarly to Plachimada, Indore has suffered greatly at the hands of national laws biased to favor elite businesses and wealthy individuals. Ownership of groundwater is given to those who own the land directly above the source. Millions of people in poverty find themselves unable to access water while the rich have a comparatively infinite source of water. The poor find themselves in a position where they are unable to argue for their right to water, and they rarely see any government-induced changes to improve their situation. Small, local governments are often ignored as both cities and their most vulnerable civilians find themselves helpless in the fight for equal access to clean drinking water [17].

The optimal solution for Indore, as well as countless other developing cities, is for government intervention to improve locally controlled water infrastructure. Infrastructure would combat the abuses within India’s current water distribution regulations by creating a convenient alternate water source which can better manage who gets how much water. Abuses would be easier to detect, overexploitation would be noticed before it drained the water supply Infrastructure expansion would also grant access to running water to more of the 46% of Indore’s population which lacks the IMC’s supply. Infrastructure expansion would also benefit local watersheds by reducing pollution due to wastewater; creating a waste management system would prevent wastewater from contaminating freshwater sources. Open dumping of waste would no longer be a necessity and the added sewer system would be able to treat and recycle discarded water.

Converting to a system with increased infrastructure and tighter water management is an extremely costly solution for a nation, with costs fluctuating significantly based on political, economic, and geographic factors. Because of potential high costs, expanding infrastructure must be a gradual process. Despite this, it has been listed as the initiating step in a 50 year transition to water security. Increased infrastructure has been shown to be the optimal solution for developing a country’s economy, increasing the average standard of living, and reducing disease [20]. These profits far outweigh the costs of establishing a controlled water distribution system, making the transition to greater infrastructure a simple and highly beneficial step in the journey to water security.


Developing countries are faced with an unfortunate problem: they suffer the most from the problems of water security and have the least means to fix them.

The three main categories of problems facing developing countries are:

1. Access:

     -People in developing countries do not have safe and reliable access to water.

     -Solutions to access problems are large and costly, but outside financial actors can help alleviate many of these costs.

2. Management:

     -There is often poor or nonexistent government regulation of water in developing countries.

     -The goals of IWM is a viable theory to strive for in the implementation of regulation in these countries.

3. Agricultural productivity:

     -A huge amount of water is used inefficiently in agriculture.

     -The use of genetically modified crops will help to reduce the water necessary for agriculture.

     -Governments must regulate the biotechnology companies to prevent many of the potential problems that accompany the invasion of big corporation into developing economies.

Mission 2017 recommends three means of funding these projects in developing countries.  None of these solutions can work alone; they must be used together.

1. Multilateral economic groups:

     -Groups such as the World Bank use investment project financing to help countries who need funding.

     -countries and themselves.

2. Microfinancing:

     -Microfinancing is a process by which investors can loan very small amounts of money to people in developing countries.

     -This can only help at a very small-scale, but it can alleviate many symptoms of water security.

3. Charity organizations:

     -Charity organizations can help for short-term relief without the countries ever needing to worry about paying it back.

     -International government efforts also help by leading charity relief efforts into developing countries.

In Indore, India, a case study was done that attempted to figure out the roots of the water-related issues and to find solutions for them.  The main problems found in Indore were a lack of water distribution infrastructure, a single source for all water, and international influence on the agricultural sector of the economy. The optimal solution for Indore was to improve water infrastructure.



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