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date: 21 May 2018

Water and Poverty: Pathways of Escape and Descent

Abstract and Keywords

The use and transformation of water is intimately connected to wealth, poverty, and social change. Does the extension of irrigation, for example, allow escape from poverty or does it cause dispossession and deprivation? Can the transformation of water be shaped to increase opportunities for breaking free from deprivation and exclusion? Do infrastructure projects like big dams inevitably uproot and impoverish millions? This chapter employs ideas of income poverty and relational poverty to examine how uses of water are implicated in the making and the breaking of poverty. It considers three pathways of escape—the provision of irrigation, access to safe drinking water, and access to adequate domestic water—and examines two pathways causing descent into poverty. The evaluation suggests that escape can be facilitated and descent discouraged through initiatives to contest water injustice, to advance access to domestic productive water, and to develop anti-deprivation practices for irrigation and infrastructure.

Keywords: water, poverty, water injustice, relational poverty, pathways of escape, irrigation, safe drinking water, domestic water, productive water


A focus on water and poverty is justified by the centrality of water access, use, and control in the making of wealth and poverty, social divisions, and social change. An understanding of the many and complex connections between water and poverty may identify opportunities to reduce different dimensions of poverty.

Poverty is a multidimensional set of phenomena best illuminated with a range of perspectives. Two perspectives are used in this chapter because they help to clarify the pathways under discussion. The first and most widely known representation of poverty is income poverty: having too little income to be able to consume a minimum basket of commodities. Putting this measure of deprivation in social context is the second idea of relational poverty: poverty as the consequence of historically developed economic and political relations (Mosse 2010).

This chapter seeks to understand how water access, use, and management are implicated in processes leading to escape from poverty and descent into poverty. There are two bodies of literature addressing this question. One focuses on economics and policy advice on water and poverty (such as Namara et al. 2010 and Smith 2004) and suggests, for example, that the spread of irrigated agriculture can reduce poverty. This literature focuses primarily on income poverty and uses the individual household as a unit of analysis. Our attention in this chapter is primarily on the pathways or scenarios in which changing water use leads to poverty reduction as identified by this literature. A second literature contributes historical analysis of social change associated with water and poverty (e.g., Mollinga 2014; Swyngedouw 2004). This work sees the spread of irrigation, for example, contributing to the accumulation and dispossession inherent to capitalism, to male bias, and to the exclusion of particular groups by ethnicity or identity. We add some insights from this second literature and in our conclusion sketch how the two literatures might be reconciled.

The first, and most substantial, section of this chapter investigates what is known about three pathways, described primarily in the literature on policy and economics, through which access to and control of water provide routes out of poverty. These pathways operate through (i) irrigation, (ii) potable water, and (iii) domestic-productive water. Then, in the second section, we examine how water infrastructure and irrigation projects have often caused descent into poverty for some of the affected people. In the third section, we identify emerging opportunities arising from social and technical change that may facilitate escape from poverty and constrain descent. We end that section with a review of the emergence of “water justice” as a focus of social concern and public action.

In the concluding section, we briefly assess anti-poverty processes on each of the three pathways and the extent to which emerging opportunities may engage those processes. Overall, these deliberations highlight three processes: (i) the potential poverty-reducing value of participatory, grassroots action contesting water injustice; (ii) changing international discourse on “safe drinking water” to include household domestic-productive water; and (iii) preventing the poverty caused by construction of water infrastructure.

Pathways and Contexts

This section examines pathways through which the control and use of water may facilitate escape from poverty. The term “pathways” is used to refer to causal scenarios connecting economic and technical change to changes in the opportunities and well-being of different social groups. Thus, for example, the adoption of irrigation may first influence output for a class of farmers for whom irrigation is accessible. Second, changes in agriculture brought by irrigation may lead to increased agricultural employment for a class of laborers and demand for goods that may facilitate the rise of merchants. Third, the increased demand for diverse goods and services from farmers and laborers may create the potential for new livelihoods and opportunities for the poor.

Pathways identify social processes connected to water that may facilitate low-income households’ attempts to extricate themselves from deprivation. These attempts, however, arise within a historical context best illuminated by the relational perspective on poverty: “people are poor because of others. … [They are] unable to control future events because others have more control over them” (Wood 2003, cited in Mosse 2010: 1158). This perspective brings to light ways in which durable or chronic poverty can be maintained by the “exclusionary and expropriating aspects of long term capitalist transformation” and the operation of boundary marking and excluding categories like caste, ethnicity, and gender (Mosse 2010: 1156–1157).

The wider focus of a relational perspective on poverty begins to explain the divergence between the optimism of mainstream economics and policy literatures on water and poverty (e.g., Smith 2004) and the pessimism of the more contextualized historical and political economy literature on related questions (such as Cousins 2013; Mollinga 2014; Swyngedouw 2004). Mainstream writers see water utilization generating greater (short-term) opportunities for the poor to escape poverty. Writers situating water utilization in historical context, however, document dismal long-term tendencies of dispossession and inequality as water utilization allows the rich and influential to accumulate from increased output and buy the land and labor of the poor.

The relational perspective also alerts us to the importance of gender relations and male bias (see van Koppen, this volume). Water access and control over water play key roles in male bias and gender subordination. In an influential book, Elson (1991) argues that male bias is founded on the ways that getting a living and raising children are interrelated: “Lack of an independent and secure entitlement creates a bias operating against those people who have the task of child care and weakens their bargaining position in the cooperative conflicts of the family” (Elson 1991: 320). If, as is often the case, water collection forms a significant part of women’s household work, then that obligation adds to the constraints of childcare, constrains opportunity to gain independent income, and tends to intensify this underlying support for male bias. We note here some points where male bias shapes pathways.

Two additional analytical connections between mainstream and historical literatures—empirical patterns enabling escape from or furthering descent into poverty and unequal access to capital—have potential to illuminate interactions between water and poverty. Krishna’s (2010) participatory research on the reasons for escape from, and descent into, poverty documents the sequences of cause and effect through which illness, health costs, and deaths can drive poor households into acute deprivation and the sequences through which other households find new livelihoods and well-being improvement. Barrett and Swallow (2005) model dynamic poverty traps in rural livelihoods, in which unequal access to finance and other forms of capital enables some to establish remunerative rural livelihoods while excluding others. Both strands of research focus on households and income poverty, but their findings suggest connections to wider, relational poverty.

Irrigation and Poverty

Contemporary literature on irrigation and poverty (Hussain and Hanjra 2004; Namara et al. 2010; Smith 2004) describes several pathways through which more widespread use of irrigation water can reduce poverty. Both direct effects (as better water management raises agricultural output of farmers) and indirect effects (as new methods, increased output, and spending generate livelihood possibilities for other social groups and classes) are described. The pathways identified in these reviews are summarized in table 1.

Table 1 Pathways Arising from Irrigation

Direct: Effects for Adopting Farm Households

Indirect: Subsequent Effects with Possible Consequences for Other Groups

Increased yield (because irrigation water avoids water stress and transports new inputs) (Namara et al. 2010; Smith 2004)

Generating employment on and off farm (Smith 2004)

Crop intensification (multiple cropping seasons) (Hussain and Hanjra 2004; Namara et al. 2010; Smith 2004)

Increased demand for goods leading to diversification of economic activity (Hussain and Hanjra 2004)

Greater predictability of output (Namara 2010)

Lower food prices benefiting rural and urban purchasers of food (Hussain and Hanjra 2004)

Multiple uses of irrigation water (Smith 2004)

Growth of backward linkages to commercial and industrial production (Hussain and Hanjra 2004)

Growth of non-farm rural output and employment (Namara 2004)

Source: Summarized from Hussain and Hanjra (2004), Namara et al. (2010), and Smith (2004).

These reviews suggest that irrigation initiates increased output of larger farmers and expanded opportunities for employment. Over several years, demand for goods and services rises, bringing possibilities for livelihood diversification. They also show that irrigation has differential social consequences. Better-placed farmers increase their output early in the process. Small farmers, poor peasants, and landless people may gain as more work becomes available and as opportunities for livelihood diversification emerge with the expansion of trade and demand for agricultural tools and inputs and life necessities.

In what follows, we briefly describe three of these processes: increased output, increased farm employment, and increased non-farm employment. Farmers able to command irrigation may get increased yield, longer or additional growing seasons, predictability of output, and multiple uses of irrigation water. Hussain and Hanjra’s (2004: 11) review of quantitative evidence from large- and medium-scale schemes suggests that irrigation leads on average to increased yield of one ton per hectare and the production of one additional crop each year.

Possibly the largest force for reducing poverty as irrigation use expands is the increase in employment, first in agriculture, then in non-farm activities. On-farm irrigation generates jobs because more labor per hectare is required to produce a crop with irrigation and because irrigation allows for additional seasons of crop production. A case study from the Philippines estimates that the demand for labor increased from 18 days per hectare before irrigation in 1995 to 54 days after irrigation in 2002 (Namara et al. 2010: 522). A comparison of labor used in the Pabna Irrigation and Rural Development Project in Bangladesh in 2003 to that used in adjacent rainfed agriculture suggests that irrigation increased labor demand by 80‒116 days per hectare per year (Namara et al. 2010).

Increased demand for labor in irrigated areas can lead both to rising wages and to migration of labor from areas where there is less employment. Hussain and Hanjra (2004: 6) point, as an illustration of the latter process, to the growth of seasonal migration of landless labor from the Indian state of Bihar to farms in Punjab that gained irrigation as part of the Green Revolution. Such migration may lead to increased average household incomes in Bihar through remittances and changes in the Bihar labor market.

The papers discussed thus far in this section do not distinguish between large, government-backed irrigation schemes and small, private irrigation (large private schemes are rare). In South Asia, state-driven canal irrigation emerged in the mid-nineteenth century to meet the needs of colonial rule and was continued by postcolonial governments throughout the twentieth century. In the last decades of the twentieth century, individual groundwater pumping became a more common source of irrigation water in South Asia. In Africa, large canal irrigation schemes were few. Recently, there has been renewed interest in both public and private irrigation in Africa. One estimate (De Fraiture and Giordano 2014) suggests that there may be five million small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with the potential to use tube well irrigation, and that it may be the fastest growing segment of irrigation in African countries as diverse as Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. These authors suggest that the spread of smallholder irrigation could be facilitated by state policies and that this could lead to substantial increases in income for millions of smallholders. The Land Matrix database shows that most African countries have experienced significantly increased foreign investment in large-scale irrigation projects since 2007‒2008 (

The spread of irrigation is refracted by a larger set of social transformations of which it is part. Male bias and processes of accumulation and dispossession produce inequalities disrupting this positive picture.

Irrigation, Gender, and Social Transformation

Male bias is reflected, as irrigation is taken up, in a number of documented processes:

  1. (1) Increased returns from irrigated agriculture are generally controlled by men, diminishing women’s relative standing in the household (Ramamurthy 1991).

  2. (2) Large irrigation systems are frequently designed with the assumption that agricultural work is done by men, and thus overlook women’s use of irrigation water and systems.

  3. (3) As irrigation is adopted, the work assigned to women changes and often increases (Ramamurthy 1991).

  4. (4) Irrigation management policies that decentralize water management and treat water as only an economic good may further marginalize women. Women farmers may be less able than men to pay for water and may have less voice in local water institutions (Zwarteveen 1998; Zwarteveen and Meinzen-Dick 2001).

  5. (5) Despite the results of many gender studies of irrigation schemes, the issues of women and gender often remain an afterthought in project design and management (Zwarteveen 2013).

These processes connect to a larger picture, the relational perspective, recognizing that almost all social relations and institutions are gendered in ways that shape vulnerabilities and poverty. Livelihoods, water management, collective action, and community-level resource management tend to have gendered outcomes (Cleaver 1998; Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998; Ray 2007). Both women and men, however, have agency (Jackson 1998), and these outcomes may be contested at many levels including those of the household, community, and state (through, for example, collective action for greater equity). To be effective, such action also must challenge the consequences of uneven capitalist transformation.

The research recognizes that the adoption of irrigation is uneven and may increase inequality. Smith (2004: 250–251) notes that irrigation most often leads to a reduction in absolute poverty, but when the spread of irrigation fuels land consolidation and dispossession it may increase absolute poverty. Hussain and Hanjra (2004: 9–10) suggest that irrigation is notably inequitable in areas where there is uneven distribution of land, as in much of South Asia. Where land is more evenly allocated, as in cases in Sri Lanka and China, the advantages of irrigation are more equally available. Land consolidation, dispossession, and inequality exacerbated by uneven land holding are elements of social differentiation as capitalist forms of production intensify within peasant agriculture (Bernstein and Byres 2001).

Water and Health

We turn next to pathways arising from the use of safe water and from easier access to household water. In each of these pathways, the advantages of improved access accrue most immediately to women and children. In the pathway arising from safe water, analysis has generally been focused on health consequences for the whole household. While women are key agents in hygiene and safe water, we have fewer studies of the consequences of improved health for women’s work and lives (Koolwal and Van De Walle 2013).

Water free of disease vectors reduces morbidity, mortality, and the substantial costs of both. Krishna (2010) reports that the costs of health care and the impacts of death are the foremost causes of descent into poverty for poor households in all of the eight countries he studied. The prolonged focus on water, sanitation, and hygiene by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Bank has contributed significantly to the prevention of poverty across the globe by reducing ill health and mortality. In 2014, the editors of PLoS Medicine (PLoS Med 2014) wrote in an editorial: “The importance of water, sanitation and hygiene have not changed over the millennia—all have, are, and always will be the foundations of human health.” In the history of now-industrialized countries, the effects of water provision on life expectancy and on poverty have been substantial. Cutler and Miller (2006) estimate that clean water was responsible for nearly half the total mortality reduction, and three-quarters of infant mortality reduction, in major cities of the United States in the early twentieth century.

Bad water, hygiene, and sanitation conditions account for a large part of the global burden of ill health. Diarrheal diseases are the second leading cause of ill health worldwide (Mathers et al. 2008: table 13). Bartram and Cairncross (2010) suggest that 2.4 million deaths could be prevented annually with improved provision of water, sanitation, and hygiene. Such change can reduce diarrheal disease by one-third, and with a higher level of water provision through household piped connections, it can be reduced by 63 percent (Bartram and Cairncross 2010: 2 and fig. 2). The interactions between mortality and morbidity and their many social consequences mean that, as with irrigation, domestic water influences multiple pathways out of poverty. Bosch et al. (2002) identify these linkages (figure 1) covering both health and productive uses of water.

Water and PovertyPathways of Escape and DescentClick to view larger

Figure 1 Linkages between poverty and water and sanitation

Source: Reprinted with permission from C. Bosch, K. Hommann, G. Rubio, C. Sadoff, and L. Travers (2002). “Water and Sanitation.” In A Sourcebook for Poverty Reduction Strategies, vol. 2, Macroeconomic and Sectoral Approaches, edited by Jeni Klugman, 372–404. Washington, DC: World Bank. © International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank.

A study of costs and benefits arising from improved water and sanitation (Hutton and Haller 2004: 23) identifies seven principal economic benefits of improved water and sanitation:

  1. (1) health sector benefit due to avoided illness;

  2. (2) reduced patient expenses due to avoided illness;

  3. (3) value of deaths avoided;

  4. (4) value of time savings due to access to water and sanitation;

  5. (5) value of productive days gained by those with avoided illness;

  6. (6) value of days of school attendance gained by those with avoided illness;

  7. (7) value of child days gained by those with avoided illness.

While these are identified as economic benefits to society arising from improvements in water and sanitation, they also provide an indication of likely pathways arising for low-income people to escape from poverty. In that light, the list can be seen to incorporate both changes that reduce descent into poverty (items 1‒3) and changes that offer opportunities for escape (4‒7). Hutton and Haller (2004) seek to estimate the economic value of each of these benefits in different continents and epidemiological regions of the world.

For countries in Africa with high adult and high child mortality (the WHO epidemiological sub-region D, excluding countries with very high adult mortality), they suggest the relative importance of each of the economic benefits as shown in figure 2.

The largest benefit, amounting to more than 65 percent of the total, arises from time saved (convenience savings) as a result of closer access to water and sanitation (discussed further in the next section). This is followed in importance by school days made possible, health sector savings, the value of averted deaths, and the value of additional baby/child days without illness. Savings in patient costs and the value of adult working days are small in this estimate.

Domestic-productive Household Water and Poverty

The water and health pathway has brought transformative changes in health with wide consequences. The focus on “safe drinking water” has, however, overshadowed the significance of domestic-productive household water. Domestic-productive household water gets lost in the conceptual gap between the idea of irrigation water and that of safe drinking water (Cleaver 1998; Moriarty et al. 2004; Zwarteveen 1997). Popular discourse and institutional policy and practice focus on singular, sectoral understandings of those two forms or uses of water (Mollinga 2008). The category of domestic-productive water, however, recognizes a wider set of activities and concerns beyond drinking and cooking water. Domestic-productive water can be imagined as household water requirements beyond health concerns (water free of disease vectors)—that is, sufficient and easily accessible water to support and allow time for domestic work (cleaning, laundry, bathing), productive work (livelihoods), education, and leisure.

Governments have ministries and departments, and international agencies have specialist institutions, that focus on singular uses of water. Ministries of irrigation tend to focus on agricultural uses. Health ministries deal predominantly with safe drinking water. The WHO and UNICEF assess safe drinking water access through their Joint Monitoring Project which has decided to exclude domestic water from its concerns (Goff and Crow 2014). (The UN’s Millennium Development Goals and their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals of 2015, supported more encompassing ideas about water as parts of anti-poverty agendas.) The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and other international agencies may overlook the multiple uses of irrigation water (Bakker 1999; Moriarty et al. 2004). These institutions may lack awareness and a mandate to consider domestic-productive water. Perhaps more likely, they may be unwilling to deal with multiple waters because it would disrupt institutional borders and practices. The institutional gaze—what Scott (1998) calls “seeing like a state”—favors simple processes and singular waters, and has not been turned to this third, and possibly more complex, type of water.

This omission matters because inadequate access to household water is a significant constraint on freedoms and capabilities, in Amartya Sen’s (1999) depiction of poverty; easy access to water may open pathways to escape from (income) poverty. The poorest households escape poverty frequently by finding new livelihoods and diversifying their income sources (Krishna 2010). In both rural and urban areas, with few opportunities for employment, a range of household enterprises—from services such as hairdressing, childcare, and laundry to making things in tailoring, pottery, and snacks for sale—can generate new sources of income. These livelihood opportunities require both available time and adequate, accessible water. Beyond income-generating activities, enhanced access to water has wide social consequences with ramifications for wider conceptions of poverty, including new capabilities and freedoms and profound changes in household and social life.

Little attention has been paid to these wider social consequences of water provision. Enhanced water access may have implications on five interrelated terrains: the time allocation of individuals (with fewer time conflicts); the character and scope of domestic and reproductive household work (increased quality of childcare and home maintenance and time for education); the initiation of new livelihoods and small business; choices about leisure and freedom (several studies report women routinely sleep less than men); and gender divisions of labor (which may be unsettled as women have new opportunities, and gain voice and civic involvement).

Wide-ranging improvements in well-being are suggested by a study reporting that enhanced water access in Tangiers brought increased happiness. Piped water connections reduced conflict over water, increased leisure time, and generated higher levels of happiness (Devoto et al. 2012; see also Andujar 2005).

The breadth and diversity of changes brought by piped water means that a search for single outcomes may be elusive. Nonetheless, we summarize evidence on changes in livelihoods and timesavings.

Small business and livelihoods.

The combination of access to more water and time saved from collecting water can enable households to initiate a wide range of enterprises and livelihood strategies. In Vietnam, households in villages with better access to water initiated more enterprises than those in a control group without improved access (Noel et al. 2010). This study suggests that childcare and domestic tasks can be combined with one or more enterprise, such as food production and pig rearing. In rural Senegal, piped water systems “provided women with time savings and greater quantities of water which they used to expand their productive use activities and initiate new activities” including livestock-raising, gardening, selling water or ice, fabric-dying, selling fruit juice, soap-making, pottery, and henna tattooing (van Houweling et al. 2012). In Western Kenya, piped water led to increased household incomes, mostly through sales of vegetables and milk (Crow et al. 2012). In rural Gujarat, time saved through water provision was transformed into increased income (James et al. 2002). In a study of small enterprises in two towns in Uganda (Davis et al. 2001: 1765) found that enterprise owners say that water access is a binding constraint on their business. Even though savings from improved water infrastructure may be small they are not negligible for struggling businesses.

Time spent collecting water.

Time saved from access to closer water sources may be the largest economic benefit from improvements in water access over the last several decades (figure 2). Those timesavings, however, have not reached all households. Between 1972 and 1997, in both rural and urban sites in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the time devoted by households lacking piped water access to one trip collecting water increased from 15.8 minutes on average to 25.3 minutes (Thompson et al. 2001: appendix). Households make many water collection trips on some days each week (particularly, for example, when doing laundry). Thus, total collection time is often a multiple of the time for one trip.

Time scarcity has particular impact on women’s lives. Gendered roles leave women’s labor time more constrained than that of men (Blackden and Wodon 2006; see also Sorenson et al. 2011). And while men are free to take on tasks sequentially, women tend to juggle multiple roles simultaneously, including childcare, household provisioning, and income-generating work. Time poverty and income poverty, these authors argue, reinforce one another. Jackson (1998) argues that time allocation studies fail to account for women’s preference for less arduous work. The collection of water in containers often weighing 44 pounds or more is particularly heavy, demanding work. This may be part of the explanation for the high priority to closer water provision seen in survey responses (e.g., Swallow 2005).

Reducing the time devoted to water collection generates a freedom, particularly for women and children, that can be used in many ways including increased leisure, increased income, better childcare, improvements in domestic work, and greater opportunity for children to attend school. Nauges and Strand (2013), for example, suggest that in Ghana a 15-minute reduction in water collection time increases the proportion of girls attending school by 8‒12 percent.

Reducing water collection times also leads to improvements in robust measures of child health (diarrhea prevalence, nutritional status, under-five mortality). Pickering and Davis (2012: 2394–2395) suggest that the relationship between reduced water collection time and health can be explained as follows: walk times restrict the volume of water available in the household and reduce the efficacy of hygiene behavior; water stored for longer periods is more likely to be contaminated; mothers spending time collecting water have less time for childcare and seeking health care; nutrition may be reduced because less water is available for cultivating family plots; and time collecting water may constrain income-generating activities.

In sum, there are multiple paths to reduced poverty arising from enhanced water access beyond the goal of “safe drinking water.” Domestic-productive water deserves more research and public action.

Descent into Poverty

While water scarcity clearly can impoverish, the development of water access, use, and control can also contribute to descent into poverty through two sets of processes: deprivation initiated by infrastructure construction and long-term processes of dispossession triggered by irrigation development.

Deprivation Initiated by Infrastructure Construction

The most well-known example of this process comes from displacement of people by the filling of reservoirs after dam construction. Arundhati Roy (1999) estimates that large dams in India have displaced at least 33 million people. The estimate of the World Commission on Dams (WCD 2000) is that 40‒80 million people have been displaced worldwide. The Commission put the onus for successful mitigation, resettlement, and development on the state and the developers of dams. This responsibility, however, has not been accepted by the governments of many countries where dam building is proceeding apace (Briscoe 2010). Ten years after the WCD, studies suggest that the displacement of people by dams has not been satisfactorily addressed in the current phase of dam building (Moore et al. 2010).

A study of displacement as a result of dams in Brazil, Indonesia, and Kenya (Cernea 1990) concludes that the risk of impoverishment as a result of displacement is high and results from a combination of landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalization, food insecurity, morbidity, and social disarticulation. In the case of India, Roy (1999: 7) argues, “The great majority [of people displaced by dams] is eventually absorbed into slums on the periphery of our great cities, where it coalesces into an immense pool of cheap construction labor (that builds more projects that displace more people).” In addition to the displacement associated with reservoir storage, there are also downstream consequences for both livelihood and environment resulting from changes to the flow of a river (Richter et al. 2010). The government of Ethiopia has been constructing a series of large dams since 1986, with tens of thousands of people displaced by the reservoirs and possibly millions of people affected by reductions in water and other downstream effects (Eguavoen and Tesfai 2012).

Irrigation and Dispossession

The introduction of irrigation, as noted, may reduce income poverty while contributing to longer-term processes of accumulation and dispossession. These consequences of capitalist transformation may happen even when government policies seek to support marginal farmers. On the Tungabhadra Canal in India, for example, Peter Mollinga (2014: 12) found that “protective irrigation” designed to maximize access to irrigation led to a “pattern of water distribution that is equal in principle but unequal in practice.” A class of farmers with large holdings was able, using government policies intended to increase food production, policies to generate votes, and collusion with the Irrigation Department, to appropriate land and water to support intensive farming (Mollinga 2014). Such processes of social differentiation led small farmers to rely more on wage labor and, over time, to sell land and sometimes to migrate to cities. These longer-term processes of dispossession and change may not be picked up in quantitative studies with a shorter time horizon.

Emerging Opportunities to Escape Poverty

Is it possible to reduce poverty with more equitable water systems? Many think so. We look in this section at innovations in household water treatment, new modes of delivery of water to households, water pricing in agriculture, action to prevent descent into poverty, and contestation of water injustice.

Household Purification

Innovation in filtration and treatment technologies is a common focus of industrialized-world research and investment intended to improve health in the non-industrialized world. The US Agency for International Development and other international agencies have promoted household purification with, for example, the subsidized distribution of chlorine tablets (Burch 2013). The efficacy of this form of intervention, however, is in question.

There is a significant literature (reviewed in Zaman et al. 2014) on the advantages and disadvantages of a wide range of low-cost filtration and treatment systems. There are also studies showing that these methods can be effective (Sobsey et al. 2008: 4265). The editors of PLoS Medicine (PLoS Med 2014), however, note that carefully controlled trials of household treatment, including chlorine tablets and solar disinfection, suggest that such methods are ineffective at limiting disease vectors. Wolf-Peter Schmidt and Sandy Cairncross (2009) say that evidence from household treatment trials of diarrhea prevention is questionable and that non-health benefits are negligible. It is possible that household treatment is undermined by intermittent use and recontamination during storage.

New Arrangements for Household Water Delivery

As noted earlier, many people who lack access to piped water, particularly in low-income urban areas, buy water from the tanker trucks and taps of private suppliers, often at substantially higher prices than paid by those with access to public water supplies. New metering technologies facilitated by real-time delivery of digital data and new social arrangements could make water more accessible and at lower prices.

In some low-income urban areas in Africa, “pre-paid” meters are being installed delivering a quantity of water to those with a card or drive indicating that water units have been purchased. For consumers, they are intended to reduce the unit price of water, extend service, increase flexibility, and reduce corruption. For utilities, the meters offer reduced water losses (to illegal trade) and better cost recovery. However, their introduction in Soweto, South Africa, has been strongly opposed because they increased costs for the poor and raised risks of water supply disconnection (redesigned meters are now being installed to provide emergency water). In East Africa, the small-scale introduction of pre-paid meters has generated at least some of the intended benefits for consumers and utilities (Were and Crow 2013.

Innovative modes of household water delivery may also be emerging from regularizing informal (illicit) enterprises and forging new relationships among small enterprises, community organizations, utilities, and government agencies (Ahlers et al. 2014: 14; McKenzie and Ray 2004: 24). Measures to recognize and regularize informal enterprises and their undercover relationships with utilities could enable new livelihoods, deliver water more cheaply and reliably, and begin to give citizen’s rights to the residents of low-income areas. Utilities might, for example, seek to build relations with existing water traders and regularize illicit links between utility plumbers and officials and traders.

Such action, however, will not be simple. Larger water traders may be powerful figures with political connections who are unwilling to relinquish their trade and position. In Nairobi, for example, a tentative and failing initiative to build relations between the water utility and traders was finally terminated by police action. A violent sweep through informal settlements to repress an ethnic mafia, the Mungiki, used water company officials to sever both legal and illegal connections to utility water mains. It was believed that water revenues and water control sustained the Mungiki, along with taxes on minibuses. Failure to exempt water connections where bills were being paid undermined such trust as had been built between the water company and water traders (Crow and Odaba 2010).

The global spread of bottled drinking water has in many low-income urban areas provided potable water for the slightly more affluent (cost estimates are not available). In low-income areas of Accra, Ghana, there has been a large-scale shift to packaged (500 ml heat-sealed plastic bags), ready-to-drink water. One study suggests that the supply of water “sachets” by small-scale private vendors has positive health effects (Stoler et al. 2012). In the capital of Guinea Bissau, however, Adriano Bordalo and Ana Machado (2015) found that packaged water was contaminated.

Water Pricing Policies in Agriculture

New modes of household delivery may improve water access by the urban poor. In agriculture, the pricing of irrigation water can encourage more effective use of water and generate finance for increasing water access—but without wider governance reforms, such changes may intensify rural poverty.

Most large-scale irrigation systems around the world have been, and continue to be, installed and maintained by government organizations. While there are convincing arguments for publicly administered irrigation, such systems have often encountered problems. Scarce water supplies are used inefficiently, there is underinvestment in operations and maintenance, coverage is incomplete (especially for the poor), and it is difficult to reallocate water from agriculture to cities and other sectors of the economy (Easter and Liu 2007). Water pricing can be part of the solution to these problems. Pricing can generate funds for investment and cost recovery, facilitate transfer of water between uses, and facilitate extension of water services to new areas and client groups. Despite these potential advantages, it is now generally recognized that water pricing alone can cause as many problems as it solves. The poor tend to be most negatively affected by all of these problems and have the least options for response.

A review of the history of water pricing in irrigation is provided by Molle and Berkoff (2007). During the colonial era, the British government had lively debates about the need to balance the benefits of expanding irrigation services with the need to generate revenue to cover the costs of those services. World War II (1939‒1945) prompted greater concern for food security and in the 1950s and 1960s newly independent governments tended to view public provision of irrigation water as a strategic national investment. As a result, irrigation water was often provided at little or no monetary cost to users.

Greater attention to water pricing occurred again in the 1980s, particularly in the World Bank, which had financed large-scale irrigation projects in many countries. Some World Bank loans were made conditional on the public agencies levying service fees on water users. Reviews conducted in 1981 and 1986 showed that most countries ignored irrigation-service fee covenants and that irrigation performance was unrelated to the level of fees.

Molle and Berkoff (2007) describe a shift during the 1990s from cost recovery to demand management, efficiency, and inter-sector allocation as the main foci of water pricing. In 1992, this was articulated in both the Dublin Principles on Water Management and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. This emphasis on water pricing for demand management emerged in part due to international concerns about the environmental and social impacts of large-scale dams, as well as studies that documented inefficient use of water in agriculture and predicted future water shortages. These concerns were reflected in national policy. For example, the Republic of South Africa’s National Water Act 36 of 1998 specified that “water use charges are to be used to fund the direct and related costs of water resource management, development and use, and may also be used to achieve an equitable and efficient allocation of water.” At the same time as it implemented irrigation water pricing, the South African government enacted many radical changes in water law, shifting from riparian rights to nationalization of all water resources. Many other countries implemented similar reforms to their water-allocation and water-rights policies.

Studies conducted since these reforms were implemented suggest the need for caution in drawing conclusions about the positive impacts of water pricing. Charges for water have been difficult to implement, with Mexico and China as possible exceptions. There is little evidence that user fees have caused major improvements in water-use efficiency. For example, a large increase in irrigation costs had no appreciable impact on water demand in rural China (Yang et al. 2003). Water metering, quotas, enforceable property rights, and more efficient irrigation technologies and practices (e.g., Jensen et al. 2014) have tended to have greater impact than pricing. The overall consensus in the development community appears to be that pricing should be an important element of financing of irrigation services, and used in special cases to improve the efficiency of water use, with special care taken to minimize negative impacts on the poor. Escalating block-rate pricing may strike the best balance, in which zero or low volumetric charges are applied for the small volumes used by poorer farmers (the first block) and higher volumetric prices applied for larger volumes (second and third blocks) (Easter and Liu 2007). Block-rate pricing for irrigation water has been applied on a limited scale in Côte d’Ivoire, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nicaragua, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (Wichelns 2013). To be most effective, water pricing should be combined with other reforms and technologies to have the desired improvements in efficiency, equity, and sustainability of irrigation systems.

Descent-Preventing Governance

Dams, canals, and irrigation systems can cause poverty, as described earlier. This does not have to happen. Evidence shows that protocols around infrastructure and efforts to mitigate inequality in the social and technical design of irrigation systems could reduce the toll.

Poverty-preventing infrastructure protocols.

Following the example of the WCD and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14000 standards for environmental management, a set of protocols and enforcement could be developed to limit the most egregious poverty-making elements of infrastructure design and construction. While Briscoe (2010) outlines the tensions between national development and growth policies, on the one hand, and poverty-reducing standards, on the other, it is likely that legal, political, and social pressures will move governments of even the most active dam-building countries, including China, Ethiopia, and India, to gradually recognize the merit of following accepted standards. A set of articles reviewing progress ten years after the WCD show that many of the commission’s recommendations have been used in successful multi-stakeholder negotiations in Guatemala, the Klamath basin in the United States, and the Pangani river in Tanzania (Moore et al. 2010). So, too, could potential protocols with a compelling rationale on a broader range of water infrastructure gain acceptance. Appropriate standards could include rules and practices (with third-party oversight) to avoid deprivation following displacement, as well as institutional practices and civil-society counterweights to ensure more equitable consideration of displacement, dispossession, environmental change, and consequences for growth and development. There are, of course, also environmental and sustainability standards that may be intertwined with poverty-preventing protocols.

Inequality-mitigation in irrigation.

The spread of irrigation may accelerate class, gender, and ethnic inequalities. Improved access for small and poor farmers might slow descent into poverty. And it might be achieved, it is suggested, through low-cost, labor-intensive irrigation technology, shared access to water, low-cost finance, and a shift to high-value crops (Hussain and Hanjra 2004; Namara et al. 2010 Smith 2004).

Irrigation systems could also be designed and managed in ways that recognize women as legitimate irrigators (Zwarteveen 2013). The establishment of water rights for women through legal and administrative change could also enable women-headed households, for example, to avoid poverty. Effective inclusion of both women and men in decision-making is also a step toward recognition of women’s goals (Zwarteveen and Meinzen Dick 2001). A broader conception of irrigation design to include, for example, household water use could also support the freedoms and capabilities of women.

The efficacy of these responses to inequities arising from irrigation remains to be established because few of them have been tried on a significant scale. Also, the ineluctable tendency for the emergence of capitalist agriculture to encourage inequalities of class and gender suggests that piecemeal responses may be inadequate. Nonetheless, the question of gender and class equity must be confronted by engineers, planners, and managers working on irrigation.

Contestation of Water Injustice

A new set of opportunities for innovation in the waterscape is emerging from discussions, protests, and organized action around water inequality and injustice. The most prominent example of such action is dialogue and protest at the global level around the human right to water. Of equal importance are actions by, and discussions involving, community-based organizations.

In a thoughtful consideration of water questions in South Asia, Joy et al. (2014: 954) propose that water questions should be analyzed as problems of justice and injustice because

Conflicts over water distribution, water-derived benefits, and risks often play out along axes of social differentiation like caste, wealth, and gender. Those with least power, rights, and voice suffer lack of access, exclusion, dispossession, and further marginalization, resulting in livelihood insecurity or increased vulnerability to risks.

In contrast to the apolitical approach of governments, international agencies, and much academic research on water, these authors propose that water questions are inherently political and are thus appropriate subjects for consideration of inequality and injustice (see also Mollinga 2008). Joy et al. (2014: 968) suggest that such consideration should focus upon the ways “socio-environmental inequality actually matters for specific groups and how injustice is produced.”

Building on their experience collaborating with a water justice network in Latin America, Justicia Hídrica, Zwarteveen and Boelens (2014: 155) suggest a framework for identifying and understanding water injustice: “Taking seriously, and developing awareness of, the many manifestations of injustice, from brutal water grabs to much more subtle politics of disciplining and normalization.” They challenge a mainstream consensus that focuses on water scarcity and the water needed to grow food for rising populations. This consensus, they argue, supports apolitical approaches such as Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and market-based solutions. As an alternative, they suggest that injustice must be confronted in everyday situations, recognizing the specific political, material, and natural circumstances of injustice, in ways that build alliances and bridge differences between social groups.

Zwarteveen and Boelens are also two of the authors of the Santa Cruz Declaration on the Global Water Crisis (Crow et al. 2014). This declaration describes some of the range of water injustices arising in irrigation, urbanization, mining, and land and water grabs. The Declaration summarizes three ways in which groups are beginning to contest them: (1) through policy dialogue; (2) in local actions, multi-scalar mobilizations, and democratic assessment; and (3) through academic and reportorial investigations. The authors and signatories of the declaration suggest that such actions can generate space for building coalitions across classes, influence governments to create institutions that recognize and address the breadth and consequences of water injustice, and situate and assess technological innovation in the sphere of water. In rural Maharashtra, in the Andean highlands, and in urban India, examples of successful water contestation can be found.


Over the last two decades, tens of thousands of people have been mobilized in a “water struggle movement” led by a Landless Laborers and Toiling Peasants’ Organization (SKSS) in southern Maharashtra, India. Among several achievements, the movement has persuaded the state government to redesign and re-assign water distribution from the large Tembhu lift irrigation scheme so that a much larger number of poor households in three Talukas can receive water for both irrigation and household use (Joy 2014 pers. comm.; Joy and Kulkarni 2010; Phadke and Patankar 2006).


In the Andean regions of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, social movements have arisen to contest injustices resulting from mining and in response to inequitable distribution of irrigation and household water. Across all three countries, there have been organized responses to the effects of extractive industry on water. Changes in the quality and quantity of water available and the encroachment on rights to water and land have been contested by a diverse range of alliances, including peasant federations, citizen-based defense fronts, and coalitions led by large, internationally connected conservation organizations (Bebbington et al. 2010). In Ecuador, an alliance of peasant and indigenous organizations successfully fought to change discriminatory practices in household and irrigation water. The leadership and practices of the Chimborazo Water Agency were changed (Hoogesteger 2012: 82).

Urban India.

In urban areas, contestation of water injustice may take hidden or unrecognized forms. Studies of the Indian cities of Bangalore (Ranganathan 2014) and Mumbai (Anand 2011, 2012) suggest that payment for pipes and constant pressure on engineers and counselors may have given somewhat improved water access and the beginnings of citizenship rights for residents of informal settlements. Not all communities are able to gain political legitimacy to undertake such actions (Anand 2012).

Thus, water-justice contestations have the potential to raise new actors and facilitate new foci for collective action. In addition, such contestations may gain traction from connections to engineers, government officials, and others holding concerns about poverty and inequality, at national and global levels.

Conclusions: Rethinking Water‒Poverty Interactions

In sum: there are opportunities for rethinking water‒poverty interactions. Water-justice contestations can help transform the actors, principles, and practice of water governance. The major international water initiative of the WHO, UNICEF, and the World Bank could be persuaded to tackle poverty through domestic water provision as well as its current focus on waterborne disease through provision of safe drinking water. The tendencies of irrigation and infrastructure to cause poverty and dispossession may be partially constrained if engineers, planners, and policymakers recognize that political choices are embedded in their designs and decisions. These are the main action items emerging from this chapter.

Perspectives on poverty influence how we see water‒poverty interactions and, in turn, what possibilities for public action we can grasp. In this chapter, we have concentrated on household pathways of escape from, and descent into, poverty that are connected to interactions with water. This focus illuminates possibilities for which there is significant evidence. The perspective of relational poverty, in contrast, presents a bleaker picture of social change. In what follows, we review the pathways and opportunities discussed, and then briefly sketch a possible reconciliation of the gap between the policy-oriented and historical literatures.

Irrigation Pathways

The spread of irrigated agriculture can lead directly to increased and more predictable agricultural output and then indirectly generate new and improved livelihoods and economic diversification. This can reduce income poverty. At the same time, women may be further marginalized, and the differentiation of peasant households into farmers and farm laborers is likely to accelerate.

Inclusive governance recognizing male bias and the needs of poor households might mitigate these tendencies, but significant examples of such inclusion have yet to be documented. The example of protective irrigation in India, described earlier, provides a case where inclusive design did not have inclusive consequences.

Infrastructure construction for irrigation (and for hydropower) also leads frequently to descent into poverty. On this, poverty-preventing infrastructure protocols may emerge. The pricing of irrigation water at present shows little benefit for the poor. Struggles for water justice, though not yet widely recognized, may be an effective way of making the irrigation pathway more inclusive.

Water‒Health Pathways

UN agency funding and government action has constructed this pathway over at least the last twenty-five years. Much has been achieved to reduce mortality and morbidity caused by water-borne diseases, which are the leading causes of descent into poverty. Time saved as a result of closer water sources has also been a major advance. Further support of this pathway may continue such progress. But the questions raised about the efficacy of household purification may indicate the need for more careful research on the outcomes associated with everyday water practices before the promotion of this pathway is renewed.

It is also possible that refocusing international support to include the domestic‒productive water pathway will bring greater advantages than the continued pursuit of “safe drinking water.” Instead of water taps within (distant) reach, as is currently being promoted to reduce water-borne disease, a more ambitious goal combining both pathways could be rallied around the slogan of “a tap in every house.”

Domestic‒Productive Water Pathways

Larger quantities of more accessible water can not only liberate water collectors, frequently women and girls, from unproductive labor collecting water, but also allow the time saved to be turned to a range of activities contributing to poverty reduction, the building of capabilities, and greater well-being. Of the emerging opportunities considered, household purification of water may be least valuable. Its ability to provide disease-free water is in question and it does not improve provision of domestic‒productive water. New forms of household water delivery hold potential for reducing poverty. In urban areas, the regularizing of informal water trade and Internet provision of real-time data is likely to give rise to a wider range of delivery options. At the same time, new forms of contestation may be emerging in urban areas with the potential to extend citizenship rights as well as water supply.

Reconciling the Gap between Policy-Oriented and Historical Political Economy Literatures

The gap between the optimism of the policy and economics research in the countryside, focused largely on income poverty, and the pessimism of historical political economy analysis, which illuminates relational poverty, is striking. The policy and economics analysis of irrigation shows that water control can generate employment. The historical political economy shows that accumulation and dispossession are frequently accelerated by irrigation. The two bodies of research and writing look at changes with spatially and temporally dissimilar scales. The policy literature focuses on changes occurring within a defined area over a period of one or a few years and resulting from directed development. Historical political economy, by contrast, may survey change in a broader context, over decades, and on regional, national, and sometimes international scales.

Both types of studies may suffer from the way they address factors other than water that confound or condition the effect. Short-term economic studies may fail to account for important confounding factors and thus overestimate the benefits of water interventions (Hobbes 2014). Randomized control trials, such as Kremer et al. (2009) on the health benefits of spring protection, may adequately control for household-level confounding factors, but understate the importance of local contextual factors that affect outcomes (see Barrett and Carter 2010). On the other hand, historical political economy studies may presume overly simple relationships between water control and power relations.

The two bodies of research document overlapping but distinct processes. Historical political economy may illuminate complex variants of what Marx called primitive accumulation: the uneven, slow, and often incomplete social transformation making the pivotal classes of capitalist society: wage labor free of means of production and the accumulation of private property in the hands of capitalist entrepreneurs able to hire labor. Policy studies illuminate shorter term, but nonetheless complex, economic changes from an irrigation project. There is need for a unified theory to describe spatially and socially uneven processes in which primitive accumulation, dispossession, and altered gender relations occur simultaneously, though often at other locations, with the creation of (some) diverse livelihood opportunities, particularly for wage labor.

What research would shed light on the interaction of relational and income poverty? Larger-scale and longer-term studies encompassing elements that are sometimes missing from policy research, such as migration and seasonal labor, vulnerability, gender relations, and exclusion could be integrated with the concerns of policy research in everyday material phenomena such as wages, prices, and employment.


The authors wish to acknowledge the research of Pamela Werther and the help of Rutgerd Boelens, Margreet Zwarteveen, K. J. Joy, Jaime Hoogesteger, and Andres Verzijl in identifying actions contesting water injustice.


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