Most industrialized countries use a centralized water supply approach to control, treat and distribute water among their populations. However, this system is reliant on a developed infrastructure being in place so that households can receive clean, drinkable water. Even in richer countries, there can be problems with populations in remote or more deprived areas accessing good quality water. In developing countries, only 49% of people access water through a centralized piped connection (down to 31% in rural communities).
Problems with large-scale centralized systems have led to the growth of decentralized supply systems in some parts of the world. Decentralized systems can provide water at neighbourhood, community or even household level where clean, reliable drinking water is not economically or technically possible through a centralized approach. This is done largely through sourcing local water supplies and using small-scale wastewater treatment and rainwater collection systems and water purification processes managed at household and community level, often in partnership with NGOs or private organizations, rather than controlled by governments and public authorities.
Centralized vs decentralized water supply
Centralized water supply systems are a convenient and efficient way of managing and distributing water supplies where infrastructure capability allows it. This is the case in economically advanced nations, where governments and regional authorities are well positioned to control supply. Technological capability means that large centralized sanitation systems can be used and water can be transported over long distances through extensive pipe networks. Good, reliable quality water can be provided across the nation, subsidized through the government via taxation.
But in countries without the infrastructure or technological capabilities, this system can fall down. Even where there is the capability, there are problems with centralized supplies such as high wastage through leaks, extensive general maintenance costs and environmental impact.
Decentralized systems work in a much smaller-scale localized way, sourcing and distributing water locally and using smaller community or domestic sanitation systems. This reduces maintenance costs, wastage and regional disparities in water quality. It is also more efficient as locally sourced water is deployed quicker. Other advantages include less environmental impact, more active public participation in water management (leading to more responsible domestic water use) and opportunities for small businesses and NGOs to get involved in water management.
The drawbacks of a decentralized system are that public authorities are less accountable, which means that communities and households have to assume greater responsibility. With water controlled at local level, households need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to operate and maintain the system. In this respect, decentralized systems are likely to involve greater initial costs even though they are likely to be cheaper to run in the long-term.
Examples of decentralized water systems in practice in developing countries
Mali – Has a system of community-based management of rural water supplies, where decentralized local governments are supported by international NGOs to deliver water services to rural communities. NGOs such as WaterAid provide WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) technical units that enable communities to manage water points such as hand-pumps, wells and small piped systems.
Bolivia – Has adopted a decentralized approach in an attempt to eradicate water poverty in rural communities and ensure that everyone has access to clean water. Water For People, an international non-profit organisation, has worked with local communities to construct and manage pumped water systems and sanitation facilities, and to train locals in operation and maintenance.
West Bengal – A study of households in six rural villages found that decentralization in the delivery of water supply, where local governments work in partnership with community panchayats in water management, improved the quality of services.
Botswana – Uses decentralised wastewater systems to provide recycled water for local agriculture, which reduces the water footprint of the sector in a country with high water stress and lacking adequate water resources.
With factors such as population growth and climate change expected to exacerbate current problems with global water shortages over the coming decades, we may well see more developing countries exploring decentralized approaches to find ways of improving access to water among their populations.