Affordable Energy and Water Are Out of Reach for the Urban Poor. Providing Both Would Be Simple.
I am an engineer, and last month I visited Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, to see with my own eyes how residents in slums obtain electricity, cooking fuel and water.
Dr. Pasquine Ogunsanya, who runs a health clinic in one area known as Namuwongo, took me around to interview some residents living by the sides of a railway track. People here live in semi-permanent houses made of assorted scraps, straw and mud, without toilets. Many structures are rentals, built by entrepreneurs on land they do not own. There are community toilets, but people must pay to use them, and many can’t afford that. So without good drainage systems, residents pollute trenches and surrounding areas. When heavy rains come, flooding worsens living conditions and poses health risks.
I talked to the families we visited through the narrow lens of the topics I study: the cost, quality and reliability of lighting, water and cooking. But it was hard not to miss the larger backdrop: precarious livelihoods, poverty, poor health, vicious cycles of debt, and children raised without a decent education. These conditions are not unique to Namuwongo; nearly half of Kampala, with a metro area of 3.7 million, lives in slum dwellings.
During my visit, which took place in the daytime, I primarily saw women and children at home. A 60-square-foot space without a kitchen, sink, bathroom or water tap rents for the equivalent of about $20 a month. There is no formal tenancy agreement, so you don’t have the right to complain if there is a dangerously leaning mud-straw wall or holes in the tin roof. You rent on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Per square foot, the rent is only slightly lower, or perhaps half that of a rental unit in Kampala that is solidly built, has a kitchen, a bathroom and toilet, and is connected to utility infrastructure and services.
A ceiling-mounted light bulb and a mobile phone were the only electrical appliances visible in these homes. For electricity, people pay a flat monthly charge of $3.50. The landlord who supplies this electricity is charging what works to be about $1 per unit of electricity—about five times what a Ugandan or U.S. utility charges. And what is ironic is that Uganda currently has excess electricity supply.
Slum dwellers pay roughly $5 a month to obtain drinking water. This is for two to three 15- to 20-liter plastic containers a day. People bring these to be filled up at a location controlled by a middleman who in turn has access to a metered public tap. For every 1,000 liters (265 gallons) that they might consume over a month (my family consumes that much in a day), they pay nearly two times the cost of pristine water delivered by pipe to my home in New York City. It is 30 times what the utility in my parents’ hometown in India charges, where costs of labor, distribution and water quality might be similar. Add to this the fact that much of water pricing in developed nations includes the cost of sewage collection, treatment and disposal—provisions completely missing for slum residents.
For cooking fuel, Namuwongo residents rely almost exclusively on charcoal, supplemented by scraps of scavenged wood from discarded furniture, doors or other objects. Their payments work out to roughly $15 a month for about 30 kilograms of charcoal—an absurdly high level of spending relative to their incomes. Health and environmental issues aside, if one adjusts for the lower performance of their rudimentary stoves compared to a gas stove, they pay about three times for the amount of heat delivered compared to people in my hometown in western India, where piped gas is delivered to every home, supplied by a private company that in turn obtains commercially-priced imported liquefied natural gas from a trunk gas pipeline.
In sum, people who are already poor are paying exorbitant prices for services and consumables that other city dwellers got far more affordably. People in slums may have to choose between buying milk or paying for light, primary education or charcoal. With very high population densities adjacent to existing utility infrastructure, the cost of such services should actually be much lower than for those with larger property sizes or those in rural settings.
Economists have argued that slums make it possible for those trying to escape rural poverty to make a go at the economic opportunities that cities offer. They certainly do, so there is no question that urbanization is inevitable. But that does not absolve society from providing slum dwellers services on the same terms received by other city dwellers. While the word slum implies transitory living, lack of services and all the negative associations of crime and poor health, it is society itself that is to a large degree making that prophecy come true.
It may take decades to create the millions of solidly built urban housing units that Uganda alone needs. But while we wait, it is unacceptable to deny slum residents the most basic services. We can debate what comes first: governance, community mobilization, NGO support, legal protections for tenants, requiring landlords to make investments—or evicting both landlords and tenants entirely. These debates are place-specific. Meanwhile, landlords are making money by providing services without the oversight that a normal utility would be subject to.
As an engineer, I see the need for a more direct approach: requiring utilities to provide services to everyone, even those without a formal street address, formal rental contract, or even a structural wall on which to mount an electric meter. It would be the role of engineers to design around these constraints. My perspective is that energy, water and sanitation are public services, and hence governments need to forcefully intervene and, if needed, provide upfront subsidies to utilities to make it happen. Public funds have already made it possible to serve other city populations and, increasingly, smaller towns and rural villages.
It is not satisfactory to expect the poor to organize themselves into cooperatives or come up with their own community-based solutions, or make do with self-financed decentralized options such as rainwater harvesting, solar lanterns, locally produced briquettes, waste-to-energy solutions or composting toilets. These are all fine ideas, and all power to the poor if this is what they choose. But such innovations make more sense for those who have the resources and time to invest in new ways to self-provision, and be off the grid so to speak. In my view, slums in densely populated cities need utility services provided with the backing of the same corporate and technical heft that the rest of the urban population benefits from.
When technological innovations such as water reuse or stand-alone solar/battery systems become affordable and reliable, they will make sense for the poor. But the wealthy will be the first to adopt these, and drive down the cost. For now, we need to deploy what we know works: simply bringing services in the form of a utility wire or a pipe to your abode, however humble that abode is. Given how small a space slum residents occupy and their proximity to existing infrastructure, the cost of providing services would be a small fraction of what it takes to serve the urban middle class or the rural poor. There is no reason to wait. It may not be feasible to build a private toilet for each dwelling unit, but clean public toilets are both technologically and financially feasible in urban settings.
East Africa has massive fossil fuel resources compared to its anticipated consumption for years to come. Construction of pipelines for oil and gas will start shortly. If all goes well, government budgets, fuel and financing will not be in short supply. What could be in short supply is a commitment to the poor.
Living by the railroad track means you are forgotten, and hidden. When former U.S. President Donald Trump visited my hometown in India, the local government put up walls along the road so he would not see slum dwellers. And this was on the way to make a quick stop from the airport to visit the Gandhi Ashram, where Gandhi lived with the outcasts of society, precisely to provide them dignity and visibility.
I was unable to express my emotions to those I met in Namuwongo, who, despite their living conditions, had hope in their eyes and were trying to look ahead. The tears had to wait until I came back to my luxury hotel a few minutes away.
Kampala, located on rolling hills by Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile, is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. On the morning of my visit, a thunderous tropical downpour had given way to bright sunshine. In a city surrounded by lush greenery, blessed with ample rain, sun and fertile soil, it was hard to imagine why it so absurdly expensive to be poor. Slum dwellers’ consumption levels are so low, they are probably the most sustainable denizens on earth. Yet for them, affordable energy and water are still a dream.