8 June 2022

Intermittent water supply - striving for a sustainable livelihood in cities without continuous running water

In the latest installement of our blog series, Matthew MacRorie discusses the challenges faced by the one billion people around the world who have only intermittent access to running water.

A header image for Matthew MacRorie's article for the masters student blog series

By Matthew MacRorie

Matthew is a PhD candidate in the department of Civil and Structural Engineering, and has taken International Development modules as part of his focus on water supply issues. You can follow Matthew on Twitter.

Access to clean water is a necessity for all human beings. In towns and cities, this is often achieved through piped networks delivering water to the household. These piped systems are universally designed to deliver water continuously, providing 24/7 running water from the tap. Despite these intentions, this is not the global norm; one billion people experience intermittent water supply (IWS), in which water only runs for a few hours a day.

The prevalence of these broken systems can be examined through the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework (SLF). This is a method of conceptualising a livelihood by defining five assets an individual has at their disposal to deal with the shocks that life brings. The five assets interact with the wider processes and structures in society, combining to inform livelihood strategies and ultimately livelihood outcomes.

A diagram showing the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, adapted from DFID (1999)
Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, adapted from DFID (1999)

The SLF helps to understand how IWS causes severe inequality amongst communities. The failure of the state or ‘wider structures’ to provide continuous supply transfers responsibility onto the individual. It then becomes their burden to maintain access to water. Individual assets such as physical, social and financial capital will therefore dictate the capability of citizens to achieve adequate water supply. 

This is reflected in the differing livelihood strategies observed in IWS systems. In more affluent neighbourhoods, financial capital is used to purchase suction pumps to suck out as much water from the pipes as possible (Meyer et al., 2021). Combined with the physical capital of large storage tanks, the effect of IWS on their livelihood is largely mitigated. 

In poorer areas of Hubli-Dharwad, India, IWS often results in shared use of water between households demonstrating the use of social capital in the absence of financial capital (Kumpel et al., 2017). For those who cannot afford adequate storage, all household chores must be saved for those precious supply hours, hampering the ability to work, and further reducing financial capital.

The SLF effectively explains the prominence of individual assets under an IWS regime. However, it can be criticised for under emphasising the role of political economy. In Nepal, for example, market forces limit the effectiveness of supply chains making it costly to import equipment to operate water networks and address the vicious cycle of IWS (Foster et al., 2021). A greater emphasis on the vulnerability context within the framework, may allow greater interrogation of these underlying forces.

A tanker delivers drinking water to city residents
"Water tanker" by Khalid Hameed is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 [As original]

The framework also falls down when analysing inequalities of power. In Bangalore, like many areas where IWS is prevalent, the duties of water collection are predominantly held by women (Kumar et al., 2018), meaning the burdens of IWS are disproportionately allocated. This exacerbation of gender imbalance is not directly analysed through the SLF. An interesting application of the framework could therefore involve analysing the different vulnerabilities and assets of gender groups within the same community, illuminating this power imbalance.

The definition of ‘a sustainable life’ used by the SLF follows a western perspective built around the principles of individual assets with livelihood outcomes primarily measured by economic gain. This perspective is contrasted by alternatives such as Ubuntu which defines ‘a sustainable life’ through community and reciprocity. Such frameworks could be useful in parallel with the SLF to give a more holistic understanding of water supply issues.


DFID. (1999). Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets, section 2.1. Department for International Development (DFID). In Department for International Development.

Foster, T., Adhikari, R., Adhikari, S., Justice, S., Tiwari, B., Urfels, A., & Krupnik, T. J. (2021). Improving pumpset selection to support intensification of groundwater irrigation in the Eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains. Agricultural Water Management, 256. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2021.107070

Kumar, T., Post, A. E., & Ray, I. (2018). Flows, leaks and blockages in informational interventions: A field experimental study of Bangalore’s water sector. World Development, 106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2018.01.022

Kumpel, E., Woelfle-Erskine, C., Ray, I., & Nelson, K. L. (2017). Measuring household consumption and waste in unmetered, intermittent piped water systems. Water Resources Research, 53(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/2016WR019702

Meyer, D. D. J., Khari, J., Whittle, A. J., & Slocum, A. H. (2021). Effects of hydraulically disconnecting consumer pumps in an intermittent water supply. Water Research X, 12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wroa.2021.100107

A world-class university – a unique student experience

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.