Changing the way we change the world

How much water is enough? Determining realistic water use in developing countries

By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

Water from a handpump in KenyaHow much water do you use every day? If you live in the US, you probably don’t think about it much, even if you pay for what you use.  Do you know how much water people in developing countries use?  A lot less than Americans, for sure.  But exactly how much turns out to be quite variable.

I thought it would be helpful to share the results of a desk review we did on water quantities measured or reported in developing countries.  The most comprehensive data referenced in studies comes from the Drawers of Water study (White, Bradley, & White, 1972), the first large-scale assessment of domestic water use in Africa, and Drawers of Water II (IIED et al, 1997); however, both are outdated and distinguish only between piped and unpiped water systems.

Not surprisingly, people are likely to use more water after an improved water supply is provided. Lindskog and Lundqvist (1989) observed an average daily per person use of 9.7 liters before community taps were installed and 15.3 liters after the taps arrived. A recent impact study of handpump installation in villages in Mozambique indicates increased water use from all sources (2.5 liters per capita per day, or l/c/d) and from improved sources (15.1 l/c/d) (MCC, 2014).

People use water for different purposes from multiple sources with different profiles in terms of convenience, quality, reliability, cost and access rights, across different seasons and years (Dessalegn, et al., 2013).  Water use varies by climatic zone, type of water source and system, distance to water source, season (rainy or dry), household size, housing type, and income. There is also great variation between countries, between villages, and even between households within the same village (Gleick, 1998). See the tables below for examples of the variations.

In addition to internet research, we asked organizations that we knew had worked with household water meters in rural communities to share their data. While we found meter reading data for Central America and South America, we were unable to obtain metering data for African communities. This is likely because metering of water points in rural communities is still a nascent field. Generally, usage rates are higher in Central and South America than in Africa. Charity:water is working on remote monitoring of handpumps in Africa, and we hope they will be able to share flow rates in a year or two.

The table below shows the average, minimum and maximum of water use quantities by geographic region found during the desk review.

Summary of water use per person per day by Region

  Water Use (l/c/d)
Region Average Minimum Maximum
Developed countries – reported or measured 307 130 578
Newly industrialized countries – reported or measured 199 86 366
Developing countries – reported or measured 44 4 400
African countries – rural communities – reported or measured 31 5 100
Communities in Central & South America – metered 67 25 133
WHO Standard[1] 50 20 100

[1] WHO Guidelines. General Comment No. 15, para 12 (a), Sub-Commission Guidelines, sec. 4. This translates to 50 to 100 liters per person per day, with an absolute minimum of 20 liters per person per day in emergency situations.

Examples of Variations in Water Use Quantities

Table 1 shows average reported water use by type of water system in two regions of Ethiopia. These are based on water committee reports of liters collected per day divided by 4.9 household members (EDHS 2011 average for rural Ethiopia). The overall average reported use is 14 l/c/d.

Table 1 – Average Reported Water Use by Type of Water Scheme (Adapted from Alexander et al, 2013)

  Average Reported Water Use
Type of water system Dry Season (l/c/d) Wet Season (l/c/d)
Handpump 15 10
Deepwell (generator) 21 13
Spring with distribution 21 12
On-spot-spring 11 8
Average across type 17 11

In Mozambique, a reduction in the length of the water collection journey from 5 hours to 10 minutes was associated with an increase in average water consumption from 4.1 to 11.1 l/c/d. Bathing and washing clothes accounted for 70% of the increased total, and water used for food preparation also increased (Cairncross, 1987).

Figure 1 below shows the broad variation in water consumption in African cities.

Figure 1 – Water Consumption per Capita Supplied by Utility and Continuity of Piped Water Supply (Jacobsen, Webster, & Vairavamoorthy, 2012)

water consumption per capita
Within villages, household size is one of the most accurate predictors of per capita water use (Vincent, 1999): some studies show that per capita use consistently decreased as the number of people in the household increased. Table 2 shows examples of the differences between water use based on household size. The limit to the number of adult women available to carry water (often just one) is probably the main reason for the lower per capita use in larger households (Vincent, 1999). Water consumption per household varies much less than water consumption per capita (Lindskog & Lundqvist, 1989).

Table 2 – Water Use Per Capita Based on Household Size (Source: Adapted from Vincent, 1999 and Lindskog & Lundqvist, 1989)

Geographic Area Number of Household Members Water Use (l/c/d)
Eastern Africa 4-5 10
Eastern Africa >12 7
Malawi 2 20
Malawi 8 10

Table 3 – Rural household water use by climate and source based on data from developing countries (Adapted from Gleick, 1996)

Climatic Zone Public Standpost (l/c/d) House Connection[1] (l/c/d)
Humid 10 – 20 20 – 40
Average 20 – 30 40 – 60
Dry 30 – 40 60 – 80

[1] Without flush toilets or gardens.

Table 4 – Estimated mean daily amount of water used per household in Kisumu, Kenya (Adapted from Wagah et al, 2010)

Name of estate Mean monthly household income (kshs) Mean daily water used (liters) Mean family size Mean per capita daily water use (liters) Deviation from recommended basic water requirement (50 l/c/d)
High income 26,650 205.00 3.64 56.32 +6.32
Middle income 17,950 167.29 4.31 38.82 -11.18
Low income 16,750 177.32 4.32 41.05 -8.95
Unplanned settlement 7,150 112.48 5.01 22.45 -27.55
Mean 17,125 149.50 4.54 32.92 -17.18

Table 5 – Domestic Per Capita Consumption by Housing Class for Selected Countries (Adapted from Wagah et al, 2010)

Housing  class Description Water consumption (l/c/d)
High income Detached houses, luxury apartments having 2 or more and 3 or more taps per household 150 – 260
Middle income  Houses and apartments having at least 1 water closet and 2 taps per household 110 – 160 
Lower income Tenements, government rehousing, shared houses, having at least 1 tap per household but sharing water closet 55 – 70

References without links

Alexander et al, K. (2013). Assessing functionality for water schemes in select areas of Ethiopia where Millennium Water Alliance partners operate. DRAFT Findings Report.

Cairncross S1, Cliff JL., (1987). Water use and health in Mueda, Mozambique. Trans R Soc Trop Med Hyg. 1987;81(1):51-4.

Vincent, S. R. (1999). Household Water Resources and Rural Productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Review of the Evidence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Institute for International Development.

White, G. F., Bradley, D. J., & White, A. U. (1972). Drawers of Water: Domestic Water Use in East Africa. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

2 Responses

  1. Very helpful — thank you, Susan! Not a simple phenomenon, but having these studies reviewed and all in one place makes a start on a deeper understanding of water supply.

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