Note: I originally published this post for the Global Water Alliance. I’m not sure if the organization still exists. I’ve tweaked the post a little bit to fit this website. The original post can be found here. Also, I’ve removed some images due to copyright concerns, so you may find an odd gap.

Imagine you are forced to make the following choice: drink water from a heavily polluted river for free, or buy your daily supply of water for about half of your earnings that day from local vendors—which, by the way, is not guaranteed to be clean. Which would you pick?

About 180 million slum residents worldwide lack access to clean water, and many of them face this choice on a daily basis. This week’s post will focus on urban slums in Brazil and Kenya in order to compare and contrast WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) issues brought about by slum conditions. By examining the problems each country’s slums face, we can learn what causes WASH issues in the slums and what solutions offer hope. I hope to engage the community through starting a dialogue and increasing awareness of issues like these.


World Bank data reports that Brazil had a population of about 202 million and a GDP of about 2.3 trillion USD in 2014. Despite its enormous resources and wealth, Brazil is home to one of the world’s largest slum populations.

The exact amount of people living in Brazilian slums depends on which source you cite. The official census of 2010 reports that there were 11.4 million Brazilians living in “substandard agglomerates,” or favelas, informal housing, and other types of makeshift buildings. This represented 6% of the population at the time.

However, the United Nations reports that, as of 2009, Brazil is home to a whopping 44.9 million slum residents—quite a different diagnosis. An article from The Guardian claims that there were 26 million urban poor who lacked access to clean water in 2013. A 2008 World Bank report on its project in Brazil claims that, as of appraising the project, 19 million urban poor lacked access to clean water, and 34 million lacked access to sanitation facilities.

Contrary to the World Bank and The Guardian, the Brazilian census claims that 88.3% of slum residents were connected to the water supply, 67.3% had a sewage connection or septic tank, 72.5% had access to electricity with a meter (99.7% total with access to electricity), and 95.4% had garbage collection. These numbers suggest that these are hardly slum conditions at all. Unfortunately, with differing definitions of “slum,” “water access,” and “sanitation facilities,” it is difficult to gauge the true extent of the problem.

There are some certainties about Brazilian slums, however. First, slum residents lack legal tenure for the property they live on, meaning that their housing technically doesn’t exist. This not only strips the slum residents of all of their land rights, such as the right to not be evicted, but also provides a huge governance challenge in providing infrastructure and services.

Second, Brazilian slums are built on steep slopes and dry ravines—places untouched by developers due to their great safety risk. Not only does this put residents in danger of landslides and floods, but it also makes it incredibly difficult to provide efficient infrastructure.

Third, drug lords and gangs control large sections of Brazilian slums, and they often battle each other and the government for territory. In 2011, for instance, the Brazilian government began a “pacification” process, in which over 3,000 police and soldiers invaded and occupied parts of the slums controlled by drug lords. In many areas, gangs essentially function as the government, providing security forces, sponsoring neighborhood associations, starting soccer clubs, and even hosting festivals. In a society where those from the favelas often face heavy discrimination from those outside, it is often easiest for youth to earn a living through working for the drug lords.

Finally, Brazilian slums are at least partially the result of the combination of population growth and urbanization. The total population has been rising, while urban areas have been draining rural areas of people. This suggests that urban growth has continually outpaced the government’s ability to provide infrastructure.

Brazil Population
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.
Brazil Population Growth
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.

One hopeful project has brought clean water to a community of 60,000 in Sao Paolo. Led by the Municipal Housing Council since 2002, this initiative aims to work with community leaders in order to make improvements to slum housing that already exists. This marks a huge shift from the government policy of attempting to move slum dwellers by force. Another initiative called “slum to neighborhood,” which is led by the government through a foreign loan, has brought infrastructure to 253,000 slum residents since 1990.


Compared to Brazil, Kenya is a very small country. According to the World Bank, Kenya’s population was 45.5 million and its GDP was 70 billion USD in 2014. Kenya is home to one of the largest slums in the world, and possibly the largest in Africa—the Kibera slums in Nairobi.

Like in Brazil, it is almost impossible to know the exact population of Kenya’s slums. One estimate puts Nairobi’s slum population at 2.5 million. According to the UN figures cited earlier, Kenya had a total of 4.7 million slum residents in 2009.

Infrastructure in Kenyan slums, including water infrastructure, is utterly lacking. While the favelas tend to be made from brick and cement, housing in slums like Kibera is made from mud and a corrugated tin roof. Roughly 20% of Kibera has electricity. Before the construction of a World Bank water pipe and a municipal council water pipe recently, residents of Kibera had to collect water from the Nairobi dam. This water causes water-borne illnesses, like cholera and typhoid.

Sanitation is also lacking. Technically the slums have pit latrines for sewage. However, depending on the slum, there may be one pit latrine available for 50-200 shacks. Additionally, gangs tend to wait around pit latrines, especially during the night, because they know people will come. All members of the communities face the danger of robbery, but women especially face the danger of rape merely by attempting to use these pit latrines. It should not be surprising, then, that most people prefer to defecate outdoors or in “flying toilets,” or one-time-use bags that are thrown in the street after use.

It is very common for gangs to serve as private water vendors when government and World Bank services fail. These groups either steal water from pipes, or sell from an often contaminated well. The prices can be as high as 50 shillings for 20 liters, which can be about half of a person’s daily wage who earns the equivalent of one USD a day. Considering that just in Kibera there is a 50% unemployment rate, this is absurdly expensive. Yet, people must drink water to live. The alternative is to drink from a river that receives the runoff of Nairobi’s industrial district.

However, Kenyan slums do share some similarities with Brazilian slums. For instance, residents lack property rights, as the government owns all of the land. The people of Kenyan slums can be removed overnight with no legal repercussions.

Additionally, Kenyan slums have sprouted from urban growth that far surpasses the government’s ability to provide infrastructure. Kenya’s urban population has doubled in the past fifteen years, while the rural population has only increased by about 140%.

Kenya Urban Rural Population
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.
Kenya Population Growth
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.

That access to an improved water source has declined in urban areas while the overall population’s access has increased suggests infrastructure has failed to meet population growth.

Kenya Improved Water Source
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.

Like in Brazil, there are also some hopeful developments in Kenyan slums. First, the new constitution in 2010 lists access to clean water as a basic right. Even if this only exists on paper, it is a major turning point in acknowledgment of the problem.

Second, only a month and a half ago there was a report of “water ATMs” bringing cheap, clean water to the Kibera slums. This joint project between the government and a Danish company has provided water kiosks where residents swipe a prepaid card to buy clean water. The price is only half a shilling for 20 liters. However, much more time is still required to see how successful this initiative is.


It is clear that Kenyan and Brazilian slums share several important similarities. In both countries, residents lack land rights, the slums are a result of massive urban growth, and gangs have taken hold of several communities.

However, the differences are perhaps greater. Kenyan slums certainly face far more extreme infrastructure issues, and thus, WASH issues. Additionally, poverty and unemployment are much more extreme in Kenyan slums.

It is difficult to tell what the underlying cause of this disparity is, but it is not unreasonable to think that at least some of the cause is a difference in national resources. After all, Brazil has a massive economy of 2.2 trillion USD, while Kenya only has a fraction of that. That Brazil had an overall rate of 98% access to an improved water source in 2012 while Kenya only had 62% access suggests that the infrastructure disparity encompasses the whole country, and not just the slums.

By examining particular cases, we can better understand the causes of these WASH issues in the slums. Only once we understand the causes can we hope to find a solution, which is why we must begin by at least bringing these issues to people’s attention through discussion. I hope that one day nobody will be forced to choose between contaminated water and water worth half a day’s wage.