The world’s poor people have mobile phones. Why can’t they get clean water and sanitation?


While researching a story on water NGOs, I spoke with an economist and blogger named David Zetland who raised a question — why do so many of the world’s poor people have cell phones, even as they lack access to clear drinking water or toilets?

The numbers surprised me. If you believe the estimates from Wikipedia, there are 7 billion people in the world and 6.8 billion mobile phones.

Meantime, UN Water estimates that “783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.”

Both cell phone service and water require big up-front capital investments and then they have relatively low variable costs.

In a 2011 blog post, David offers these observations about cell service:

  1. Mobile services compete for customers.
  2. Customers pay for good service.
  3. Government regulation of this “inessential” service is light.
  4. International aid for such a “luxury” is non-existent

I’ll add:

5. Mobile service is not a “human right.”

Interestingly, Wikipedia says cell phone penetration is lowest in North Korea (8.3 percent) and Cuba (11.6 percent).

I’m just learning about water, so I don’t want to draw any conclusions yet. But if you have thoughts, by all means, be in touch.

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