Closing the gap: informal water markets in Kathmandu

Kathmandu, with 1.7 million residents, presents an opportunity to study an extreme case of urban water supply. It has grown by over 50% in a decade, but there have been few investments in infrastructure in the last few decades. The resulting water supply is one of the worst performing in the world, with the water utility’s production meeting only 21% of demand. Water vendors – businesses selling water from sources, transporting with tanker trucks, and bottling water – have stepped in to fill the gaps and, outside of private wells, provide 40% of the city’s water supply.

This study is the first to empirically evaluate the structure of the water market using extensive surveys of 1,500 households and 120 water vendors. We assess the competitiveness of the water market by systematically reconstructing the financial accounts of water vendors. Many studies have found high prices charged by vendors and evidence of collusion and price-fixing in many settings; ideas of informal water “cartels” and “mafias” have also been popularized. We find instead the markets to be competitive and sophisticated, with varied extents of integration along the supply chain. As private water vending is increasingly accepted as a critical component of water supply, our work has important implications for the design of local water policy instruments, as well as business optimization and best practices. Our study also demonstrates both a growing need for and a cautious hopefulness about the feasibility of monitoring these businesses that frequently operate in the shadows of the formal water supply.

About the speaker

Jane Zhao is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Department of City and Regional Planning. She is currently collaborating with an Oxford team on a study that pioneers high-frequency, low-cost, and spatially-explicit approaches in measuring water vending market dynamics in Kenya. Her research also focuses on the provision of water services in developing countries, including informal water markets, tariff design, demand estimation of water services, and techno-economic development paths. She has conducted extensive fieldwork in Kenya, Nepal, and India and has worked as a consultant on projects for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Before beginning her PhD, she was a research assistant at Columbia Business School for two years; she worked on many projects, including microfinance firm best practices and peer effects in government. She holds an AB in Economics from Princeton University. While there, she worked at the UNFAO and Resources for the Future.

This seminar is part of the Oxford Water Network’s “Urban Water and the SDGs” series and will be followed by refreshments at Christ Church.