The UN-mandated Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council describes typical water supply and sanitation problems in expanding cities in the following way: (1) Grossly inadequate sanitation provision creates a health-threatening and offensive environment, particularly in low-income settlements; (2) Surface water sources are polluted and aquifers are depleted and degraded; (3) Excessive use of water by industry and agriculture and unsustainable consumption patterns put a sever strain on limited water resources; (4) New distant water sources are being sought and tapped at enormous cost to cater for rising demand; (5) At the same time, huge amounts of treated, potable water are wasted through leakages in distributions systems that are often old and seldom well maintained; (6) Water is delivered at a subsidized price to the middle and upper classes, while the under-served majority has an erratic, unreliable supply or depends on informal channels such as water vendors, at a much higher unit cost; (7) For a variety of reasons, many water and sanitation utilities are unable to operate and maintain existing infrastructure, to manage demand, recover service costs or make the investments that would be necessary to extend services; (8) Institutional responsibilities for water resources management are fragmented, and there is very little dialogue among the various institutions concerned.
The 1994 plague outbreak in the Indian city of Surat (a comparatively prosperous city), which was attributed mainly to unsanitary conditions, killed 54 people, affected nearly 5,000 people, caused more than $US 1.5 billion in economic damage and triggered the exodus of 500,000 residents from Surat.
Despite all efforts of national governments, and bi- and multi-lateral agencies during the last decades, including the [International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade] (1981-1990), the number of urban dwellers lacking access to environmental infrastructure services in developing countries is increasing. Urban population growth is outstripping the provision of new services. In 1994 almost 280 million people in urban areas lacked access to safe water supply, while about 600 million were without adequate sanitation. Among the urban poor, less than 30% of households are connected to water supply and less than 20% have access to adequate sanitation. In addition, many people believed to be served benefited from unreliable, intermittent services providing water only part of the time.