Getting off the plane for the first time in Juba, South Sudan, I was amazed at the number of water trucks. There were dozens of them on every street, delivering water everywhere: from the private water tanks at wealthy houses, to trucks refilling large blue plastic drums by the side of the road for on-selling to the poorer residents of the city. These blue plastic drums are a lifeline to 90 percent of the population that does not receive water from the public water company. Only 3,000 households have that privilege.

As this fledgling country establishes itself after a devastating conflict, the vast majority of Juba’s people must find their own ways to access water. Some resort to hand dug wells or private boreholes. Others purchase water from water vendors with tankers or from bicycle-drawn drums. And although there are formal public-water system filling points where tanker drivers can purchase water for reselling, the supply is erratic and the wait is long, so tanker drivers often resort to selling untreated water straight from the Nile. For this water of dubious quality, customers pay from $8 to $12 per cubic meter—almost 10 times what I pay at home in Washington, D.C.

A market like any other

Post-conflict countries feature at the bottom of every human development indicator, and as I saw in Juba, access to water in South Sudan is no exception. Similarly, in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Papua New Guinea, more than 50 percent of the country’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. In many of these countries, where the governments are struggling to provide services for their populations, the types of water markets in South Sudan have sprung up to meet this most basic need. Water is a market opportunity like any another.

When we talk about PPPs or private participation in the provision of water services, as with many other public services, we are usually talking about bringing in varying degrees of private participation to improve the performance and sustainability of traditionally public services. Even in the rural and small towns of countries like Uganda or Benin, where management is delegated to small scale operators, these often rely on significant donor or government financing of the initial capital investment to keep tariffs within an affordable range.

As in South Sudan and other post-conflict countries, however, the reality is very different. In these nations, the governments and donor investment combined is a drop in the ocean compared to the needs of the population. Governments often lack the capacity to regulate or maintain any level of service, so the private sector sees an opportunity and responds accordingly. The level of service and quality of water is often poor, and prices high—but the fact remains that they are there and are likely to remain the main providers of water to people in the immediate future.

Therefore, the way we approach water service delivery in these post-conflict environments must be different. The role of government and development partners should not only focus on the traditional development model of large new investments, but also consider how to harness and regulate the markets that have emerged and that will continue to be significant players. What ultimately matters is moving toward providing good quality water at a reasonable price.

There is precedent for this “bottom-up” approach. Many countries that have transitioned out of post-conflict have formalized the role of the private sector in service delivery. In Rwanda, for example, nearly 40 percent of rural water schemes are managed by small firms or individuals. In Cambodia, the government licenses operators to take over the construction and running of small water schemes.

A fresh approach

Private water vendors are often portrayed as opportunists who exploit the most basic of human needs, and in some cases this is true. But often these vendors are people trying to make ends meet like everyone else. On the same trip to Juba, for example, I met a man who had invested a significant amount of money in converting a truck to a water tanker and importing it from Uganda. He was keen to differentiate himself from the other tankers, looking for simple water testing kits that could help him prove to customers that his water was clean and safe.

When thinking about water sector development in post-conflict countries, the role of the private sector is no less relevant than in more stable, developed countries. It just it takes a very different approach to harness the already vibrant water markets to provide good quality water at an affordable price.