Stockholm Water Week included a whole day of seminars with a regional focus and I opted to attend 'Eye on Asia: Partnerships for Water: How Can Asia Do More?'. The seminar, in which Asian Development Bank played a major role, started with a presentation by Mai Flor from the secretariat of WaterLinks. Flor presented the on-going Water Operator Partnerships (WOPs) projects in Asia pacific region. . Since 2008, WaterLinks, which is funded by ADB, USAID and International Water Association (IWA), has facilitated 40 WOP projects, 20 of which are still on-going. I was listening carefully to the presentation as there are concerns about the disproportionally large number of private water operators that have engaged in WOPs in Asia, whereas the WOPs were originally mainly intended as public-public utility partnerships. The WaterLinks website, moreover, used to state that “all partnerships operate on a non-profit basis, but could result in a commercial relationship”, a statement that was at odds with the strict not-for-profit principles guiding WOPs. To my relief, Flor very clearly emphasised the not-for-profit principle, she argued that it is the direct practitioner-to -practitioner exchanges (without external consultants) that make WOP projects cost-effective and successful. Flor mentioned that no less than 600.000 new connections (household and communal) have been achieved in the region through WOPs. WOPs projects also focus on other strategic goals like reducing non-revenue water, improved waste water management and climate change mitigation.
While it is clearly positive that the Asian Development Bank is so actively promoting Water Operator Partnerships, it is far too early to conclude that it has more generally departed from its policy of promoting a bigger role for the private sector in water management. The chair of the seminar, Arjun Thapan, has at other occasions called for leaving wastewater management to private investors. Thapan is former ADB Director General of Southeast Asia Department and now a member of the World Economic Forum Global Council for Water Security. The ADB's problematic record was brought to attention during the seminar by Ratan Bhandari of the Nepalese Water and Energy Users' Federation (WAFED). Speaking from the floor, Bhandari presented the local struggle against the Melamchi Water Supply Project (MWSP), a controversial water privatisation project financed mainly by the ADB.