Wednesday 31 August 2011

600.000 new water connections due to Asian WOPs

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.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Japan’s role in global water: big choice ahead

For a number of reasons I was eager to get a chance to talk with the representatives of the Japanese development aid agency JICA attending Stockholm Water Week. JICA has for several decades funded and facilitated technical assistance and training programs that connect Japanese public water companies with partner utilities in Asia and Africa. While the terms were not used, these not-for-profit projects were excellent examples of public-public partnerships or water operator partnerships.

While this commendable international cooperation work continues with JICA's support, there is recently also a very different trend emerging. Japanese private engineering companies are partnering in consortiums with public water utilities in an attempt to enter water markets abroad. The idea is that the companies provide water technology and the utilities bring in their management skills. By operating in consortiums, the utilities can bypass the legal barrier that otherwise prevent them from operating abroad. I am worried about this new approach and find it misleading that is described as ‘international cooperation’; it is driven by commercial interests.

I asked the JICA officials how they see this trend. They were clearly skeptical. Public water companies in Japan are facing decreasing income levels in the future due to the drop in population figures and see international projects as a way to bring income. The JICA representatives, however, pointed out that the new Japanese water business consortiums are already starting to realise that it is extremely difficult to provide good services and make profit at the same time in developing countries where a large part of population have little capacity to pay. Also factors like the deteriorating water quality and lack of investments make this a risky undertaking.

I agree that it makes no sense for Japanese public water companies to engage in risky water business abroad. Instead they should build on their previous achievements and up-scale their not-for-profit partnerships, this way effectively contributing to international development goals and the human right to water and sanitation. To do this they will need legal, political and financial support, as public water companies in general face restrictions limiting their activates outside of their own service area. International aid and a global mechanism (such as the Global WOP Alliance) to support such partnerships are crucial. I encouraged the JICA to upgrade their contribution to international water cooperation by engaging in the development of water operator partnerships (WOPs), the concept that was born and since developed within the UN.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Pro-poor water management: community participation and ownership

‘Pro-poor urban water provision’ is a big theme at World Water Week in Stockholm this year. The seminar on 'Pro-Poor Urban Water and Sanitation Provision: how can it be supported by participation, benchmarking and WOPs' attracted a nearly full room (200 people). The large turnout indicates an encouraging increased interest in public water management, after many years where market driven approaches such as Public private partnerships (PPP) were in fashion.

But what is pro-poor water provision in practice? Mary Kimani, vice chair of Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company, talked about the challenges in Nairobi’s informal settlements, where 20% of the city’s populations live. The public utility has introduced an ambitious programme in response to an important change in Kenya’s constitution. The new constitution under way in Kenya obliges water authorities to supply water to all citizens regardless of their ability to pay. The constitutional amendment follows of the two recent UN resolutions endorsing the human right to access to water and sanitation.

In a context of citizens in informal settlements being unable to pay, Nairobi Water has introduced a ‘social connection policy’ and works with residents in the informal settlements to lay water pipes to connect individual households as well as communal water points. While Nairobi Water is responsible for expanding the networks, community members contribute to the works with their labour and are trained to sustain the water systems.

Dinesh Mehta from India presented the experience from Meadi Nagar in India, where 90 % of urban poor have a household water connection and 87% have house toilets. According to Mehta, the success of this community participation project is not only due to the local governments’ political and financial commitment but also the feeling of ownership among the water users. Metha strongly recommended to aim to connect individual households to the piped water systems rather than building common community drinking water facilities and toilets. Why? Common facilities are expensive in terms of maintenance for public authorities, whereas if people get a house connection they will take care of maintenance themselves. Laying water pipes in slum settlements also means paving the streets. In Meadi Nagar community people started improving their houses. The pictures Mehta showed reminded me that access to water and sanitation is indeed not only essential for life but a matter of dignity. The investment in the project was funded by the local government and Mehta ended his presentation with a call to get rid of the ‘donor dependency syndrome’.

David Boys of Public Services International in his speech connected the previous presentations with a set of global policy demands. Criticising the emphasis on market incentives in international water policy debates, Boys stressed that the UN’s human right to water resolutions clearly affirm the responsibility of governments to ensure safe water and adequate sanitation to all citizens. This should lead to a new focus on how to make public water utilities work better through appropriate taxation and redistribution policies, social investments, international cooperation, etc.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Many little streams make a mighty river – the 1% solidarity levy

Presumably few Europeans would oppose one percent of their water bill going to international solidarity projects to help people who don’t yet have accesses to safe water and adequate sanitation. And as the Swedish proverb says, many little streams make a mighty river: the combined sums can make a real difference. In some countries a 1% solidarity levy is already common practice. It is implemented in municipalities in France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain; also in the Netherlands, a national law allows public water companies to use one percent of user’s fee for solidarity projects in the global South.

The huge potential of this approach became clear during the Stockholm Water Week seminar on ‘Implementing the Right to Water: through the 1% Solidarity Levy’. The seminar was organized by UNDP and the UN capital development fund (UNCDF), who actively promote this policy globally. The 1% solidarity levy is an innovative financial scheme that enables public water companies to implement international cooperation projects. This overcomes the hurdle that it is otherwise often difficult for public water companies to legitimize spending revenue outside of their service area. Amsterdam’s public water company Waternet, for example, uses this funding mechanism to implement public-public partnerships in Egypt, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Citizens in 80 municipalities and communities in Switzerland proudly contribute to development objectives through the 1% policy, Manfred Kaufmann of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation told the seminar participants. Also NGOs working with partners in the global south play a big role in the Swiss model, which involves a national coordination body, Solidarit'eau Suisse. Projects proposed by NGOs are assessed by an independent experts committee and money collected by municipal water companies made available for those projects that are approved. Solidarit'eau Suisse raises 2 million euro annually, based on the voluntary commitment by the 80 municipalities involved, and 20 projects are implemented. The sums raised in countries like The Netherlands and France are substantially higher. Imagine if all OECD countries introduced similar financial schemes: very significant funds could be raised. This would allow public water company to play an active role in helping other utilities, on a solidarity basis. Currently, not-for-profit partnerships among water operators are depending on aid money from donor agencies. The 1% solidarity levy is the one of the ways to raise additional and more autonomous finance for not-for-profit partnership projects.

Fighting corruption with the Water TAP plus A

Among the highlights of yesterday’s seminar on ‘Benchmarking Governance of Private and Public Utilities in Urban Settings’ were the presentations on the experiences of public water companies from Kenya. Mharuku Vyakweli of Nairobi Water Company and Mosses Kenya of MONBASA Water and Sanitation Company in Kisumu presented the efforts made to tackle corruption. Through benchmarking, water operators make performance information publicly available. Such information is key for users to increase the space to participate and hold water operators accountable, reducing the risk of corruption. The Kenyan speakers stressed that good governance is a pre-condition for efficient water provision.

‘Benchmarking’ may sound very technical and even boring. But it was very interesting to hear about the efforts of public water operators to increase transparency and tackle corruption, including benchmarking exercises, independent research on corruption, organizing workshops among stakeholders, meetings with local users’ committees, reporting to the city council, get recommendations from the anti-corruption committee etc, etc. The seminar convincingly made the case for the slogan “Water TAP plus A”: Transparency, Accountability, Participation and Anti-corruption in water management.

Least convincing I found the presentation by Alexandre Brailowsky from Suez Environment. Brailowsky mentioned that Suez as private water operator has an internal integrity, transparency and ethical code. I was quite surprised when he proudly presented that Suez made new one million connections in Buenos Aires and argued that communication with the users was a key for success. Suez had to leave Buenos Aires in 2006 when the public authorities decided to terminate the contract. I am sure if Suez had a good policy on transparency, this would not have happened. Private water management is generally very secretive. In Berlin, for instance, citizens were not allowed to see the privatization contract with Veolia, until civil society groups managed to force the private operator to disclose the contract via a referendum. In fact, I have my doubts about how private water operators could be made genuinely accountable and whether this is possible at all.

Monday 22 August 2011

Money matters at Stockholm Water Week

A look at the programme of World Water Week here in Stockholm shows a large number of sessions hosted by financial heavyweights such as the World Bank and other development banks (and water-specific organizations set up by these banks) as well as northern aid agencies like USAID. Corporate lobbies are here in full force, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the World Economic Forum (WEF), and Aquafed. Civil society is poorly represented except for wealthy US environmental NGOs such as Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Those directly involved in providing water, particular public utilities, are remarkably under-represented among the event organizers, whereas international thinktanks like the Global Water Partnership and the World Water Council, frequently criticised for their neoliberal, pro-privatisation leanings, are co-hosting many events. One reason for this imbalance is the heavy fees charged by the Stockholm Water Week for seminars and other events. I experienced this myself as the costs were a real hurdle for groups from the Reclaiming Public Water network to engage in co-organizing seminars at the Stockholm World Water Week. We did in the end manage and are co-organisers of the seminar on 'Pro-Poor Urban Water and Sanitation Provision: how can it be supported by participation, benchmarking and WOPs', which take place today, Monday 22 August.

In any case, the dominance of the programme by the most wealthy interests is a threat to Stockholm Water Week as an open space for debate about solutions to the water crisis. And also this year the conference has a large number of corporate sponsors, including many technology and engineering consultancy firms. Disturbingly, among the sponsors, as in previous years, is also Nestlé which is involved in water grabbing for its bottled water business in many countries around the world. Choosing Nestlé as a sponsor sends a very bad signal.

Luckily, during my first day at Stockholm Water Week I have heard several good speakers and had many good conversations with participants that are deeply engaged in work to promote the human right to water and sanitation and secure water provision for the poorest. And while it’s too early to draw conclusions, I have the feeling the tone of the debates in Stockholm has improved compared to previous years, with less focus on private sector expansion and more on genuine solutions. Perhaps this is a positive influence of the two UN resolutions for the human right to access to water and sanitation passed during the last year (in the general assembly and human rights council)?

Sunday 21 August 2011

Stockholm Water Week 2011 has started

I have just arrived at Stockholm, where World Water Week of this year will take place from August 21st to 27th. At previous editions of this annual water conference, water activists participated in sessions to ensure that critical voices were heard. Together with Swedish groups the sponsorship of the event by Nestlé (the world’s largest bottled water company) was challenged. Also, the neoliberal reforms that undermine the city's world-class public utility Stockholm Vatten were put in the spotlight.

At the railway station at the airport, a gentleman talked to me and asked if I would attend the water week. He is from Zambia and works for African Development Bank’s regional office in Tunisia. We started to chat and it turned into a very interesting conversation. He came to Stockholm to speak about financing and regulatory framework for the water sector in Zambia. He soon turned out to have a very critical view of private sector water management in Africa, mentioning the example of Zambia, where the French transnational Saur had a management contract in Copperbelt province from 2001- 2006. The contract was not renewed because it was clear that the private operator could not perform better than regional public water authority. He also told me a story from Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. The German financial cooperation KfW financed to help a private sector company takeover a state-run utility and the concession contract with French company Suez, between 2002 to 2004 (OSUL - Ondeo Services Uganda Limited). But the contract was not renewed and the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) regained control. There are many cases of private contracts did not renew in African cities and I decided we shouldad these to our website on remunicipalisation:

Veolia Environment, by the way, is running water services in Tunisia, where the AfDB official is based. While service performance is fairly good, the contract is completely secretive. This coincidental meeting in the train inspired me to use the Stockholm days to find potential new strategic allies, also among institutions like the development banks.

Tomorrow, I will attend the seminar on ‘Benchmarking Governance of Private and Public Utilities in Urban Settings with a Corruption Angle’ and a side event on ‘Implementing the Right to Water: through the 1% Solidarity Levy and UNDP GoAL WASH’.