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Reflections from the Global Water Operator Partnerships Congress ahead of World Water Day

Written by Josephine Tucker

As the water community prepares to celebrate World Water Day on 22 March, the Global Water Operator Partnerships’ Alliance (GWOPA) has gathered for its first Global Congress in Cape Town, South Africa.

This year the theme of World Water Day is ‘Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge’. Extending water supply to the world’s urban dwellers – whose numbers grow by 5 million every month – is a huge challenge. Water Operator Partnerships (WOPs), under which successful, experienced service providers mentor those in need of support, offer a new model to help transform service delivery and increase access. Here in Cape Town, water utilities from north and south have come together to discuss the potential of WOPs to improve public water services, particularly for the poor, and to share lessons on how to make WOPs more effective.

So what do WOPs have to offer?

Success stories such as that of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) highlight the benefits of the peer-to-peer learning and tailor-made practical support that WOPs provide. PPWSA’s Director and keynote speaker at the Congress, Ek Sonn Chan, cited hands-on technical and management support received from French and Australian water operators as key elements that enabled PPWSA to transform performance and increase coverage from 20% in 1993 to over 90% today. Importantly, this vision was his from the start, but WOPs helped him achieve it. The PPWSA now offers support to service providers in smaller towns in Cambodia and Vietnam, multiplying the benefits of partnership.

So far there has been little published research on the impact of WOPs. A review of urban water partnerships led by ODI’s Water Policy Programme highlights the potential of this type of partnership in terms of service improvements and value for money, but calls for more concrete evidence of impact. The regional platforms and knowledge management tools developed under the GWOPA look set to enable more documentation and analysis. Certainly the feeling of water operators here is that WOPs work and can contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. According to UN-HABITAT in its opening address to the Congress on Sunday, ‘WOPs are the kind of cost-effective, no-nonsense partnership we need’.

A key lesson is that WOPs have most impact when they are demand-driven and flexible. Learning is a long-term process and the best solutions may not be obvious at the start of the partnership, so financing mechanisms are needed which can provide long-term, flexible engagement. It has been noted that these are currently all too rare.

Participants have emphasised that WOPs are not a ‘magic bullet’, however. If utilities lack strong and committed leadership, an effective WOP will be difficult to develop. And where service provision is affected by political interference, weak governance or inequitable development policies, water operators may have little room for manoeuvre even if they identify beneficial reforms through a WOP. It has been suggested that long-term WOPs could go beyond technical support to engage with higher levels of government and build coalitions in favour of reform, though this might require expertise beyond the usual scope of water providers. The extent to which WOPs can be effective in difficult contexts and the role they might be able to play in driving wider sector reform are critical areas for research which involve political economy questions.

Similarly, many utilities lack the financial resources to extend and rehabilitate water networks. Speakers here have referred to WOPs that failed because the recipient utilities could not afford to put in place any of the agreed reforms. However, WOPs may be able to help utilities leverage new sources of finance, if they can generate improvements which convince donors and investors that money put into the sector will be well spent.

Looking ahead, it will be important to follow the progress of WOPs as their potential becomes clearer. WOPs alone will not fill the gap in urban water and sanitation access, but combined with financing for infrastructure and wider sector reforms they could have a significant impact by reinvigorating public water management and ‘helping utilities to help themselves’. Here in Cape Town, debates continue on the definition of WOPs, how best to involve civil society and trade unions, and other questions. There is a clear need for GWOPA to document and communicate both partnership experiences and the impacts of WOPs on poor users more clearly to build their profile. But overall the spirit is one of optimism, and determination to ensure that WOPs prove themselves as a model for responding to the urban water challenge. WOPs could well be one to watch.