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The creation of new partnerships

Until the recent past, water service provision has been primarily the exclusive concern of governments and municipal authorities, in accordance with standard philosophies and belief systems concerning a ‘free’ commodity essential to human life. However, the record of government-delivered services in some settings, coupled with the new appreciation of water’s scarcity and value, and with the shortage of resources for extending services, have led to a reappraisal of potential actors and their roles. The building of alliances and partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders has become a theme familiar within development co­operation for water-related activity, as in other areas.

The commercial private sector

From the programming perspective, one of the actors whose growing role is highly significant is the commercial private sector, especially private water companies. The last decade has seen a reaction in many countries against the state as the automatically preferred owner and operator of water-related services, including sewerage and irrigation works. There is now wider appreciation that the traditional water department or public utility mode of supply is only one of a range of options.

The theme of public sector/private sector partnerships, with government assuming a facilitating and regulatory role instead of an all-providing role, and of privatisation of some part of service delivery, constantly re-occurs in water policy statements. The popularity of this theme can be credited to the promise held out that involvement of the private commercial sector helps to overcome such widespread problems as budgetary shortages, poor management and lack of cost recovery. Governments have concluded that delegation of the management of public services to private companies offers a potential solution to financial constraints and systemic problems of inefficiency.

Among the shortcomings of publicly-owned and -run utilities is that, beyond the stage of implementing projects funded, or supported, by donors, they typically commit inadequate resources to future operation and maintenance. These bodies may, in addition, suffer from weak technical know-how and managerial capacity to run the new infrastructures effectively. Meanwhile, tariffs for service provision are often set at uneconomic levels; there is extensive illegal ‘leakage’ from systems; and even existing tariffs are not collected. Within a few years, service infrastructures may fall into disrepair and become unsustainable. Unless specifically mandated to do so, water authorities - especially in urban areas - are often already deficient in reaching poorer communities; the prospects of their doing so are reduced where they are uneconomic in serving better-off communities and cannot generate a surplus.

There are many alternative options to full public ownership and operation of water agencies, involving a greater or lesser degree of participation by the private commercial sector. These options can be ranged along a spectrum at one end of which the government retains full responsibility for operations, maintenance, capital investment, financing and commercial risk; at the other end of the spectrum, these responsibilities have been devolved to autonomous, commercialised utilities or companies. In between are situations whereby the management of existing systems, or the construction of new installations, has been organised through private operators under various kinds of contractual arrangements including leases (affermage), concessions and build-own-operate-transfer schemes.

Most of these options apply principally in the context of municipal water and wastewater treatment, and also in the context of major irrigation works and environmental, including leisure and transport, waterway management. The role of the public authorities as regulator is to ensure equity, and monitor subsidy levels and the tariffs paid by water consumers. The public authorities are also responsible for determining, or at least approving, investments to be made, and for ensuring the control of private management within the framework of partnership and a clear separation of roles.

The community-based and informal ‘private sector’

Unless specific efforts are made to increase service coverage to poor and underserved communities, their domestic needs usually remain unmet by expansions of conventional water supply and sewerage schemes. Many governments undertake or facilitate such special efforts for rural areas; less often for urban areas. These rural schemes are frequently supported - even The record ofmade possible - government-delivered by development services, and the new co-operation funds supplied by appreciation of water’s bilateral agencies, scarcity and value, have UN and other led to a reappraisal of multilateral sources including potential actors and their EC, or by roles. international NGOs. Their effectiveness often depends on partnership with local community-based organisations, whether administrative entities - such as Village Councils - or non-governmental; sometimes both.

Local NGOs and their international counterparts have attracted considerable attention in the recent past because of their relative effectiveness in reaching the poor and their knowledge and experience of working closely with communities. They also have a reputation - in many cases deserved - of achieving much with little, and their methods have therefore attracted attention for cost-efficiency reasons. Certainly without the work of NGOs, the willingness and ability to pay for water supplies (and occasionally, for sanitation) found even in the most economically marginal of communities would probably still be unrecognised. Because of the pioneering role they have played in demonstrating the practicability of user participation in the management of all kinds of community improvement schemes - including food production, catchment dams, small-scale irrigation, disease control and public health - NGOs are now regarded as part of the mainstream in water development co-operation. However, the size of their contribution is proportionately small, and not all are equipped to operate effectively without technical support.

Thus, although the involvement of the ‘private sector’ is also advocated internationally as a way of reaching poorer communities with basic water supply and sanitation services with little additional administrative expenditure, the participation of civil society implies the involvement of a very different kind of ‘private sector’. Their motivation is community benefit; commercial profit plays almost no role except at a very marginal economic level: for example, in the manufacture by village artisans of latrines. Indeed, the lack of opportunity for cost recovery which is often perceived as an automatic corollary of expanding services for the poor is the reason for the dependence of many developing country governments on external co-operation for such schemes. Even those which do involve user fees and participatory management still require governmental or extra­governmental support for components such as human resources and capacity building by local government departments and appropriate NGOs.

Some schemes are operated by NGOs and community associations independently of government-run services and without their support, albeit with their knowledge and within an established framework. But these are in the minority; local community associations more often occupy a partnership role with the authorities on the one hand, and private commercial mini-enterprises on the other. Their importance is that they have recognised that, even among the poorest communities, cost recovery is needed to provide services and ensure efficient O&M; and they have managed to develop user fee systems. In some cases this is in contrast to official bodies who go on providing free or heavily subsidised services on grounds of ‘public good’ while often failing to serve the poor. As in the case of the private sector, the challenge here is to recognise the potential of partnerships with NGOs and incorporate their role appropriately into project design and implementation.

In towns and cities, the informal private service sector plays a supplementary role. Residents of slums and shanty-towns often have to fend for themselves outside the purview of government services; their water is often supplied by small-time vendors and water-carriers, and human waste disposal services are operated by ‘sweepers’ or carters. The fact that those they provide with water (or sanitation) often pay for the service at rates more expensive than rates charged to customers receiving subsidised mains services is often cited as proof that the poor can, and will, pay for water supplies and/or sanitation. In reality, they have no alternative to dependence on informal sector provision; this ‘willingness to pay’ is rarely, if ever, the basis for investment by authorities and formal sector companies in such areas. Meanwhile, the private service providers who do supply them are unregulated and often exploitative.

There is undoubtedly scope for the incorporation of manufacturers and suppliers in the informal private service sector into basic water supply and sanitation services, and into small-scale irrigation schemes. A range of artisans, masons, mechanics, tubewell-sinkers and local handymen are involved in informal public health and agricultural water use occupations. The challenge is to build on their existing skills, and incorporate their activities into programmatic and project frameworks in an appropriate, equitable, and well-regulated manner. As in the case of the private commercial sector, it is necessary to ensure that the participation of the informal sector is not exploitative, and supports rather than supplants efforts to extend good quality services to poor and underserved communities.

Multilateral donors including the UN system

Some official bodies go on providing a free or heavily subsidised service on grounds of ‘public good’ while failing to serve the poor.

The member countries of the European Union are among the largest donors to development co-operation, both bilaterally and through multilateral channels including the EC. Many European countries have longstanding experience in the developing world and close historical ties with many countries and regions where water-related issues are critical. Countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) have an innovative partnership arrangement with the EU under the Lomé Convention. This unique relationship enables a shared vision of policy priorities to be promoted. (See Part III, EC Resources.)

The most influential multilateral lending organisation offering support to water resources development and management is the World Bank. The Bank is active within the full range of economic and social water-related sectors and has been a leading exponent of the new agenda in water policy. The World Bank’s own water policy emphasises the adoption of a comprehensive policy framework, decentralised management ofservices, economic pricing of water, and greaterparticipation bystakeholders. Amajor role is foreseen for community organisations and the private sector in planning, financing and delivering services. The regional Development Banks echo the World Bank prescriptions, with a regional focus. By its declaration of an International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-90), the UN acted as catalyst in promoting the international drive for improved basic water supply and sanitation services. The ‘Water Decade’ was spearheaded by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and a number of other UN organisations actively participated. Since the UN Conference for Environment and Development - the 1992 Earth Summit - which precipitated a major re-thinkingabout water as an essential natural resource, the UN has also provided the key fora in which the new agenda for water resources management has been articulated. After the Earth Summit it set up a new international mechanism, the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (UNCSD), in which the interrelated dimensions of water management and environmental sustainability can be addressed.

Within the UN system, a number of funds, programmes and specialised agencies have long been involved in some way with water-related activity, usually by providing technical expertise or material assistance to projects of different kinds. At the highest level, UN involvement in water is co-ordinated by the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) Subcommittee on Water Resources, to which the Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) functions as Secretariat. UN organisations offer a range of partnership possibilities with other multilateral and bilateral donors in all areas of programming. The full range of UN involvement in water is very broad; only the particular concerns of the principal organisations and frameworks are highlighted here.

The key players are: UNDP, (economic production, technology and infrastructure); World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund), (public health and community development); the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and UNCSD, (environmental considerations); the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), (hydrology and climate); the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) (water use in agriculture). In keeping with their mandates and operational modalities, UN organisations interact with the governmental policy-making and administrative apparatus at different levels, some only at the macro level, a few right down to micro. There are obvious areas of joint concern, most conspicuously in the context of basic human needs, infrastructure, community development, food security and public health.

All of the UN organisations’ water policies subscribe to the Rio principles and nowadays position their activities within the ‘sustainable development’ framework. All equally echo the need for a comprehensive policy towards water which considers the protection of the resource, and its management and use in the light of competing requirements. There have also been a number of joint initiatives between UN organisations, often with World Bank partnership. The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, set up in 1991 in the follow-up to the Water Decade, has a wide-ranging membership and enables governmental and non-governmental players to take part in the ongoing policy debate.

International networks and expert bodies

A number of other international and national bodies exist which can offer research and technical assistance in the course of development co-operation activity relating to water. Many countries have ‘centres of excellence’, whose specialists, research programmes and training courses are designed to make the latest technical and operational information available to those involved in water-related programming activity. Other categories include partnership and networking bodies, such as the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council mentioned above; the international NGO community; and academic and scientific institutes based in different parts of the world acting as repositories of technical and professional expertise.

The most notable recent international networking initiative is the establishment of the Global Water Partnership (GWP), supported by international and bilateral funds, with Secretariat support from Swedish SIDA. The GWP was set up in response to the Dublin and Rio conferences to encourage members to adopt consistent and complementary policies and programmes for water resources management. It provides a forum in which to share information and experience, offer technical advice, and facilitate collaboration among partners. Another recently established partnership mechanism is the World Water Council (WWC). The Council acts as a think-tank, to promote awareness at all levels, including the highest decision-making level, of critical water issues and their relationship to environmental sustainability.

A number of academic institutes and research centres have an influence on the direction taken by international agencies and governments; they, or experts employed by them, are frequently sub-contracted to contribute their expertise in policy-making or technical contexts. Some of these are at the forefront of innovative solutions and consciousness raising; a number run training programmes for engineers and other specialists from developing countries, and thereby help to promote ‘best practice’. Ultimately many ‘centres of excellence’ associated with water resources management disciplines influence the international water agenda, but there is no single institution that covers water in its entirety.

Among the variety of experts and practitioners associated with organisations which contribute to programmes and projects, consultants of different kinds have an important role to play. Sophisticated technical expertise, only available at the international level or from ‘centres of excellence’, may be one obvious requirement. But sometimes the missing skills or knowledge gap is actually at the micro-level. Programme or project implementation, especially in the early critical stages, can be facilitated by the involvement of consultants from NGOs or neighbouring countries with extensive experience of - for example - health education, capacity-building among user groups, or project support communications and social mobilisation techniques.


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