The relation between water users and service providers has received too little attention and is underdeveloped: The rights and obligations of both users and providers of water services are poorly defined and the mutual understanding between the parties is often lacking. Further, many urban water users get their water through intermediate suppliers, also lacking agreements with customers as well as bulk suppliers.
The service relationships are often pictured as a triangle, with the state on the top, where politicians/policy makers institute utility regulation or develop contracts or compacts with service providers. This relationship has received long and persistent attention in the privatisation debate and the ensuing call for improved regulation of public as well as private service providers. On the other side, the state has a relationship with the citizens, expressing their voice through elections or other ways of contacting or influencing the various levels of government and state authorities. This relationship has received heightened attention in the definition of water (services) as a human right.
At the bottom of the triangle, then, is the more or less direct relationship between water users and the providers that physically make water available for human consumption. The 2004 World Development Report focussing on ‘Making Services Available for Poor People’ labelled this relationship, or exchange of services and ‘client power’ as ‘the short route of accountability.’ In contrast, ‘the long route of accountability’ went via the state machinery. The point made here was the influence the customers could have over the supplier through their commercial relationship.
Still, this potential commercial power of the client has been more conducive to generate informal and most often inadequate service provision, and has not been sufficient to bring sustainable services to urban dwellers, and certainly not to the poorer slum dwellers. The missing link for sustainable and equitable services is the lack of arrangements that are sufficiently awarding for providers, yet affordable and accessible for the communities.
In Albania, the Water Regulatory Authority and the MDG-F-sponsored programme for Economic Governance, Regulatory Reform, Public Participation and Pro-Poor Development have taken note of the wide disparity and the often poor conditions offered to households by the water system operators. This situation impelled them to develop a ‘model contract’ in consultation with all stakeholders, including consumer rights organisations and associations of water system operators. Opting for a long and detailed contract, it serves also as an educational tool for water services users and providers to learn about their rights as well as obligations towards one another. This ‘model contract’ is being implemented progressively by water operators throughout Albania.
In the Philippines, the National Water Resources Board and the MDG-F-sponsored programme for Enhancing Access to and Provision of Water Services with the Active Participation of the Poor found that many of the smaller water supply schemes were unsustainable as those in charge of operations and maintenance were often lacking the necessary capacity. It was found that when the customers were involved in determining the appropriate level of service as well as the appropriate tariff. Developing realistic levels of services and tariffs, water service providers were able to operate successfully. This mutual agreement and understanding of each others rights and obligations to one another were formalised and signed by representatives of the customers and the service providers, and witnessed by local leaders and other customers.
This work on the mutual understanding of rights and obligations of both water consumers and water service providers is being presented at a Side Event at the World Water Week (Interests of Water Users and Service Providers: Mutual Understanding of Rights and Obligations - Sunday, 2011-08-21 at 17:45 to 18:45 in Room K24). It is proposed as a practical way of working towards the realisation of the human right to water, and it addresses the too poorly developed – too often even missing – link in the urban water supply chain.