Discussions about urban water management have during the past two decades been dominated by the privatization debate. There seems to be no conclusive evidence regarding any absolute advantages or disadvantages of either public or private operation and even ownership of the urban water infrastructure. A lasting outcome from the debate is instead the recognition of the plurality of actors on the urban water scene. We have public and private water utility companies. We also have small-scale often informal providers, which operate more or less efficiently, but nevertheless have a role to play.
With the plurality of actors, and sometimes even multiple physical systems within the same urban area, the need for governance and appropriate regulation of urban water activities have come to the fore. Water utility regulation, of both private and public service providers, is generally seen as a government prerogative. How well regulators in different parts of the world will be able to enhance the urban water service efficiency and equity, by monitoring and providing incentives for correction and improvement, remains to be seen.
In a review of utility performance in the United States and elsewhere, it was found that the debate over privatization had overshadowed influential drivers of success, such as "effective staffing, consistent community support for adequate funding, detailed asset management, performance measurements and rewards aligned to organizational objectives, and processes that are transparent and open to the public."
Some of these drivers have been well addressed by the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA), which under the leadership of Mr. Ek Sonn Chan has been recognized for its remarkable trajectory from a corrupt and inefficient utility to one of world class performance, and bestowed with Stockholm Industry Water Award in 2010. In 1993 Mr. Ek Sonn Chan was appointed as General Director of PPWSA. Together with his team, he managed to refurbish the whole supply system, introduce cost-effective billing and creative payment collection methods, as well as to provide clean water to almost all of the city’s residents.
While remaining in public hands, PPWSA has put tremendous effort into 'effective staffing' and 'performance measurements and rewards aligned to organizational objectives'. Also, in the quest to raise tariffs to cover costs of operations, maintenance and future expansions, PPWSA managed to secure community support by turning to those having been excluded from services in the previous inequitable system. Moreover, by subsidizing connections, and transparently explaining the cost and procedure for getting one; service coverage has gone up, and petty corruption down.
The issue of utility management - where the PPWSA is an outstanding success story - along with the appropriate policy and regulatory environment remains as challenges at the global level. Also, the long term financing of urban infrastructure still requires much more attention - and priority! That is, money!
Still, with more money, the need for well-focused and balanced investment increases. An increasing proportion of available funding needs to target enhanced service coverage and quality by investing in water distribution and sanitation systems that serve also low-income groups. (Too large a proportion of investments go to high-visibility objects like treatment plants. These are needed but cannot be optimally utilized if the rest of the infrastructure is lacking or is out of reach for the people it should serve.)
The upcoming World Water Week in August 2011 addresses the overarching challenge of Responding to Global Changes: Water in an Urbanizing World. One of the workshops looks into the pertinent topic of 'Financing of Urban Infrastructure'. It will examine examples of instruments and incentives that are deemed to be successful cases of financial arrangements. While the announcement points to the urgent challenge of matching realities of affordability and population growth with the need for cost-efficient, equitable and sustainable services, it claims there are bold ways to scale up and maintain infrastructure and also address challenges of resource management. This promises to be an interesting event!
The other workshops announced for the World Water Week raise the perspective and address some of the future challenges for urban water services and infrastructure. Where are we heading in terms of the long-term water management and catchment-related changes and risks in urban areas? What are the consequences for ecosystems and adjacent rural areas? What kind of responses is needed to adapt cities to climate variability and change? And what new approaches, technologies and infrastructures are required to sustainably manage the resource fluxes in our increasingly urban world?
Some workshops keep present-day inequities in focus and explore issues like: How do we promote the efficient service delivery to the disfavored urban populations that currently stand without? What are the opportunities for forging closer links between the formal and informal service providers? And what regulatory frameworks are there to foster socially just service provision?
With basic water and sanitation services being recognized as human rights (by most states), urban water managers have additional impetus for actually focusing on those not previously privileged beneficiaries of subsidized services. With additional legal weight behind their claims, low-income urban populations hopefully stand a better chance ahead of duly benefitting from existing and future urban infrastructure systems. Can water sector regulators also find incentives and ways to monitor the equity as well as efficiency in the urban water service delivery - then we can hope for truly pro-poor water governance seeing the light of day!
by Marianne Kjellén,
Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm University and WGF (UNDP Water Governance Facility at SIWI)