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INTERVIEW | Julie Perkins, UN-Habitat, GWOPA

In our APE Interview Series 2019, we meet high-level water experts to discuss the future of water and share perspectives on the upcoming challenges and solutions for truly sustainable water services. This interview is part of a six-part series, all of the interviews are available in Aqua Publica Europea's publication 'The Public Water Services of the Future'

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Julie PerkinsJulie PerkinsOfficer-in-Charge of the Secretariat at UN-Habitat's Global Water Operators' Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA) shares insight on the role of water operators and the evolution of decentralised cooperation for increased access to water and achievements Sustainable Development Goals. 

1. On the international level, what are the benefits of not-for-profit, decentralised cooperation and what is the role of water operators in the realisation of Sustainable Development Goal 6 ‘clean water and sanitation’?

One of the insights of the Agenda 2030 is that getting the planet on a livable trajectory requires a collective approach that engages everyone with something to offer. Cities and towns are where most sustainability challenges get ‘real’ and we are seeing municipalities and their service providers taking a leading role, often charging ahead of their national governments to innovate solutions for sustainability. A growing number of them are taking this leadership role a step further and getting active in international decentralised cooperation activities like Water Operators Partnerships (WOPs) in order to help their peers in other parts of the world.

WOPs connect a need with an opportunity: on the one hand, many local public water and sanitation operators around the world are struggling to provide quality services sustainably to their populations; and on the other, strong water and sanitation operators stand ready with both skill and the will to help on a not-for-profit basis.

In WOPs, competent utilities mentor their peer utilities over the course of months and years to learn, plan, structure, and progressively make improvements that will stick. Like water, those who manage water are essential local resources. WOPs put great emphasis on valuing and strengthening these local utility professionals and workers to do their jobs well over the long run.

Capacity to plan ahead and be resilient is becoming indispensable as local water utilities and their watersheds face growing stresses, from unplanned urbanisation to unprecedented climate change.

The main potential for WOPs lies in their effectiveness in supporting and sustaining change, and their scalability. Since 2006, when Kofi Annan asked UN-Habitat to lead a global WOP movement, there have been over 300 of these partnerships – most of them between peer utilities in the global south - helping operators improve.

Where there are longer durations and good partnership practice, effects range from positive to transformative. Many WOPs generate a ripple effect, whereby operators they help go on to support their neighbouring peers, effectively spreading capacity throughout the region. Thanks to their non-profit nature, they’re also good value for money. Despite the increased use of these partnerships, the potential for the practice - given the many thousands of public utilities on the planet - remains enormous.

The solidarity nature of these partnerships is essential to them working well. Not-for-profit, demand-led, peer-supported, capacity-focused and sustainability-oriented, these partnerships between peer experts in different countries can exhibit the best of development cooperation, by making the most of local operators’ knowledge, resources and motivations to drive their own improvement processes.

These key features, which are enshrined in GWOPA’s code-of-conduct, are not mere niceties, but instrumental aspects of well-implemented WOPs.

2. What are some key trends for WOPs in the next years? What needs to be done to increase quality and number WOPs? What is the responsibility of international institutions and what is the responsibility of water operators?

Taking WOPs to the next level means inspiring more of them, but also ensuring they are well done. Through the global network of WOP practitioners, we have learned a lot at GWOPA about what makes WOPs more or less likely to work. Distilled, these lessons can inform partnerships that are less liable to fall into common traps, more adept at fostering effective learning, and better poised
to seize opportunities. These lessons can guide utilities, donors and other supporting parties like governments to implement WOPs which are bound to generate results.

Ensuring WOPs objectives are framed by the SDGs and Human Rights is also crucial if they are to increase in meaningful impact. Many WOPs help improve efficiency, but going beyond, to actually support increased access by poor communities to safe water and sanitation services, is the main goal. Utilities can increasingly help one another operationalise these objectives. The SDGs also impel WOP partners to be responsive to local and present sustainability challenges. WOPs mustn’t just be a vehicle for exporting technologies and approaches but a support in co-developing solutions that are desired and which fit. For example, given current-day realities of water scarcity and high energetic costs of pumping water over long distances, WOPs might help utilities leapfrog right over centralised systems to more appropriate water and sanitation systems.

Another way to increase the effectiveness of these partnerships is connecting them with utility investment. WOPs can be a powerful accompaniment to investments, helping utilities prepare for, acquire and make sound use of funds for infrastructure. Connecting WOPs – where the timing is right – with investments, can anchor and extend the capacity improvements they generate and help ensure new infrastructure is well-operated and sustained. GWOPA is working to build in these linkages wherever they make sense.

3. What are the foreseen challenges and perspectives to implement efficient WOPs?

Scaling up WOPs requires overcoming structural barriers to their adoption, including lack of funding and restrictive policies. In this respect, governments and financiers can learn a lot from one another about strategies to facilitate this decentralised practice, such as enabling 1% laws to allow utilities to engage in international cooperation or creating synergies between local and national development programmes.

What’s clear is that WOPs are picking up. Just this year, development agencies in Germany, Finland and the European Union have committed to establishing new programmes for WOPs and various financial institutions are seeking out ways to use WOPs for technical assistance (often a challenge, since the co-developed nature of WOPs doesn’t fit well into the competitive public procurement procedures commonly applied by banks).

As to operators themselves, lack of awareness of the opportunity for WOPs, and skeptical management are recurrent frustrations to WOPs adoption. One of the best cures for these challenges is getting utility managers to hear directly from peers that have done WOPs; the enthusiasm is often quite contagious!

The EU-WOP programme that the European Commission Directorate-General for Development and International Cooperation (DG DEVCO) and GWOPA are currently setting up for 2020 hopes to bring many new European utilities on board as mentors.


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