“One of the interesting things about dealing with water and sanitation issues is that in many ways it’s a crosscutting issue,” said Sam Huston, Chief of Party at Tetra Tech’s USAID-supported Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene Financing (WASH-FIN) Project. Practitioners often must deal with multiple challenges that are usually much broader than their specific focus, he noted during an interview for this week’s Water Stories podcast.
Over the past two decades, Huston has engaged with local communities on water utility reform programming in low-intensity post-conflict and potentially new conflict environments. For much of 10 years, Huston worked in and out of South Sudan and for 4 of those years worked on a water peacebuilding program, The Water for Recovery and Peace Program.
The challenges one faces when trying to jump-start a water utility in a post-conflict environment can be considerable. A country may have no power grid. Or the supply chains for diesel fuel needed to run backup or primary generators do not exist. “You’re soon involved in not just jump-starting a utility,” said Huston, “but all kinds of logistical challenges around securing what would be readily available on the market in a fully functioning economy.”
To move a water utility toward autonomy, practical interventions may be needed to get it fully operational. This might involve changes in a water utility’s record keeping systems. Is the accounting system computerized? Is the customer database up to date? Are utility managers thinking about how they can improve collection from customers? How transparent are accounting and billing systems? Non-flashy interventions related to core systems can collectively move the utility to a position where it is able to cover more and more of their operational costs, said Huston, “so that they can operate in an autonomous way.”
To stabilize a utility, it is critical to figure out how “to ring fence these utilities after the capital investments have been made so that they’re able to operate on a sustainable basis and they’re not directly dependent on the political cycle for funding to maintain operations,” Huston said. Water utilities are not going to perform consistently if they rely on external financing to cover day-to-day operations. If you need to knock on the door of the Ministry of Finance every other day to fill up your generators and to run your water pumps, you’re not going to be providing water on a very reliable basis, he said.
The pathway out of fragility for a utility is ultimately a transition plan from being dependent on the public purse for operations to moving to a situation where you depend only on customer fees and user tariffs to fund day-to-day operations, Huston said. Water utilities need to come up with a viable business plan and work within their systems to recover costs so they can become operational. “It sounds easy,” he said, “but it’s a really long hard slog.”