SEAWUN has a sea of work ahead

When the South East Asian Water Utilities network (SEAWUN) was formed five years ago, it sounded like a great idea. The developing countries of the Asian region face similar problems, and the root of it all is poor governance. From this thick root emerges a tree of endless problems of mismanaged utilities, polluted waterways, low tariffs, high non revenue water, illegal water connections, intermittent water supply, low consumer awareness, lack of skilled manpower, unserved urban poor and whatever else one can imagine.

SEAWUN states that it goal is to help the member utilities improve their performance in the delivery of water and sanitation services for all, including operation and management efficiency, achieving financial viability, and advocating for sector reforms for improved policy environment, contributing to realise the goal “Water for All”.

It was thought that the successful utilities could share their experiences and expertise with under-performing ones, and thereby invigorate the performance of the region as a whole. Twinning programmes where one utility seeks to mentor another utility sound like just the ideal prescription. Specialised workshops and training programmes, exchange visits and study tours were envisaged and these are indeed taking place.

However, five years later, with 68 members in its kitty, SEAWUN is still a bundle of good intentions which is struggling to overcome the proverbial lack of political will in Asian countries. The donor organisations such as Asian Development Bank and USAID are doing their bit to kickstart activities in the member countries but the malaise is too deep and widespread to yield so quickly to ministrations.

“We have been discussing non-revenue water (NRW) for several decades,” said one consultant in frustration. “We come to workshops and say the same things over and over again, but nothing changes.” Another consultant lamented that certain basic terms like Infrastructure Leakage Index (ILI) and Unavoidable Annual Real Losses (UARL) which are so widely used by practitioners in developed countries have still not taken root in Asian countries. “NRW expressed in percentage is a very misleading figure and cannot be used for comparisons. There is a lack of a meaningful standard approach to leakage management in Asian countries!” he agonised.  Few would disagree with this.

Resolving the issues of governance and tariffs is at the core of all problems afflicting Southeast Asian water utilities. Good governance, when combined with higher tariffs will lead to meritocracy, improved operations and maintenance, accountability and consumer awareness. Networks such as SEAWUN will enable much quicker transfer of ideas and knowledge when they are backed by good governance in member countries.

Until this happens, there can be any number of study tours and exchange programmes, yet, little will be the impact felt on the ground. When SEAWUN members go back to their offices after learning about best practices, they lack the environment to put it to good use.

Yet, despite being just a drop in the sea, one cannot belittle the efforts of SEAWUN to bring water and sanitation issues to the fore. There are committed individuals such as the Executive Director, Vu Kim Quyen and other members who are working overtime to make the organisation self-sustaining. There are the donor organisations and the consultants who are keeping up the pressure on the utilities. What’s needed is that concerted big push from the political powers themselves to make the seas part and channel a way out of the wilderness.

One thought on “SEAWUN has a sea of work ahead

  1. Hi, Sahana,

    This is a great description of the challenges of SEAWUN and the need for “good governance.”

    The “political powers themselves” are the Owners of all the Southeast Asian Water Utilities. So SEAWUN’s best chance to influence “good governance” is through advocacy aimed at changing the attitudes of owners. Owners/ governments that want to respond to their citizens’ needs have much to learn from a regional alliance of utilities about the fundamentals of the water business. Non-responsive owners/governments can only be constrained by openness and transparency, the constant companions of “good governance.” Responsible and efficient utilities often need to incorporate greater transparency and consumer participation in order to remain efficient when their owners are non-responsive. In most cases, good utilities are more aware of real consumer needs than governments because they interface with the consumers on a daily basis.

    At age five, SEAWUN can conduct programs such as extending water to the poor and benchmarking that lead to greater transparency in participating utilities. But SEAWUN is still too young to realize the potential advocacy power of a regional network of professional water utilities that have mastered the water business. Donors can support–but not steer–SEAWUN member initiatives, so SEAWUN needs many more years of time and support to help grow member confidence, professionalism and awareness of the potential for advocacy for “good governance.”

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