South To South

How Partnerships Are Transforming Asia's Urban Water Sector

Over 100,000 people in India  now have continuous access to water thanks to  Waterlinks.
Over 100,000 people in India now have continuous access to water thanks to Waterlinks.
Niels Van Dijk

For the first time in her life, Ms. Bhagat of Badlapur, India has access to water whenever she desires—a vast improvement over the three or four hours a day of access she once had. A partnership between counterpart water utility companies from Malaysia and India led to increased water access throughout her home city. “I feel free,” she said. “Now I can go out and do other chores because I don’t have to wait at the house all the time for the water to come on.”

A regional water operator network called WaterLinks helped establish this partnership. Formed in 2008 by USAID's Environmental CooperationAsia (ECO-Asia) project, the Asian Development Bank, and the International Water Association, WaterLinks has evolved into an expansive network of water operators spanning Asia that exchange expertise in order to improve or expand their services.

Orchestrating “Twinnings”

To date, WaterLinks has orchestrated more than 60 partnerships, or “twinnings,” between water operators across Asia that are interested in helping fellow operators advance. The concept is based on the idea of water operator partnerships, which the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation endorsed in 2006 as a means of building capacity in the global water sector. “The basis of WaterLinks is neighbors helping neighbors,” said Arie Istandar, team leader for USAID’s ECO-Asia Water and Sanitation Program.

To arrange the twinnings, which pair an expert mentor operator with a recipient partner in need of assistance, WaterLinks seeks out countries and companies with complementary needs and areas of expertise. It then formalizes the partnerships and helps arrange a series of trainings and workshops to exchange information and tackle specific problems.

The development and implementation of twinnings can be a challenge. In the early stages, WaterLinks facilitators must ensure that objectives are shared and expected outcomes are understood. During the implementation stage, leadership changes or slow progress on the ground can lead to missteps. According to Mr. Istandar, these problems are overcome by constant, clear, and intensive communication as well as facilitation and “finding a champion within the partner organization to ensure continuity.”

When successfully implemented, each twinning is beneficial to both the mentor and the organizations they help. Recipient companies reap the benefit of tailored advice from expert practitioners. “There is nothing like learning from one’s peers in overcoming weaknesses and securing performance efficiency gains,” said Arjun Thapan, Chairman of the WaterLinks Board of Trustees.

But mentors, too, gain from the partnership, with hands-on training and professional development for their employees. “Whether you’re the mentor partner or the recipient partner, you learn from the experience,” said Paul Violette, former chief of party for ECO-Asia.

Advancement Across Asia

Twinnings supported by WaterLinks have addressed issues such as water quality, water access, sanitation, and preparedness for climate change. Though many of the partnerships last only 12 to 18 months, they can catalyze lasting change.

The twinning that benefited Ms. Bhagat of Badlapur is a prime example. In addition to the intermittent water supply, aging water infrastructure meant frequent leaks, outages, and burst pipes. “People said that 24-7 access to water wasn’t possible,” said Mr. Violette. “We set out to prove that was wrong.”

WaterLinks matched Indian operator Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran (MJP) with Malaysia’s Ranhill Utilitiesto move toward a more continuous supply for 25 waterworks. Ranhill shared their own experiences to help MJP supply continuous water, detect leaks and pressure problems, and optimize water treatment. MJP replaced 55 kilometers of old and leaking pipeline and implemented district meter areas to better track water flow.

The city of Badlapur was among those that greatly benefited from the improvements, said Zainuddin Ghazali, general manager of Ranhill Utilities. “Now 80,000 residents have a water supply 24 hours a day,” he said. According to Dr. Sanjay Dahasahasra, former member secretary of MJP, customers are also wasting less water now that they have a constant water flow because they don’t feel the need to “bleed out” stale water left in the pipes each time they turn on the tap. “Hence, demand has gone down as have costs,” said Dr. Dahasahasra.

Since 2009, MJP has replicated these efforts in Amravati and other towns in Maharashtra to enable continuous water supply for over 100,000 people. The government is planning to further invest in expanding the initiative across the state.

Another water operator partnership facilitated by WaterLinks targeted water quality, a common challenge for many water operators. Thailand’s Provincial Waterworks Authority (PWA) sought assistance from WaterLinks to address problems with turbidity, residual chlorine, contaminants, and poor monitoring in its 228 waterworks across the country. Between 2009 and 2010, mentor partner Korea Water Resources Corporation (K-Water) of South Korea provided training and technical assistance on water treatment and monitoring through a combination of lectures, on-the-job training, field studies, and field instruction, held in both Korea and Thailand.

This was beneficial for both partners. K-Water obtained crucial on the-ground experience and capacity building for its employees. "As a mentor organization, we are proud of our activities and success story," said Kwan-Soo Seok of K-Water’s Water Supply Department in Daejon.

The twinning was also beneficial for PWA—and for thousands of Thais. “PWA’s capability has been increased and thus water quality has improved accordingly,” said Kittiya Paosila, chief of business development at PWA. The waterworks authority subsequently upgraded the filtration and monitoring operations at one of its largest waterworks, decreasing the turbidity of their water supply to a safelevel, reducing harmful contaminants, and safeguarding the water supply of more than 20,000 households, affecting over 100,000 people.

Replicating Success

In addition to the twinnings, WaterLinks has also conducted surveys and held training sessions to document and share best practices on issues of broad interest. Septage management was one such topic—a critical one in many urban areas in Asia where septic tanks are a primary mode of wastewater management. WaterLinks capitalized on the expertise that certain water operators, such as Malaysia’s Indah Water Konsortium, have amassed in sanitation, publishing a round-up of effective strategies and offering a training workshop for nearly 50 practitioners from six countries.

“The work that Indah Water Konsortium has done on sanitation management is pioneering,” said Mr. Violette, “The workshop and publications WaterLinks put together follow a simple rule of development: Go where there is a problem and replicate what is already working.”

This approach is also helping water operators plan for climate change impacts that may impact water services. “An assessment conducted by WaterLinks last year showed that slightly over half of the 14 utilities surveyed are fully aware of the impacts of climate change in their work, but less than half have mainstreamed climate change into their planning,” said Saengroaj Srisawaskraisorn, a climate change adaptation specialist for USAID.

To address this shortcoming, WaterLinks coordinated a workshop in the Philippines earlier this year to discuss strategies that water utilities could adopt to better prepare for and respond to the changes that will come with a changing climate, from extreme rain to flooding to prolonged drought. Unlike many of WaterLinks’ activities, the mentor partners for these efforts come from outside Asia. Water companies from the U.S. coastal cities of Palm Beach, Seattle, and San Francisco (part of the U.S. Water Utility Climate Alliance) participated to share their practical lessons on building climate change resilience and adaptation.

The Road Ahead

2013 is the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation, and it will be an important year for Waterlinks. The project concluded in November 2012, but the productive south-south partnerships will continue to improve urban water services. On November 23, 2011, the organization became incorporated as a nonprofit in the Philippines. USAID, the Asian Development Bank, and the International Water Association helped establish a board of managers for the organization and will sit on the newly created WaterLinks Stakeholder Advisory Group.

The organization is hoping to spread the benefits of cooperation throughout Asia. “We are looking to expand our base of partners, particularly targeting private sector entities to help our activities through their corporate responsibility programs or foundations,” said Mai Flor, executive director of WaterLinks.

Already, WaterLinks’ partnerships have brought reliable access to safe water to over 1 million people. As water cooperation gains influence, thousands more water sector employees will gain the benefits of mentoring relationships—and millions more men and women like Ms. Bhagat will obtain water security.

K. Unger Baillie

Last updated: July 17, 2013

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