Photo by Abrinsky

Citizens’ participation is key for water efficiency

Satoko Kishimoto | 27 October 2011

Active citizens’ participation in water and sanitation initiatives is of crucial importance to ensure sustainable improvements in water services for the poorest. The role of civil society organisations, community groups and trade unions is essential to secure accountability and responsiveness of public utilities. In the last 10-15 years there is a positive trend in which an increasing number of public utilities and local communities have introduced new approaches to achieve improved water and sanitation for the poorest.

There are many inspiring examples of public water companies that have developed partnerships with communities and users and work together as equal partners to overcome many difficulties and achieve social objectives - connect marginalized people with water and sanitation services. Take for example participatory public budgeting in Brazil, community-controlled water supply in a number of Latin American and African countries, and democratisation of rural water management in Tamil Nadu (India).

Rural villages

The Tamil Nadu state water company (TWAD) committed itself to improve the situation in about 500 villages in rural areas that had been neglected for decades. This commitment resulted in new forms of partnerships between the public water operator and rural communities, in which the communities are engaged in the decision-making about water solutions. Supported with funding and expertise and empowered to take responsibility for running water systems, this approach proved to bring rapid and lasting improvements.

Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company has recently introduced an ambitious ‘social connection policy’ and works with residents in the informal settlements to lay water pipes to connect individual households as well as communal water points. While Nairobi Water is responsible for expanding the networks, community members contribute to the works with their labour and are trained to sustain the water systems.

These and lots of other experiences show that participation of labour unions, water users and other civil society actors can make a strong positive contribution to the success of not-for-profit partnerships in water and sanitation services.

Innovative elements

The importance of participation has been acknowledged also in the European Union water sector funding. In 2010 the EU earmarked €40 million of the ACP-EU Water Facility to support water partnership projects in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. These are not-for-profit partnerships intended to: “develop capacity in the ACP water & sanitation sector, leading to better water and sanitation governance and management, and to the sustainable development and maintenance of infrastructure” (European Commission, 2010: 5).

There are some innovative elements in the ACP-EU Water Facility. One of them is that the guideline of call for proposal explicitly encourages the involvement of local trade unions and civic organisations as “supporting partners”.  Emanuele Lobina, a researcher at the London based Public Service International Research Union (PSIRU) states that the involvement of civic actors beyond operators helps facilitate the orientation of partnerships towards sustainable and socially acceptable institutional development.

South Africa

A half year ago, in the Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA), the issue of citizen’s participation was seriously mentioned when the Reclaiming Public Water Network hosted a thematic session on “Participation - harnessing the potential of civil society and trade unions in making WOPs succeed” during the GWOPA congress in Cape Town, South Africa. MS Vaidyanathan (an engineer of CEC, a key actor in public authority and community partnerships in Tamil Nadu, India) stressed in Cape Town that communities and their traditional knowledge to conserve limited water resources in rural area is an important element in their partnerships.

Representatives from AEOPAS (the Spanish Association of Public Water and Sanitation Operators) and OSE (the state water company of Uruguay) mentioned how they develop a holistic perspective in project planning by working with different actors. This means that they have not only technical perspective on water efficiency, but include social, cultural and environmental aspects too. And Dutch public workers union Abvakabo highlighted during the same congress the importance of labour participation in WOPs. One obvious factor is to secure support among the workforce. As a WOP project tends to focus on increasing efficiency it is also likely to result in workforce cuts. From the mentor side, trade unions could question why money is used outside of the country, which would cause layoffs among workers at the recipient water operator. The success of a WOP project depends on workers’ understanding and participation, both on the mentor and the recipient side from design of projects.


In fact, Dutch Water company Dunea is developing a partnership with a water company in Tanzania. Mwanza’s water and sewerage authority welcomed Abvakabo as supporting partner in this project, and this resulted in the participation of the Tanzanian Union of Industrial Workers (TUICO). Having trade unions’ participations, the partnership proposal includes prominently workers trainings. Needless to say, workers are at the frontline of water services provision. Their commitment to improve water services is essential. Moreover this training aims to enable workers to take an active role in social dialogues with citizens and increase their capacity to engage in lobbying their government for support for quality public water services.

During the Water Operators’ Partnerships conference at the Amsterdam Water Week, Adriana Marquisio (Uruguay State Water Company OSE) and Luis Babiano (AEOPAS Spain) will be among the speakers in the workshop about citizens’ participation. They will introduce some of the most advanced practices in terms of internalising participation in the values and practices of public water operators. AEOPAS is a unique water professional association: mainly consist of water operators but also include civil society (unions, NGOs), research centers, consumer organizations and neighbourhood associations, public administration as equal partners. AEOPAS is developing a partnership project with a water operator in Machakos, Kenya, with two main features. Firstly, it aims to create a system for collecting data on access to water services, consumption, water quality, water sources, non revenue water; incidence of water on diseases and so on. Secondly the project focuses on improving transparency and accountability and aims establishing a mechanism of social participation in which will involve the municipal authorities, the Kenya Union of Commercial Food and Allied Workers, consumers and civil society representatives.

Access to water

AEOPAS brings practical experiences in this field. In the words of Jaime Morrell of Sevilla water utility ‘participation is applied both in the internal logic of the association as well as in its external suppositions. We are attempting to reshape the public model in Spain not only regarding ownership but so that it become a public model that is legitimized by society. In the end, this is the principal guarantee to ensure that this service will be carried out according to the principles of citizenship’.

The Uruguayan state water company OSE is a leading player on different fronts. Internationally OSE is implementing cooperation projects in Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay and elsewhere. Domestically OSE has taken on the challenge to achieve universal access to water and sanitation for the complete rural population, using the public community partnership methodology. OSE’s strength is its determination to be the implementation arm of the Constitution, which defines water as fundamental human right and public good. OSE carries its duty to provide access to water to all citizens and to ensure citizen participation in water management. The coherence between OSE's domestic water management and international projects is clear. OSE has created a department of cooperation and international solidarity, which includes all the political institutions, the union and social organizations. OSE’s international projects are based on these two values: the human right to water and participation.


It is important to learn from local experiences all around the world. That will help to create more successful stakeholder participation, like improving the mobilising of local knowledge and building public support for the partnership project. Engagement with citizens is also in the self-interest of WOP initiatives. It helps to meet the technical, social and environmental objectives of the WOPs. Though, it is important to distinguish WOPs from any kind of attempt to take over management of local water services which has very bad reputation and track record in developing countries. Change and improvements have to come from inside; partnerships with other public utilities can help only by learning (exchange of know-how) not to take over responsibilities.    

Since Water Operators’ Partnerships (WOPs) framework is relatively new, it is too early to evaluate the role of participation in WOPs projects. However, the above-mentioned examples highlight the potential contribution of partnerships with civic actors in improving water and sanitation services. There is ample evidence that participation and transparency helps ensure accountability in water provision as well as boosts effectiveness. We need to demonstrate this should apply to WOP projects. The effectiveness is particularly important in the sense of cost efficiency of international cooperation. We need to learn from these experiences - and the underlying values - so that the benefits of civic participation in WOPs is understood by WOPs implementers better and civic participation will become  a norm in WOPs.  

Photo credit main picture: Photo by Abrinsky