As we celebrate World Water Day, I find myself thinking about my work and one central question: how do you reach 8 million Filipinos with no access to clean water? I remember growing up in Pampanga, a province north of Manila, and visiting my aunt’s house every weekend where I had to pump water from a deep well and carry buckets so we could water plants, wash clothes, and clean the backyard pig pen. Fortunately, these days there’s always water from the faucet so we don’t work as hard to do chores.
But the story isn’t the same for everyone. While our local water utility largely improved its services over the years, I can’t say the same for the rest of the country, especially in rural areas. While there are already over 4,700 water utilities in the Philippines, about half are very small and unregulated.
Many of these were established under the legacy of national funding projects or programs. When these ended, they were unable to increase their capacity or formalize their activities due to lack of funding and information on available mentors. So the big challenge is how to professionalize these small water utilities so they can improve their services and deliver safe, affordable and reliable water supply to every household in the communities they serve.
In 2010, the government’s water service regulator, the National Water Resources Board (NWRB), launched an initiative called the Accreditation of Technical Services Providers (ATSP) Program, with World Bank support. The program connects small water utilities with accredited technical experts from the private sector through a reliable and sustainable system that has produced encouraging results as seen from this video:
The idea behind the program was to build an industry around the water sector where technical experts could gain training and accreditation, and where water utilities could easily connect with regulators and a pool of technical experts. This approach aimed to address both the demand and supply sides of the market for technical assistance.
NWRB trained and accredited 78 experts who offered standard assistance to 115 utilities across the country, helping with business plans, operations manuals, operating license processes, and regulatory compliance. These experts fall under three categories:
- A ‘fixit’ who helps with technical evaluation to reduce water losses, lay more pipes.
- A finance expert who assists in the financial assessment to improve collection and price fees properly.
- A strategist who supports the preparation and monitoring of performance improvement plans.
It’s not just the small water utilities that gain from the ATSP program but the accredited experts as well. This experience brought them professional rewards, with some of the experts able to substantially increase their number of clients. After completing the program as a finance expert, Ms. Stella Salas gained additional credibility and experience which opened opportunities to work with small water utilities. She now has a total of 32 clients. The same is true with one of our ‘fixits’, Engr. Marcelo Sumampong, who has assisted 18 water utilities since his accreditation in 2011. He has also provided advisory services to private entrepreneurs in Compostela Valley, Mindanao which facilitated the approval of about 63 water permits.
But the benefits of the program are best felt by the consumers who now enjoy 24/7 supply of good quality water at affordable rates. Nely Bautista, a senior citizen customer of a water utility in Anao, Tarlac, is relieved at finally having piped water service straight to her home and having more time to do chores beyond getting water from elsewhere for her household.
With these encouraging results, we look forward to new opportunities to scale up the program. NWRB can tap the Listahang Tubig, a comprehensive list of water utilities nationwide, to target high-impact municipalities and get consultants closer to the clients.
Professionalizing water utilities is just one of the strategies to reach out to the 8 million Filipinos who don’t have steady water access. The government is also actively pursuing the implementation of financing, regulatory and institutional reforms. Are there other effective ways to overcome this challenge? Share your experiences in the comment section below!