Published on The Water Blog

The case for stronger policy, institutions, and regulation to achieve water and sanitation for all

This page in:
Water tap in Kaski Nepal. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank Water tap in Kaski Nepal. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

The lack of access to safely managed water and sanitation for 2 billion and 3.6 billion, respectively, is an enduring problem that increases public health and environmental risks and impacts. Despite the dire situation, inadequate infrastructure is not the primary concern for decision-makers when thinking about addressing water management challenges.  Rather, a 2021 survey of ministers, agency heads, and other senior officials in the water sector points to institutional fragmentation as being the largest impediment to achieving good water management. This echoes the World Bank’s policy, institutions, and regulation (PIR) approach to tackling the enormous challenges facing the water sector, including low access to safe water and sanitation, inadequate maintenance of existing infrastructure, and the poor quality of services.


PIR: A framework for understanding and addressing deep-rooted challenges in water and sanitation service delivery

Circle graphic

PIR can be overlooked in favor of investment needs, infrastructure, and technical solutions. However, we are seeing an increasing urgency around the need for stronger and more robust implementation of PIR principles in the water sector. First, as greater urban demand meets climate change effects, many cities increasingly face the imminence of “day zero” events or risk crossing a “tipping point” whereby water and sanitation service provision starts to degrade. These problems require careful planning, clear policies, and stronger front-line institutions, which are all components of PIR. Second, water utilities and other service providers, who traditionally have had quite a narrow mandate, are increasingly obliged to tackle problems outside their remit, such as public health crises, urbanization, and climate change. At the same time, economic regulation of water and sanitation services is similarly broadening from a traditional focus on market competition to the regulation of external shocks. This shift in responsibilities needs to be matched by strengthened financial and human resources and a clarification of mandates and responsibilities. Lastly, there are emerging opportunities related to technology, private investment, and innovation that can be harnessed to benefit water and sanitation services – provided there is a conducive policy and legal environment. Together with the fact that billions still lack access to water supply and sanitation, these evolving challenges demand adaptive governance, including innovative policies, evolving institutions, and better regulations.

The World Bank’s Water Global Practice has helped build better water governance for many years and condensed several years of lessons learned in its ‘Policy, Institutions and Regulations’ (PIR) Program.  The program is designed to connect all the pieces of the puzzle in order to achieve SDG 6: ensure access to water and sanitation for all. A new report, “Water Supply and Sanitation Policies, Institutions, and Regulation: Adapting to a Changing World” reviews the experience of various countries on PIR and finds that:

  • Understanding the PIR aspects of water supply and sanitation service provision is a pre-condition for achieving sustainable service outcomes.
  • Progress in achieving meaningful PIR reforms starts with a rigorous assessment of the root causes of water supply and sanitation service bottlenecks.
  • In addition to PIR, there are three cross-cutting areas where there is both the biggest binding constraint to progress towards SDG 6, and the strongest demand for reforms and technical support: sector funding and financing, intergovernmental relations, and the resilience of services.
Water and Sanitation Supply X Governance

Recent trends in sector reform across the world give us confidence that the sector is beginning to move in the right direction. In Brazil, a new water law has yielded greater investment and service improvements.  In Nepal, a new Constitution in 2015 introduced a new federal system of government, with changes underway to strengthen municipal provision of water and sanitation services. As another example,  the Nigeria Sustainable Urban and Rural Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (SURWASH) Program is currently using the World Bank’s Program for Results (PforR) instrument to establish a results-based approach that creates incentives for reforms based on PIR principles.

In these and many other areas, the World Bank’s Water Global Practice is witnessing a strong demand for its PIR work and is continuously refining its approach and lessons learned to address context-specific challenges and offer customized solutions.

Now more than ever, we need to develop and apply sound policies, institutions, and regulation – while integrating financing, intergovernmental relations, and resilience – to achieve water and sanitation services at scale.  The World Bank is committed to promoting PIR in projects, technical assistance, and policy support to achieve concrete service outcomes. We call on our partners across governments, international finance institutions, development organizations, and civil organizations to engage on PIR in the pursuit of universal water and sanitation by 2030.




Saroj Kumar Jha

Global Director, Water Global Practice

Gustavo Saltiel

Global Lead for Water Supply and Sanitation, World Bank

Dambudzo Muzenda

Sr. Water Supply and Sanitation Specialist, World Bank

Norhan Sadik

Program Analyst - Water Global Practice

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000