Published on The Water Blog

Utilities of the Future: How to build universal and resilient water supply and sanitation systems

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Over the last two decades, countries around the world have achieved important improvements in their water and sanitation sector governance and utility performance - which has resulted in significant increases in the number of people provided with sustainable services.

In Brazil, strong national policies and sector plans resulted in an increase in sanitation services coverage from 73% to 87% and the consolidation of world class utilities. In Burkina Faso, the corporatization of the national utility (ONEA) and its contract plan with the government allowed it to provide improved water access for 2.5 million additional people. In Manila, the Philippines, improvements in the efficiency of the services provided by two private concessionaires increased access to water for more than two million additional people. The case of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) of Uganda is widely recognized as a successful utility turnaround story based on improving performance, increasing accountability and focusing on capacity building supported at the highest political levels. These examples and cases across regions demonstrate that through sector reforms, countries can ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all as stated by Sustainable Development Goal 6.

The COVID-19 pandemic risks sliding back these gains given the revenue shortfalls resulting from reductions in government transfers and subsidies, suspension of water billing (for all or part of the population), effects of the pandemic on utilities staff and logistics and the deferment of critical investments in areas such as the expansion of services, asset renewal and rehabilitation. 

And yet, despite these challenges, utilities are still the best proven mechanism available to provide safe water and sanitation services to everybody. This is because many utilities are already well-established entities with legal mandates, expertise, capacity to undertake construction works and the potential to attract commercial financing. Therefore, strengthening the governance and performance of utilities is a critical element of post-COVID-19 rebuilding.

Utilities can realize their full potential as professionalized organizations that meet the demands of their customers. Many utilities across high-income countries, as well as in LMICs like Brazil (SABESP, a state-owned company), Cambodia (Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, a municipal-owned company) and the Philippines (Manila Water and Maynilad, private companies), have become world-class service providers, in part because they operate under strong governance arrangements or are able to leverage commercial financing.

The Water Global Practice’s Utilities of the Future initiative supports the establishment of efficient, reliable, transparent, responsive and inclusive utilities. This requires putting in place stronger incentives for performance through the Policy, Institutional and Regulatory (PIR) governance systems. Those incentives help utilities transition towards a sustainable business model that enables them to build more resilient water supply and sanitation services for all. Bank teams working with clientes as diverse as Ghana, Ethiopia, Peru, Brazil, Philipinnes, Pakistan, Turkey, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Timor Leste are currently using these instruments to improve sustainability and access to water and sanitation services.

World Bank
World Bank

Recovery from COVID-19 calls for innovative approaches to deliver solutions across the water cycle. The Utilities of the Future use emerging technologies such as smart water metering, new digital technologies, advances in sensors, software and artificial intelligence to improve the management of water resources and assist utilities with improving resilience and providing effective wastewater treatment services. They also embrace the shift from a linear to a circular economy paradigm that recognizes the energy and nutrient content of wastewater streams, thus allowing wastewater treatment plants to become sources of additional water, energy generators and providers of nutrients for agriculture.

COVID-19 has underscored the critical role that water supply and sanitation plays in safeguarding public health, protecting the poor and vulnerable, ensuring sustainable business growth and job creation. As the main service providers of WSS globally,  utilities are at the forefront of our efforts to support universal access to safe, reliable and inclusive water and sanitation services and promote a greener and more resilient recovery.


  1. The Utility Turnaround Framework
  2. Aligning Institutions and Incentives for Sustainable Water Supply and Sanitation Services
  3. “Building the Resilience of WSS Utilities to Climate Change and Other Threats A Road Map”
  4. “Regulation of Water Supply and Sanitation in Bank Client Countries. A Fresh Look"
  5. Wastewater? From Waste to Resource


Gustavo Saltiel

Global Lead for Water Supply and Sanitation, World Bank

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