Utilities under crisis: moving from a ‘just in time’ to a ‘just in case’ scenario will require partnership and solidarity

Most water and sanitation operators were not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. While some have been able to rapidly mobilize resources, draw on expertise and respond effectively, most have faced challenging keeping staff safe, maintaining service quality, and ensuring services for vulnerable communities. These were the key findings of two successive webinars organized by the UN-Habitat-led Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance.

Commenting on the impact of the COVID-19 emergency, representatives from utilities in Colombia, Indonesia, Italy, Palestine, Philippines, Spain, South Africa, among others, shared the solutions they had found effective with their peers, including: establishing crisis units, tailoring emergency strategies, adopting adaptation measures, halting cut-offs, and procuring PPE for staff. Throughout the webinars (Lessons from Beyond the Curve, Slowing the Spread in Slums, Crisis Management), the over 400 participants highlighted that partnerships and solidarity are essential for utilities to fast-track solutions and avoid costly errors. According to the Ednick Msweli from eThekwini, South Africa, a utility that serves 595,000 inhabitants, peer support between utilities is more important now than ever before and many utilities are in need of urgent support.

During the discussions, utilities and experts from the WASH sector underlined that although the pandemic is slowing in some regions, emergency measures bring about secondary challenges such as a shortage of cash flow and this must be addressed sooner rather than later. On the contrary, the ‘silver lining’ of this situation according to many participants is that huge numbers of previously unserved people now have access to some kind of basic water and/or sanitation service.

GWOPA, which aims to facilitate peer support and learning between utilities, created the #UtilitiesFightCOVID campaign and webinar series to ramp up peer learning as utilities face this novel crisis. Outcome documents from the webinars as well as their recordings are available here and a third webinar on Sanitation and COVID has been announced for June 16th in collaboration with GIZ.