Young Experts in WaterWorX WOPs: YEP interview series – Colombia

In the sector of water and sanitation, innovative and rejuvenated contributions to capacity building at an international level is a must. The Young Expert Programmes (YEP Programmes), currently present in 68 developing countries, aims at offering young Dutch and local professionals the opportunity to do exactly that by receiving intensive training and coaching, and by working in an international environment.

The Programmes consist of YEP Water, YEP Agrofood, YEP Energy (the “Nexus”) and YEP tailor-made. It is in the framework of the latter that in 2018, the WaterWorX and the YEP Programmes crossed their ways. Ever since, the ten Dutch drinking water companies and their partner utilities in Africa, Asia and Latin America joined the YEP Programme with 43 local Young Experts for a period of two years. So far, there have been two batches, one in November 2018 and one in June 2020.

The YEP Programme supports in the selection of the Young Experts, determine the content of the trainings and organize them in consultation with the WaterWorX Programme. These trainings focus on soft skills development: personal development, leadership, project management, and intercultural communications, among others.

Daniela Gómez Martínez worked as a young expert in Colombia from 2018 to 2020. Daniela, who currently works at the Environmental Management Department at Acuavalle S.A. E.S.P., shares what her experience with the WaterWorX and YEP Programmes meant to her:

Q: In Colombia, the WaterWorX Programme works with a WOP between the mentor utility VEI and the mentee Acuavalle S.A. E.S.P. The project aims to guarantee the availability and sustainable management of water. What was your YEP role to contribute to that?

I contributed with the logistics, communication, translation, coordination and visits of the Dutch experts. I also participated in workshops, trainings, presentations and data collection.

Q: While you worked for the WaterWorX WOP project, what improvements and challenges did you and your team see?

To begin, I would like to focus on the importance that was given to teamwork in the different areas of the company, taking into account that, to achieve the objectives set, it is essential to work in a coordinated manner and have good communication. I believe this still remains a challenge, although definitely with strategies such as some workshops carried out in the context of the WaterWorX Programme, it was possible to contribute positively.

Probably, one of the biggest challenges encountered was the need to improve planning in the company and taking into account that this directly affects its performance, it is something that is currently being worked on. It is important to mention that, within the improvements, there were also specific technical objectives that were raised in the visits with Dutch experts, in order to make certain processes in drinking water treatment plants more efficient. I think many of these objectives were achieved, and recommendations based on the results are currently being followed.

Q: You spent two years in that project as a YEP. Where do you think the strengths and weaknesses of WOPs lie?

An important strength lies in the meticulous guidance that WOPs can exercise in companies such as Acuavalle S.A. E.S.P., to support in ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water. This was achieved by coordinating the work between the different areas, training department heads and other colleagues of the company, who currently apply many of the learnings from the WOP to improve the service.

Planning and operation processes of the company were analyzed, and discussed through evaluations and technical trainings for the commercial and operational personnel, and seeking to generate an impact in the reduction of losses. Additionally, work was done on water security, evaluating a hydrographic basin of great importance for Acuavalle S.A. E.S.P. and for the department of Valle del Cauca, which is vital in the climate change scenario in which we live.

The aforementioned shows the comprehensive approach of the WOP between VEI and Acuavalle S.A. E.S.P. It indeed had an impact on the scope of the objectives set with this WOP. The work done succeeded in strengthening Acuavalle.

On the other hand, I believe that, despite the fact that WOPs represent a great opportunity, fear of change from the local utility may be a challenge, resulting in slowing down or reducing the required progress in many cases. Sometimes, I perceived certain resistance to change and a preference to just carry out with the daily activities, despite the fact that this does not guarantee efficiency. This may seem like a small thing, but I think it is important to work to reverse this.

Q: What was the best of being part of the YEP and WaterWorX Programmes? How did this experience contribute to your personal and professional growth?

The best thing is that both Programmes give you the tools to improve professionally, and allow you to learn and share experiences through an immense “network” that brings you closer to knowledge. And a knowledge that goes beyond the technical and utilities’ aspects, enriching in a fascinating intercultural space in which you also find friends in your colleagues.

This experience contributed to my professional growth by improving my “soft skills”, working on my weaknesses and strengths, leading me to be more efficient in work and personal academic projects. I achieved this thanks to coaching and I consider that it also impacted me immensely since I went through very difficult situations that my coach Linda helped me to cope with. I am very grateful.

Q: You were part of a team of 8 Young Experts back in 2019 that organized a YEP symposium in Bogotá as a space for young experts to exchange and share ideas, knowledge and good practices around water and agricultural management in Latin America. How was the experience and what did you achieve?

The experience was educational and fun. It was very interesting to learn about the projects of all the Young Experts. We are still in contact and I think it was an excellent experience because we immediately looked for how to help each other and contribute to each other’s projects.

Q: Now that you work for the operator in Acuavalle, are you still in contact with your former YEP colleagues and with the Dutch and local members of the WaterWorX WOP project?

I keep in touch with many of the YEP colleagues, as well as my mentor and some of the Dutch members of the project. I believe that as far as possible, we will continue to support each other in one way or another.

Q: What would you say to a ‘newcomer’ young expert?

I would tell her or him to take every opportunity that YEP and the WOP project gives you, as there is a lot you can learn and multiple ways to grow professionally. I believe the positive impact is a consequence of the attitude that one takes in front of each opportunity, challenge and difficulty. It is a long road from which many fruits can be collected.