Reinforcing operators’ capacities to sustain upgraded services
Dr. Khin Maung Lwin
According to the 2015 data from WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP), 93% of the urban population of Myanmar has access to improved water supply and 97% to improved sanitation. However, as stated in the most recent sector situation analysis , there is some concern that JMP data presents an overly positive picture, partly because they do not take account of serious deficiencies in service quality and reliability. While infrastructure projects in urban areas have multiplied in recent years, little attention is indeed given to the capacities of operators to better manage services. Recent projects rarely include technical assistance and training, especially in secondary cities, and the extent to which they will durably improve the quality of service is therefore questionable.
Different cities, similar issues
A seminar organized in June 2016 in Mandalay by the Mandalay City Development Committee with support of the Embassy of France in Myanmar gathered technical representatives of more than fifteen major cities of Myanmar. These operators, who are responsible for providing water services in their respective cities, discussed during two days their challenges and shared their experience with their peers in the presence of international experts.
Cities attending this event were diverse in every respect. While the smallest city has less than thirty thousand inhabitants, the biggest gathers several hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Climatic conditions and environmental features are also very different with cities sited on flat land at sea level and others located in mountainous areas. Moreover, even if the urbanization process is visible countrywide, economic growth is faster in some cities than it is in others.
However, despite these differences, problems faced by local authorities to provide high quality water services are similar in all Myanmar cities. First of all, no city is in a position to provide water to its whole population. When water networks exist, they are often insufficient in terms of coverage and greatly deteriorated: physical losses are important, aging pumps do not run at their optimal capacities, individual water meters do not accurately record the clients’ consumption, etc. Likewise, the lack of measuring instruments on the networks prevents to carry out sound monitoring of their conditions and to properly operate the facilities.
But infrastructural issues are not the only factor contributing to the poor quality of water services in Myanmar cities. Thus, while the City Development Committees of Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Daw are each endowed with a specific Water & Sanitation Department, Engineering Departments of the Township Department Committees are generally understaffed or deprived of staff dedicated to the water service. Staff of these departments often have limited skills when it comes to operating and managing a water service, and training processes are weak. Likewise, these departments lack financial means since revenues generated by the water service are well below expenditures. Largely unbalanced, water budgets thus do not allow covering the needs to maintain, operate and develop water supply systems.
Improving management skills to sustainably enhance the service
In the light of the above considerations, the need to upgrade water facilities and to reinforce capacities of urban water service providers seems obvious. But while there is an increasing effort to expand or improve infrastructures, very little is done to strengthen operators’ skills. And yet, while new or enhanced infrastructures will positively impact the quality of service in the short term, improvements cannot be sustainable if operators are not endowed with the required skills to maintain facilities and to properly manage the service. Therefore, we may well be justified in thinking that most current projects, mainly focused on infrastructures, will not prevent the recurrence of the aforementioned problems in the future.
As a consequence, public health and environmental hazards caused by defective water services will remain. Poor supplied water quality will continue to threaten consumers’ health, especially for the poorest who cannot afford buying purified water. In a context where water resource mobilization becomes increasingly difficult and costly, deteriorated facilities and an inefficient management of the service will also continue to lead to widespread and significant waste of precious water. In order to really improve the quality of the service delivered to urban citizens, infrastructures and operators’ skills should therefore be built together.
In Yangon and Mandalay, large scale projects under preparation or implementation generally include the provision of technical assistance and measures aiming to transfer know-how from international experts to local services providers. But the lack of capacity building measures is particularly striking in secondary cities where ongoing projects include very limited activities of such kind. And when trainings are provided through internationally-funded projects, they are usually provided to managers only and they almost exclusively focus on purely technical matters.
Apart from these few perfectible -yet needed- capacity building activities, technical staff of the City and Township Development Committees, which work under the umbrella of Departments of Development Affairs, no longer receive training at a national level. Following the enacting of the 2008 Constitution, these departments were indeed moved out of the Ministry of Border Affairs and their components spread into sub-national offices between the 15 States, Regions and Union of territories . Now under the full remit of the new state and region governments that were created in April 2011, urban services no longer have a line ministry at Union level to support them in an improvement process.
The right time for action
The increasing presence of private investors, donors and other sector actors in Myanmar represents an opportunity to rapidly upgrade and develop water infrastructures. However, as highlighted above, improvements brought by new facilities will be sustainable only if sector actors adopt an approach where the reinforcement of operators’ capacities to manage the service is at the heart of the projects. Contrary to the widespread belief that new facilities would solve all the problems by themselves, sustainable improvement of water services will first and foremost be achieved by better management.
A rapid assessment of the situation of water services in Myanmar cities shows that existing facilities could already be much better managed. Enhancing billing and fee collection modalities, better monitoring water volumes at stake, eliminating illegal connections and replacing defective meters are some measures which could be implemented without significant investments. Such improvements would allow to increase revenues, to limit water production costs and to contribute to a fairer access to the service for all.
And these measures are far from being utopian. Several cities across Myanmar have already started to implement this kind of action and to reap their benefits. In Mawlamyine city for instance, monthly revenues generated by the sale of water to one thousand customers were doubled after the replacement of their meters. In the same city, the Township Development Committee managed to negotiate with schools, hospitals, monasteries and other public institutions for the latter to pay their water bill like any other consumers, thus limiting water wastage and increasing revenues. While such measures are undertaken with varying success in different places, their results are rarely shared with other cities. Likewise, local expertise is growing but remains unevenly distributed, with staff of the biggest cities often being both the most skilled and yet the most supported operators.
Because now is the time to definitely reverse the trend, and move towards better performing and more sustainable water services, capacity building activities should become an integral part of any intervention in the sector. Alternate and innovative ways to train all urban services operators should also be sought to complement usual theoretical classroom trainings provided by international experts.
Fostering the use of local expertise and the sharing of experience among public water service providers from various cities, encouraging on-the-job training and developing technical literature in Myanmar language could thus prove to be more relevant to achieve this aim.