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Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA) moves to Bonn

The 23rd UN entity in Bonn is coming on board at a time when the world is fighting the coronavirus and many countries are suffering the loss of thousands of lives and a lockdown of their economies. We spoke to Julie Perkins, Officer-in-Charge of the new Secretariat in Bonn, on the status of the move, on her plans for the organization and on the synergies found here in Bonn.

GWOPA is an alliance of water operators. Why are water operators so instrumental and what is the main benefit of the partnerships you are promoting and supporting?

Water and sanitation are arguably the most essential services for communities because everything depends on them – from health and well-being to education and livelihoods. None of the Sustainable Development Goals are attainable without water and sanitation. 

Most of the world population (estimated upwards of 90%) count on public water and sanitation operators for these basic services. However, many of these water utilities struggle with technical, financial and managerial challenges. Under-performing utilities regularly feature unsafe water, frequent cuts, and very limited coverage within their service areas. It is inevitably women, the poor, and vulnerable groups who bear the brunt of utilities´ shortcomings. 

At the same time, there are many public service providers around the world with an abundance of skills, resources and capacity to share. Water Operators´ Partnerships (WOPs) – the partnerships that we at GWOPA promote - draw on the motivations and natural capacities of strong utilities to help their peers.  WOPs make their impact by helping utilities acquire and apply knowledge, establish new practices and implement improved approaches and realize sustainable improvements. 

WOPs are different from other partnerships is that they are focused on capacity development so that improvements last. WOPs build up local utilities’ skills so they’ll be able to provide a better service after the partner is long gone. The fact that they are not for profit matters, too, as it facilitates trust and the free exchange of knowledge.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, GWOPA has launched a new campaign and is encouraging water providers to share their contributions to combatting the outbreak. What do you think will be the main lesson learnt from the pandemic in terms of water operations?

One upside of the COVID crisis has been the visibility and renewed appreciation for essential workers like the men and women working in utilities whose efforts have kept our taps flowing and our essential services, like hospitals, operational during this crisis. 

GWOPA launched the Campaign:  Utilities in the Fight against Covid, to highlight this critical role of utilities in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But we also aimed to facilitate the rapid sharing of knowledge and good practice amongst operators in different places who were all struggle to face this new challenge, so we have held a series of webinars and opened up our online platform for utilities to exchange.  As the virus spread from country to country, there was an opportunity for early-hit utilities to share their experience with countries that were expecting their peak in the following weeks and months. 

Utilities have faced enormous challenges to raise service levels in vulnerable communities - adapting work regimes to keep staff safe while addressing the increasingly urgent cash flow problem as physical collection is impeded and cut offs linked to non-payment are frozen. 

While there are certainly lots of lessons to take from this experience, one positive lesson is that many utilities have quickly been able to increase service levels for vulnerable communities as a result of political support and/or additional resources to provide for basic hygiene. As we return to a post-COVID new norm, we must learn that change is possible when it is a priority. 

The way that utilities have reached out to help one another demonstrates a natural tendency towards cooperation and solidarity in times of crisis and reaffirms the mandate of GWOPA to ensure that this can be facilitated.

The GWOPA offices were supposed to relocate to Bonn’s UN Campus this June. How has the pandemic affected your physical moving plans?

Yes, we were half packed when lockdown came into effect in Spain and stopped the move in its tracks! Now, with borders slowly opening and business partially returning, we will cautiously make our way over to Bonn, while heeding to national and UN guidelines. Fortunately, we this pandemic has not stopped us from beginning to collaborate with German partners like GIZ and the German Water Partnership in the #UtilitiesFightCovid activities and we look forward to strengthening those partnerships over the coming years. 

GWOPA is moving to Bonn with a small team and has started recruiting more staff members.  What are your plans and perspectives for your organization? 

We are a small team with only four international staff and a handful of consultants at present, however there are more international and local positions being opened to complete the team and help it grow further. We have some exciting projects in place and we expect the initiative to expand. 

GWOPA is fortunate to have a 5-year hosting agreement with BMZ. We’re just at the beginning of that so it is too early to say if it can be extended -  or even broadened to include a wider scope of UN-Habitat work -  but we are keen to look into those possibilities... For now, we look forward to exploring Bonn and the many excellent organizations that we can collaborate with here.

When selecting Bonn as GWOPA’s new home, what have been the main benefits and synergies targeted? And what would be the first project you would like to implement together with partners from UN Bonn and the resident sustainability clusters?

The Host of GWOPA was selected through an international and fully transparent call. The bid from Bonn was particularly strong firstly owing to the diverse international presence in the city, but also because of the potential to mobilize German expertise from international development actors, utilities, and other institutions in the work of GWOPA. Although our primary beneficiaries are utilities, the Alliance is composed of other actors from the WASH sector, from labor unions to civil society groups. 

Do you have a motto or would you like to share a special message with our readership?

We say that as an alliance, we Help Water Operators Help One Another.  There is an enormous amount of knowledge, but also goodwill, among water and sanitation operators in countries like Germany that stands to be mobilized for this fundamentally important objective of helping more people could safe and sustainable basic services. It’s a really lovely kind of mechanism where both parties can come out better off.

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