Seeking sustainable solutions for water and sanitation in emerging economies

The GSMA Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities Programme was pleased to join over 3000 water and sanitation sector professionals from 90 countries at the bi-annual IWA Water and Development Congress and Exhibition, which was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 1 – 5 December. As part of our participation in IWA’s Digital Water Programme steering committee, we participated in sessions on digital solutions for water utilities, and judged pitches from various innovators in the sector. In this blog, we share some key take-aways from the event, and highlight why we see a lot of promise in partnerships between water utilities, mobile operators, and decentralised service providers:

Ensuring sustainable water and sanitation services continues to be a challenge for water utilities all over the developing world. In 2019, the JMP published a report on the progress made against SDG 6. The report finds that although access to basic sanitation has gone up from 56 per cent in 2000 to 74 per cent in 2017, two billion people still lack access to basic sanitation services. Only 40 out of 152 countries are on track to achieve ‘nearly universal’ basic sanitation services by 2030. When it comes to achieving ‘nearly universal’ basic water services, only 46 out of 132 countries are on track to achieve this by 2030. In addition, analysis of basic water coverage by wealth segments reveals that in general, the least developed countries face profound and persistent inequalities in access (see Figure below). The highest inequality of any country was observed in Angola, where 94 per cent of the richest have basic water services, compared with just 15 per cent of the poorest wealth quintile.

Source: GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities (based on JMP 2019)

At the IWA event keynote session, Dr. Silver Mugisha, the Managing Director of the National Water and Sewerage Company of Uganda, stressed that the present challenges that water utilities and policymakers are confronted with will be amplified by future challenges. These include climate change (water scarcity and disaster risk), population growth (most of which is concentrated in the developing world), and urbanisation (urban water demand will increase by 80 per cent from now until 2050 according to Pay Drechsel, from the International Water Management Institute). To speed up progress on SDG 6, while also ensuring that the water and sanitation sector is resilient to future challenges, the water sector has to innovate, and build meaningful partnerships.

Integrating new innovations is a particular challenge in the water sector, which in many countries is subject to complex regulation and provided as a public good with only some emphasis on efficiency and revenue recovery. As IWA’s CEO, Kala Vairavamoorthy stressed that water and sanitation is a conservative sector that only slowly incorporates new innovations and best practices. For instance, while the first paper on the thermal hydrolysis process (THP) patented by Cambi AS, a pre-treatment of sludge combined with anaerobic digestion, was written in the 1970s, it took over 30 years for water utilities to buy-in, and for the technology to reach commercial viability. As Dr Valerie Naiddoo from the Water Research Commission in South Africa stressed, to make a transformative shift in the innovation space, the water sector must stop saying “No but –“and start saying “Yes and—”, while ensuring that it puts in place the right systemic and institutional framework to successfully scale transformative innovations. Of course, for utilities operating in developing countries in Africa and Asia, innovation becomes even more complex as losses from operational inefficiencies are greater and resources to invest in innovative technologies are more sparse.

The IWA’s newly launched Innovators Platform aims to support and accelerate the diffusion of innovation in the water sector by ‘bridging the chasm’ and creating a platform between leading science and technology researchers, water utilities, cities, and investors. Other organisations such as Isle Utilities, which aims to accelerate technology development and commercialisation and works closely with utilities all over the world, are also aiming to confront the challenge.

As exemplified by the work of our GSMA M4D Utilities Innovation Fund, we believe that providing early-stage risk capital and partnership support to start-ups and innovators is critical to scaling transformative innovations in the sector. Since the launch of our first innovation fund, we have supported over 20 innovators in the water and sanitation sector, some of which are successfully scaling and are transforming water and sanitation service provision across Africa and Asia:

City Taps: For low-income customers, it is easier to pay for what they consume in smaller amounts rather than a lump sum at the end of a billing cycle, especially for a service that may not necessarily have provided a steady, timely and safe supply of water. Using mobile payments also saves customer’s time and money by providing a secure channel to pay for water at a fair and set price without the need to travel to a local utility office. CityTaps has developed a smart prepaid water meter solution that uses Orange mobile money and M2M technologies. Building on the project funded by the GSMA M4D Utilities Innovation Fund in Niger, CityTaps has expanded to Burkina Faso, and aims scale to other markets throughout Africa, with the goal of reaching two million people by the end of 2022.

CityTaps CEO pitches the Citytaps solution for water utilities at a pitching session organized by Isle Utilities and Pure Terra Ventures

Loowatt: Container-based sanitation (CBS), which refers to sanitation systems where toilets collect human excreta in sealable, removable containers that are transported to treatment facilities, is one of the most promising approaches that could complement traditional sewer lines. Loowatt, a CBS provider, has designed and deployed waterless toilets (for both public and household use) that use a film liner to contain waste and odours. Following a successful pilot in Antanarivo (Madagascar), Loowatt announced a partnership with Laguna Water, a joint venture of Manila Water and the Laguna Provincial Government in the Philippines, to roll out the Laguna Portable Toilet Solution (PTS), a first-of-its-kind utility business model for providing non-sewered household toilets.

The congress also stressed that municipalities and water utilities have to do more to address the challenge of on-site sanitation (referring to a sanitation system in which excreta and wastewater are collected and stored or treated on the plot where they are generated). In his opening keynote address, Doulaye Kone from the Gates Foundation stressed the importance of partnerships that can accelerate innovation and pro-poor service provision in the sector. Through its work on city-wide inclusive sanitation (CWIS), the Gates Foundation has helped many cities tackle the challenge of non-sewered sanitation more effectively. For instance, its CWIS Service Assessment and Planning Tool has helped utilities in Lusaka (Zambia) and Nakuru (Kenya), as well as city authorities and regulators assess outcomes of different city-level investment options on dimensions of equity, viability, and public health. Such tools, along with more granular, actionable information on the state of sanitation service provision in particular cities, enable water utilities and municipalities in developing countries to place a greater focus on on-site sanitation (see how we supported onsite sanitation in Kampala in the video below). A small, but promising signal of this progress is highlighted by the fact that the ‘Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company’ has recently changed its name to ‘Lusaka Water Supply and Sanitation Company’.

We would like to end this blog by thanking the IWA for organising and hosting such an interactive and truly global conference, which allowed water and sanitation sector stakeholders from the developing world to take centre-stage and share their perspectives and solutions for the future of the water and sanitation sector.

The Ecosystem Accelerator programme is supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Australian Government, the GSMA and its members.

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