RCDN webinar on cooperation between local government units and public utility companies in provision of water and sanitation services during the COVID-19 pandemic
The participants at the RCDN webinar held on 12 May 2020 agreed that the cooperation between local government units and water utilities is crucial at all times, but especially during the current COVID-19 crisis. Water utilities are strong only if backed by strong and committed local government units and vice versa. They underlined that under the current circumstances the liquidity and financial operation of water utilities as well as the support by municipalities as their founders is a key issue.
Cooperation between local government units and public utility companies on providing water services during the COVID-19 pandemic was on the agenda of the first webinar organised by the Regional Capacity Development Network in Water and Sanitation Sector (RCDN) on 12 May 2020. The webinar aimed at exchanging experience on challenges for safe and reliable water services provision during the pandemic and good practices of cooperation between stakeholders. The organizers were happy to host more than 80 participants from local government units and water utilities and their national associations from four Western Balkans countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
The webinar was moderated by Ms. Aida Jusufhodžić, RCDN Capacity Development Product Manager from Aquasan Network in BiH who introduced the topic underlining that the uninterrupted provision of water services is essential in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, reduced number of employees, lack of adequate protection equipment, decrease of revenues as a result of decreased economic activities and stress on water supply and wastewater systems due to increased water demands poses a serious challenge.
The keynote speakers were: Mr. Darko Tomaš, Mayor of Prnjavor from BiH, Mr. Stojan Eftimov, Technical Manager in PUC Komunalec – Strumica from North Macedonia, Miodrag Glušćević, Programme Director for Urban Development, Environment and Communal Affairs in Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities from Serbia and Milan Bulatović, President of Association of Waterworks from Montenegro.
Participants learnt from Mr. Eftimov that the PUC Komunalec Strumica has re-organised itself well to continue providing safe and uninterrupted water services to citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst others, knowledge and experience gained through the last-year training on risk management provided by Association ADKOM was successfully put in practice.
Mayor Mr. Tomaš shared experience on how the pandemic has affected investments in the Municipality of Prnjavor. He underlined that there will be no budgetary cuts with regards to the infrastructure investments in the water and sanitation services sector and emphasized once again their importance.
Exchange between the water utilities in Montenegro and support provided by their national association was presented by Mr. Bulatović. He commended national authorities for their timely and effective response to the crisis situation. Cooperation and coordination between the association and other institutions was intensive and fruitful and in particular with the national association of municipalities.
Mr. Gluščević confirmed that the mayors in Serbia are fully aware of the need to respond to the crisis situation by enabling conditions for uninterrupted service delivery to all citizens including vulnerable groups. He emphasized that the public takes the water and sanitation service as granted and, when they are not available, they become important news.
Participants were able to send their questions in advance or to pose them directly during the webinar using chat option. They were mainly interested to find out whether the COVID-19 pandemic contributes to increasing water utilities’ operational costs and whether it affects their technical performance. They were also interested to learn whether water utilities have procedures for implementing emergency measures that are not planned in their annual plans. In this regard, they were interested to know who holds the responsibility for covering these extra costs. The comment was also made that governments’ restrictive measures aimed at curbing the COVID-19 pandemic seriously hurt national economics and thus affect financial and operational performance of water utilities. At the same time, water utilities have obligations towards banks, employees and regular maintenance costs. In that regard, the question was how water utilities and local government units can make savings and how they can approach banks.
The participants of the webinar have adopted the following conclusions:
- Under the current circumstances the liquidity and financial operation of water utilities as well as the support by municipalities as their founders is a key issue and therefore will be one of topics for the next RCDN webinars.
- Water utilities provide extended services with less resources i.e. funds and people.
- COVID-19 has imposed the crisis management, and particularly financial management, as a top subject for further RCDN capacity development measures.
- Cooperation between local government units and water utilities is crucial at all times, but especially during the current COVID-19 crisis. Water utilities are strong only if backed by strong and committed local government units and vice versa.
- The COVID-19 challenge is also an opportunity for water services to become more visible and acknowledged in the public since they are “invisible” under normal circumstances, but becoming top news for the public in case of crisis as such.
- The COVID-19 is also the opportunity for water utilities to grow stronger and enhance their resilience to crisis through introducing new services and making important strategic decisions.
- Water utilities representatives confirmed that citizens were provided with safe water and sanitation services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
- As seen in video presented at the beginning of the webinar, researchers from Netherlands and Switzerland were able to trace COVID-19 in the urban wastewater. This is important information and wastewaters could be used for further research for monitoring COVID-19 and establishing early warning system, which again puts water and sanitation services in focus.
- Associations of local government units and water utilities have been strong support to their members during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- This crises situation calls for expressing great appreciation to people working in the water and sanitation services sector, both to decision-makers but also to those being exposed on daily basis when working on water supply and wastewater systems.
All participants highly appreciated the opportunity to participate in this virtual discussion and welcomed the initiative and excellent organisation of the event. During the event, the key note speakers and participants have already identified several topics to be tackled at future webinars. They have put the highest priority on the one dealing with the financial liquidity of water utilities and the respective support by the local government units as their founders.