Back in July I attended a workshop on ‘The Urbanization of Poverty, Water and Sanitation’ at the kind invitation of the World Resources Institute (WRI) and its Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. This was regarding WRI’s World Resources Report (WRR) ‘Towards a More Equal City’, and one of the interesting people I met at this workshop was Neil Jeffery, CEO of Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (or WSUP).

Sadly the only visual record I have of this fact is in a single, lousy picture I took, rather haphazardly, of the back of Neil’s head, whilst I was attempting to capture the rather impressive lobby area of the building within which WRI is based in Washington DC, USA:

Photo: Neil Jeffery, CEO of WSUP, in probably THE WORST EVER picture taken of him in history; my apologies!

For background, and for the uninitiated – myself included – I should explain that WSUP is a “not-for-profit company which helps transform cities to benefit the millions who lack access to water and sanitation“, and aims to improve water and sanitation services for the poor “by working side-by-side with local providers … strengthening the organisations that have been tasked to deliver city-wide services“, all whilst being “a trusted partner to utilities, municipalities and the private sector, supporting them to develop services, build infrastructure and attract funding that will help them reach low-income communities“.

This remit of course meant that Neil was an excellent fit for the July WRI workshop, but I recently also realised (via LinkedIn, and, yes, I do look at it occasionally) Neil has published a fascinating article on Huffington Post. This article resonates very strongly with the theme of the WRI workshop, and looks at a specific case of WSUP’s work in Madagascar. (There’s a link to the post here, and Neil three more articles up on HuffPost; his profile listing them is here, and one of them is entitled, ‘Making Universal Water Access Sexy‘!)

I’ll summarise some key points from Neil’s post in a minute, but you can also watch this 4-minute YouTube video about it, made by WSUP and The Coca Cola Africa Foundation (TCCAF):

Neil’s post, co-authored with Dr Susan Mboya (President of TCCAF) was posted about a fortnight ago, on 31 October, coinciding with World Cities Day. It is framed by WSUP and TCCAF’s wider partnership “with African cities to address their urban water challenges – and particularly the successes achieved in Antananarivo, Madagascar.”

Antananarivo is Madagascar’s capital, with a population of around 1.6 million people. Neil and Dr Mboya’s article explains that, like many African cities – and cities all around the world where city infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth – Antananarivo is rapidly urbanising, and its many new inhabitants – around 25,000 people a month – often arrive to find they have to live “in poorly-built housing with limited access to water and sanitation services“. Buildings in the Antananarivo business district do have water, but inequality is evident almost right next-door, where “access can be a daily struggle“, with harrowing sights where unconnected residents or those “without a reliable connection to the city’s water network often queue for hours to buy potentially unsafe water from an illegal water vendor or from a neighbour’s hand-dug well“.

The article details some further challenges for rapidly urbanising cities, before exploring how WSUP and TCCAF, in partnership with city stakeholders, have been doing both in Antananarivo, and since 2011 more broadly, across six African countries (Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zambia).

WSUP and TCCAF state in the article that they “plan to reach more than 1.5 million people with access to safe water, ultimately accounting for one quarter of The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) goal to reach at least 6 million people with improved water access, sanitation and hygiene by the end of 2020“.

In Antananarivo, their partnership has reportedly involved “forging a deep relationship with the national water utility, JIRAMA, to strengthen its ability to reliably and safely serve low-income customers” by focusing heavily on “increasing the volume of water and amount of pressure available across JIRAMA’s network“. This has apparently involved “repairing leaking pipes and preventing illegal connections; and extending access into … low-income communities“. The article reports this approach has led to the successful construction of “210 communal water kiosks and laundry blocks”, repairs to “critical water infrastructure“, and “improved water access for nearly 400,000 individuals – more than 25% of Antananarivo’s population“.

Please feel free to read the full article for all the details. To sum it up though, for me it seems like WSUP and TCCAF have managed to deliver some real achievements in Madagascar. I was already impressed by Neil and how he spoke about WSUP’s work back in July, but it was still pleasing to discover this article, and to find out more about how WSUP, in partnership with others and with city stakeholders, has touched poor people’s lives. I’d like to close this post though, by looking at an excerpt from WSUP’s ‘governance‘ page, describing how it was originally formed:

“WSUP was the brainchild of Jeremy Pelczer, former CEO Thames Water and the late Richard Sandbrook, co-founder of Friends of the Earth.

In 2003, Thames Water, as a result of their international operations, recognised that water utilities were not always best placed to meet the needs of the urban poor in the developing world nor did these contracts always best meet their commercial requirements.”

I would agree that water utilities working alone are indeed ‘not always best placed to meet the needs of the urban poor in the developing world‘. Our water and sanitation MOOCs have also suggested that some times water utilities’ work contracts also probably do not ‘best meet their commercial requirements‘. To find people making real efforts to develop effective and efficient ways to work in partnerships that can provide these services for the poor are therefore to be applauded, I think; and I look forward to reading more from Neil/WSUP about what they achieve next!

Duncan Thomas

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