Utility partnerships: The key to a water-secure future

In Germany, it is taken for granted, but in many countries of the Global South, it remains an unattained goal: hygienically safe drinking water.

Utility platform participants inspect a sewage works as part of the 6th network meeting in May 2023 in Berlin. Photo: Natalia Morokhova, Utility Platform

Today still, more than two billion people across the globe do not have access to a safe supply of water. Moreover, many municipalities in the Global South are without an operational sanitation system. To help close these global supply gaps, municipal water supply and sanitation companies in Germany, Jordan, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Ukraine, have come together since 2019 to form utility partnerships which, in the meantime, can look back at a number of success stories.

Zambia, South Africa or Jordan: the basic technical and commercial challenges facing water utilities are essentially the same in many countries. Large volumes of the precious commodity water are lost through leakages in the pipe network. In turn, this translates into a loss in earnings for the water suppliers. Many water companies are not managing to cover their costs and consuming too much energy. Improving water filtration in sewage treatment plants also tops the water utility agenda in the Global South.

Utility partnerships share know-how

More and more German water utilities would like to share their professional know-how with partners in the Global South and help identify solutions to these issues, with a view to achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: ‘Ensure access to water and sanitation for all’. When Jochen Flasbarth, State Secretary in the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), welcomed nine utilities to the ministry on 24 May 2023, he stated that Germany’s excellent know-how and far-reaching experience in terms of political conditions, regulations and the development of economically viable technical water supply and sanitation solutions were a ‘really big asset’ for development cooperation.

In light of this, BMZ is also supporting the ‘Utility Platform for Strengthening Partnerships of Municipal Utilities Worldwide’ and, through this, municipal partnership-based cooperation between utilities in Germany and its partner countries. Flasbarth explained how the platform is moving forward successfully, also with an eye to generating long-term structures that will secure lasting support for partnerships between municipal utilities around the globe.

The utility partnerships have already produced concrete project results that prove BMZ’s political level acknowledgement is warranted: The GELSENWASSER AG and the Emschergenossenschaft / Lippeverband have trained staff in their partner utility Lukanga Water Supply & Sanitation to deal with pipes that contain asbestos, to champion energy efficiency and to adopt a management system for water network maintenance. Thanks to their newly acquired knowledge, the Zambian partners will be able to manage their operations more sustainably in future. With the support of HAMBURG WASSER and Netze BW, Tanzania’s Kahama Shinyanga Water Supply & Sanitation Authority has divided its water supply network into zones to facilitate the more precise detection of water losses, e.g. due to a burst pipe, and thus the swifter resolution of such issues.

What is driving German water utilities’ engagement in Zambia, Jordan or Ukraine?

The benefits of the partnership for the international operators are self-evident. But what is driving German companies’ engagement? For Torsten Dörnbach from Stadtentwässerung Dresden, three arguments are paramount here, namely German companies wish to: 1) embrace their corporate responsibility for greater sustainability, also beyond their own boundaries; 2) leverage international projects to sharpen their profile as an attractive employer for young people; and 3) explore the professional challenge of working with an international partner utility to find solutions that have little to do with the procedures that usually apply in Germany.

Cooperation across continents calls for engagement and trust

While there is no doubting the fundamentally large-scale willingness to engage in cooperation, the process of actually implementing a utility partnership repeatedly throws up challenges. Administrative tasks such as long procurement times or gathering the requisite export documents – for Ukraine for example – often consume a great deal of time. And time is in scarce supply since most employees engage in the partnership tasks in addition to their regular job. Communicating across continents is not always easy either and developing an understanding for the challenges the partner is facing is not something that can be done in a matter of days. In the meantime, the partnerships have created cooperation modalities that work well; for example, they hold regular video calls in which they discuss concrete steps for their projects. However, according to Linda Engel, the Service Agency’s Project Manager for the Utility Platform, the most important thing is that the partners have been able to get to know each other well over the years and thus develop a relationship based on trust.  Together with their high level of motivation, this is one of the central criteria for successful cooperation.

GIZ’s Heiko Heidemann, who has headed up the Utility Platform for the past four years, says there is yet another ingredient that makes for a successful utility partnership: ‘The aim is to closely link up the utility partnerships with German technical and financial cooperation.’ As Heidemann concludes,  ‘This would make the measures and also the utility partnerships even more effective.’

Solidarity with Ukraine

Crises demand a flexible approach which is why, under the auspices of the Utility Platform, more than ten ‘solidarity utility partnerships’ have been set up since the start of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Their main mission is to assist water utilities in Ukraine with the procurement of technical aid supplies, such as drinking water pumps or emergency power generators so as to repair water supply and wastewater infrastructure that has been damaged or destroyed by Russian attacks.

For Anatolii Sahach from the water utility Miskvodokanal in Sumy close to the Russian border, the assistance provided by the Oldenburgisch-Ostfriesischer Wasserverband (OOWV) based in Brake, Lower Saxony, is existential. ‘Our aim is to protect the lives of our staff and to maintain drinking water supply and wastewater disposal services. Without the support of OOWV, we would not be able to do that at present; the people in Sumy would not have any water to drink.’

A sound foundation has been laid

The list of topics the utility partnerships wish to address together is long. In addition to technical tasks, such as overhauling and restoring systems, it also includes commercial and strategic aspects, such as investment planning, the rollout of tariffs that cover costs, public awareness-raising, efficient accounting systems and responsible management. A pilot project, the utility partnerships are scheduled to run through to mid-2024, which means there is not much time left. For this reason, the partnerships are advocating for a project extension. But either way, they have already achieved the most important objective: They have set up partnerships that have given them new prospects of a technical, commercial and also personal nature.


Susanne Reiff, Engagement Global/SKEW