On Monday May 4th, Miya Water, a world leader in water management efficiency, in partnership with the Caribbean Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA), organised a webinar to discuss how the Caribbean countries, and particularly the water industry, are weathering the challenges of COVID-19. The webinar, directed towards water and wastewater personnel operating in the utility sector, was followed live by more than 140 people and had more than 1,760 views on YouTube in less than 24 hours, with more than 4 million impressions on Twitter.
Wayne Williams, Executive Director of the CWWA and moderator for the event, introduced the webinar from Trinidad and Tobago. He remarked that even though the current pandemic has shifted many paradigms and there are many downsides, thanks to our resilience, we are beginning to see some new upsides developing as we adapt. Before introducing the first speaker, Mr Williams told the audience they could leave their questions for the Q&A session of the webinar via Twitter or Sli.do using the hashtag #COVID19CaribbeanWater, or directly on the YouTube chat.
Stuart Hamilton, Chair of the IWA’s Water Lost Specialist Group (WLSG), was the first presenter, addressing the audience from the United Kingdom. He outlined how the world is working in the non-revenue water (NRW) arena, and also described how water companies in several countries are coping with the pandemic, namely the UK, Portugal, Australia, China, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Greece and Malaysia. Although water company staff are considered essential workers in most countries, in some of them, like the Philippines and Malaysia, they are not, so repairs in the field have to wait until the lock down is over. Water companies can expect decreased revenues, but that should not mean rehabilitation programmes are to stop, forcing an intermittent supply regime: “We have to go forward because we can make the company vulnerable to the next COVID, to the next pandemic”. “We prepare ourselves through NWR reduction and all the other elements within the water company”, he noted, saying this is a worldwide issue. He then proposed thinking outside the box to search for solutions.
The next participant was Noam Komy, Chief Growth Office of Miya Water, speaking on efficiency as a key component in resiliency. He started on a positive note, reflecting on how throughout history pandemics have generated a huge change towards better water and sanitation in cities like London or Paris. Mr Komy observed that Caribbean utilities are generally stressed financially and operationally and struggle to supply quality service that is essential to combat pandemics. He remarked: “This is a time we can show to our governments, to our stakeholders, including our clients, how important a water system is”. Water utilities are one of the most resilient sectors to disasters, specifically pandemics, and he emphasised the importance of reliance on local staff, training and knowledge transfer. He also expressed hope that the experience with the pandemic will help move forward digitalization, technology and remote operations. He encouraged the reduction of NRW as a basis for efficiency. Proposed principles to modernising a water system are outsourcing the commercial department; private sector financing, and modernising the meter fleet.
Afterwards, Christopher Husbands, General manager of Grenada’s National Water and Sewerage Authority (NAWASA) and President of the Caribbean Water and Sewerage Association (CAWASA) presented a Caribbean perspective on water and wastewater. He began outlining the current status in the CARICOM, where Heads of Government have agreed on a collective approach to IFIs in accessing assistance to meet financial fiscal challenges arising from the crisis, while Member governments have announced fiscal stimulus packages to help cushion the effects of COVID-19 on individuals, but their ability to assist is limited. In a region where tourism accounts for up to 90% of the GDP in some islands, all hotels are closed. Mr Husbands outlined different effects of the pandemic on water utilities. Even as the region faces the pandemic, it continues to deal with the usual challenges, the first one being the dry season, with reduced water availability due to long term drought, and the second one being the hurricane season, with above-normal hurricane activity predicted for the 2020 season. “From a water utility standpoint, this is something we have to try our best to plan for and reduce the impact of”. Looking ahead, he noted, this is not business as usual, with economic implications for the region with the pandemic. Finally, he emphasised the importance of training and technologies to improve operational efficiencies, and the need to redouble efforts on preparedness and response.
It was then the turn for Wayne Williams’s own talk on Caribbean utilities, COVID-19 impact and responses. He presented the CWWA’s mission and vision, aims and objectives. While CAWASA is an association of utilities, CWWA is an association of professionals and practitioners. Both associations work together in the Caribbean region to promote the water, wastewater and waste sectors. His underlying message is that their services are essential and exempt from quarantine, while the demand for improved health and safety practices and procedures has increased. He noted that, while COVID-19 is a disaster, in the Caribbean there are environmental emergencies which look almost the same. He then described the impact on private contractors and governments which will see lower revenues, that will be directed to priority areas, which do not necessarily include the water and waste sectors. Mr Williams restated something other speakers also mentioned: “improving operational efficiencies becomes paramount”.
Next, Aranzazu Mencia Saeta, VP Business Development for Almar Water Solutions talked about BOT, PPP projects worldwide and how they are being affected by COVID-19. Looking into the future, BOT and PPP financing models have been tabled as potential solutions to build new infrastructure or improve existing one, being as it is that water is and will always be a critical sector, which has to be in good shape to overcome this pandemic or anything else that may come in the future, explained Ms Mencía. She outlined the different types of contracting models. A first factor driving the increase in PPP projects is population growth, demanding quality water and waste water services, together with public players seeking financial alternatives. The new players coming in are private companies, who offer extensive know-how, innovation and efficiency, and risk management, and the financial sector. Ms Mencía talked about key factors for the success of a PPP. Concerning the consequences of the pandemic, the spread of COVID-19 is generating unprecedented delays, disruptions and uncertainty in construction projects. She concluded emphasising that “water access is now more crucial than ever”.
The final webinar participant was Roland Liemberger, international expert in NRW planning, with a presentation titled “After the crisis is before the crisis – Why and how to plan comprehensive NRW reduction projects”. He started his talk by saying that we have been lucky this time, because the virus that causes COVID-19 has not been detected in drinking water, and the risk of transmission through sewerage systems is low, though we might not be so lucky next time. Although an intermittent water supply poses health hazards and other disadvantages, it is quite common in the world. Mr Liemberger’s estimations show Latin America and the Caribbean are amongst the regions in the world with the highest levels of NRW; in fact, in the Caribbean, there is an average level of 147 litres/per capita per day of NRW. He then analysed the main reasons for high NRW, including a lack of incentives on all levels, and highlighted action needs to be taken now: “In a few years, everyone in the Caribbean could be at an acceptable NRW level, if we start, and there would be no risk of intermittent supply anymore”. To do that, it is necessary to quantify NRW and its components, commercial and physical losses. He ended his talk with some reasons to outsource NRW management, and steps to a successful NRW performance based contract (PBC).
After the final speaker, moderator Wayne Williams led a question & answer session. Webinar participants answered some questions from the audience. Mr Husbands answered a question on whether governments consider allowing utilities to delay remittance of the VAT tax to augment utility cash flow in lieu of revenue shortfalls, pointing out that VAT is part of governments’ revenue, and given that currently governments’ expenditures have significantly increased, if you take out their revenue source, they could not obtain the money needed to implement the broad social programmes contemplated: “In the absence of serious international support, I am quite sure governments are going to be hard pressed to do that”. Other questions dealt with the implementation of digital processes, different contract models (PPP, PBC, concession), effective NRW reduction, utility processes considered for remote functions, and funding sources for water projects in Caribbean countries. Concerning sources of funding, Mr Komy noted that in the very short term, there will be less money, but in a longer term bracket there is a window of opportunity.