Last week saw a storm of press activity as world leaders ratified the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In a recent blog Neil Jeffery highlighted that while improved access to a safe water supply is rightly cited as a success story of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), an estimated 663 million people still lack access, with an ever-increasing proportion of these people living in low-income areas on the periphery of urban centres. Amid all this talk of progress and ‘sustainability’, there is growing acceptance that local service providers must now take responsibility for finishing the job. In WSUP’s view, placing the mandated service provider front and centre is the only way to create lasting change at the scale required to achieve universal access by 2030.

Acknowledging this reality is straightforward, but at this critical juncture it is important to ask if water utilities are receiving the support they need. It is easy to criticise utilities for failing to provide services to low-income consumers, and it is true that urban water utilities in Africa and Asia have historically focused on serving the low-hanging fruit of the city’s business centre and wealthier residential districts, prioritising those areas with a high return on investment. Extending services to low-income areas can be a highly political process fraught with institutional barriers. In our experience however, standing on the outside and trying to beat down the door will not work. In every utility there are dedicated people working to make a difference, but lacking either the expertise or resources to make it happen – what is often required is targeted technical support and exposure to good practice. We need to consolidate a shift in the narrative towards positive examples that inspire replication.

These examples are not difficult to find. Earlier this year we released a publication exploring the different ways in which urban water utilities across Africa and Asia are structuring their organisations to extend services to low-income areas. Some of these utilities have already achieved staggering success. When Manila Water Company began operating its water service in 1997, only 58% of the city population had access to a safe water supply. Following the launch of the Water for Poor Communities programme, that figure now stands at 99%. Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority increased coverage to the inner city area of Phnom Penh from 40% in 1993 to 100% in 2014. In Antananarivo (Madagascar) over half a million people have benefitted from an improved water supply since the utility, JIRAMA, began placing a greater emphasis on improved service provision to low-income areas in 2008.

Across WSUP country programmes, the question of how utilities can most effectively extend services to low-income consumers is a very live debate. We witnessed this at first hand during the 2015 WSUP Masterclass, an event which brought together staff from urban water utilities in Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique and Zambia to exchange knowledge and approaches to shared challenges. The event was co-hosted by Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company, offering another example of a utility taking decisive action to bring about change. Driven by strong top-management commitment to improving water and sanitation in the city’s low-income districts, Lusaka Water created a dedicated Peri-Urban Department (PUD) in 2000, now led by Yvonne Siyeni. The PUD has full operational and commercial responsibility for all 33 Peri-Urban Areas in Lusaka, 10 of which are overseen by ‘Water Trusts’: high-capacity, community-based organisations with representation from national and local government, service providers, local businesses and communities. Since WSUP began its partnership with Lusaka Water five years ago, nearly 400,000 low-income consumers have benefited from an improved water supply under the utility’s innovative delegated management model.

The 2015 Masterclass underlined the value of honest and open discussion about what works in urban water services delivery – to listen to the frontline experience of people like Yvonne Siyeni is an education and an inspiration. As we embark on making the SDGs a reality, we need to maintain a keen awareness of the challenges faced by local institutions, and an understanding that some contexts are still more challenging than others. But we must keep coming back to these positive examples as our reference point. When we talk of achieving change at scale, we are no longer in the realm of speculation – utilities across the developing world are already demonstrating what is possible.