Guest blog by Loan Diep, Doctoral researcher at UCL Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience (USAR) and former Project Officer, WSUP Advisory
Millions of people’s water needs in the MENA region are currently unmet. In Jordan and Lebanon providers have seen huge jumps in water demand with the arrival of Syrian refugees fleeing conflicts.
Some 655,000 people sought refuge in Jordan and an estimated 1.5 million in Lebanon, but water providers have been able unable to keep up with such large increases in demand. They were already struggling to serve communities before the crisis. Now, they are even further behind.
One of the reasons for this is the poor relations that utilities have with those they serve.
NGOs have been providing support by filling the gap in water provision, mostly focused on responding to the immediate needs in refugee camps.
Impressive challenges have been overcome, such as in the gigantic Za’atari camp in Jordan, but projects also need to take a strategic approach to targeting those in urban areas.
About 80% of Syrian refugees actually live outside camps, in towns and cities next to host populations, where they can be harder to reach.
The word “community” rarely refers to a homogenous unit, all with similar needs; and in the rapidly changing MENA region this is truer than ever. Movements of people fleeing conflicts across the region have resulted in increasing social diversity among communities.
The challenge for water companies is to understand better these social complexities, so that they can better engage with those they serve, and ultimately meet demand from millions of people across the region.
The research identified 12 ways in which service provision can improve in the region, and this blog discusses one of them: community engagement.
In our report, entitled Water, crises and conflict in MENA: how can service providers improve their resilience?, we argue that a first step forward is for utilities and their customers to communicate more effectively with each other.
The issue is double-sided.
On the one hand water providers have seen their financial and operating capacity decrease because of inadequate revenue collection or due to their inability to reach communities with service provision.
Insufficient data and lack of understanding of communities (their location, consumption, affordability) is a common cause.
On the other hand people are receiving a poor quality of service, with irregular supplies and poor coverage resulting in people having to rely on alternative sources of water provision. Dry taps and inappropriate tariffs increase people’s frustration with utilities, resulting in the non-payment of bills or even vandalism.
On each side of the connection resentment grows.
In WSUP’s experience a key characteristic of well-performing service providers is effective community engagement. Engaging with communities provides crucial benefits:
- Helping identify and understand communities’ needs recognising that different segments of the population have different needs. This also involves targeting the most vulnerable, including the poor, within both refugee and hosting populations. When done well engaging with communities enables a utility to gather data that can inform decision-making, helping it to improve the services it provides.
- Increasing accountability. Establishing relationships between utilities and customers is crucial to ensure transparency, build trust and improve performance.
- Providing opportunities for community representation and participation. When participating in decision-making processes, representatives can express the community’s multiple voices, while the utility can directly get feedback into where services are needed.
Our research did find evidence of humanitarian and development NGOs working in Jordan and Lebanon to enable utilities’ engagement with communities.
Through their joint project in Jordan, Oxfam and Future Pioneers have worked in Al Naqab to improve water provision by building a bridge between people and the water utility.
Home to 60,000 Jordanians and Syrians, Al Naqab is a small but dense city where taps only run once a week, pushing households to conserve water as much as possible or to rely on small vendors, often more expensive. The two NGOs have organised series of workshops with the communities and on several occasions solely with women.
Ruby Assad, Community Developer with local NGO Future Pioneers, said that the workshops have had multiple purposes.
Firstly, to discuss water scarcity and implications for water management. Secondly, to bring the community together and identify unmet needs, thereby providing a platform for discussion. Thirdly, to strengthen relationships between the utility and the community.
Dana Nasereddin, Senior Officer, is in charge of addressing water needs of Jordan hosting communities with Oxfam. She described the way mobilising community members has enabled raising people’s representation:
“Women play a key role in water management at household level. Elected women ambassadors of Al Naqab have become advocates to the utility. With that communication channel, the project aims to raise people’s voice in the water governance systems”.
Our research found that building better relationships between service providers and consumers can help people gain access to water and utilities to increase their revenue recovery.
Strengthening local networks not only helps decisions about service provision to be made in a more inclusive way, it is also an opportunity for more efficient and sustainable results on the ground.
Top image: Conflict-induced population influxes to urban areas have added a layer of complexity to already fragile water provision systems in the Middle East. Credit: Phil Coomes.