Strong partnerships are central to achieving our goals - OzWater breakfast transcript

15 min read
Rosie at the OzWater WaterAid breakfast

This is the edited version of a speech delivered by WaterAid Australia Chief Executive Rosie Wheen at the Water for Women WaterAid Breakfast held on 9 May 2018 as part of OzWater 2018.

Thank you and welcome to our Board members present here today, Francois Gouws and Mal Shephard. Apologies from our Chair, Rob Skinner.

Also here from the WaterAid team is Federico Marcon, Kevin Hawkins and Leigh Mawby. We also have Fatima Shehata from The Centre for Sustainable Water in Cambodia. We are working together to address the human resource gap in Cambodia.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I extend that respect to all Indigenous people here.

At the joint WSAA and WaterAid International Women’s Day celebration a couple of years ago we were reminded of the deep connection Aboriginal people, and in particular women, have with water by Leanne Ruska, Director of Aboriginal dance group Nunukul Yuggera. Leanne, a descendant of the Yuggera people of Ipswich, reminded us how much more we can learn from our Indigenous communities around the care of water ways and the spiritual connection to water, as she explained the role of the Rainbow Serpent as the female serpent and ruler of the Brisbane River.

Congratulations to AWA for a fantastic first day of Ozwater. What an amazing first day.

What a privilege it is to be here with all of you this morning. It is such an amazing opportunity to have so many of our partners, champions and supporters together.

I hope that you leave here this morning with a renewed sense of commitment and urgency. I hope that you leave here this morning clear that through our joint efforts together we are making a difference. I also hope that you leave here this morning knowing that we are evolving together, focusing on how we can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. We have 4,619 days until the end of the year 2030. It’s not long.

Yesterday we heard from Jennifer Scott from the ANZ about what organisations need to do to transform. You need to re-imagine your company from the ‘outside-in’. It starts with returning to the roots of your brand.

I have spent time over the last year really returning to the roots of WaterAid. The key feedback I heard is that what makes us unique is our focus on water, sanitation and hygiene, or WASH, and our partnership with the water industry.

I have also been reflecting on WaterAid’s beginnings and our unique position that comes from being the cause of the water industry. We started when no other water focused non-government organisation existed.

Through our collective efforts we have made great progress and together we have changed the lives of millions of people globally. We couldn’t have achieved this without your support.

We now need to take the momentum from the changes we have achieved and focus our efforts to bring about that world we want to see. There are still 844 million people without access to water and 2.3 billion people without a decent toilet.

To achieve universal access to WASH in 12 short years we need to hasten our progress. We know that the way we work needs to continue to evolve; and evolve we have, since we started.

When WaterAid first started we worked very much on a project basis. The first project that WaterAid Australia funded was in PNG in 2004 up in the Highlands, and it was funded by the AWA National Golf Days. It focused on putting infrastructure into schools and it was very successful. It made a huge difference to the local people. I know I could never imagine sending my children to school knowing there was no toilet or water at the school.

Over nearly 15 years we have evolved our approach at WaterAid. We still are focused on transforming people’s lives through WASH; what has changed is our focus on systems.

Now, I know I am talking to the converted here when I talk of systems. This is your bread and butter.

I know that for water to flow in my house in Melbourne and for the sewerage to be taken away and treated without me even thinking about it as I flush the toilet, we have an amazing system in place.

If we turn and look to other countries in our region that have achieved universal access to water and sanitation in a generation – countries like Thailand, Singapore and South Korea – they, too, have effective systems at work.

Their success came from leadership and commitment behind public health and focusing on water and sanitation. Public health was championed by leaders as essential to increased prosperity and the modernity that was being sought. Investment in sanitation was seen as a priority – a driver of change. And there was a focus on basic services for all and a requirement that government departments coordinated and worked together towards a common good.

Investment was also made in public education and behaviour change, and policies were reviewed and updated. This investment was made when these countries were among the least developed – and yet, look at where they are today. Their example is a real testament to what can happen with the right political will, systems and financing.

This work on systems strengthening is now core to WaterAid’s work. It is central to achieving SDG 6.

Over the last year our team and our Board have been reflecting on this and the changes we see around us in the water industry and the countries where we work. What these changes mean for WaterAid has been evolving how we partner with you.

What I am hearing from you is that you want to do more and you want to work differently with us.

One example of how we are working differently is our evolved partnership with Arup.

Building on our long standing partnership, Arup and WaterAid are pleased to announce that we are expanding on that relationship with an MOU that demonstrates our commitment to building shared value. This formalizes our intention to seek opportunities together that leverage our complementary strengths in order to maximize the impact of our work.

Arup and WaterAid intend to develop WASH programs that build resilience and water security across South East Asia and the Pacific. Measuring the impact of our projects so that we can learn and improve will be a key component of our work. We will continue working together on mentoring and training to strengthen WASH skills across the region.

We need your continued financial support to do our life-saving work. We have been evolving different ways for us to enhance our collaboration and partnership with the water industry and I have identified three ways we can work differently to achieve our shared goals.

Firstly, we want to partner to encourage and support leadership and political will for SDG 6.

Secondly, we can work with countries to understand their aspirations and context and then work alongside them, sharing our knowledge and experiences to fast track their progress for SDG 6.

And third, we can work with partnering to ensure that no one is left behind.

So what does that look like?

Firstly, the water industry in Australia can continue to ramp up its work with government, utilities and other partners around the region to encourage, enable and inspire leadership and political will for SDG 6.

We know that achieving universal access will require much more than the money, technical and infrastructure innovations that are needed. It will require consistent political will and leadership, cultural and behaviour change, the right systems, regulation, and accountability.

It requires an effective enabling environment where the private sector and civil society can play their part alongside government in effective and sustainable delivery of public services. And a commitment that the most marginalised have a right to access and to afford reliable services, where consumers are able to hold local service providers to account.

We need to encourage this sort of leadership and momentum in and around the region. Several years ago I met the then Health Minister for PNG and along with our other partners shared with him statistics on the impact the lack of water and sanitation were having on the people of PNG and indeed the economy. This triggered a process that has led to the first ever PNG National Rural WASH policy. We need to find this leadership and encourage and support these champions.

We also need to champion the SDGs here in Australia. In the last few months AWA, WSAA and WaterAid have partnered on joint engagement with the Australian Government, DFAT and the Labor Party to encourage them to have a SDG 6 strategy. We were able to secure a meeting with Senator Penny Wong and the Deputy Secretary of DFAT. I am sure our unique partnership and representation impressed them with the leadership and commitment of the water industry to the SDGs.

Many of you are in positions where you are able to influence leaders and I ask you to continue to increase your work with leaders in government, utilities and other partners to encourage, enable and inspire this leadership and political will for SDG 6.

Flowing from this and to continue on my second point, the Australian water industry is well placed to work alongside these leaders and those delivering services. Through collaboration and partnerships, we need to step up these efforts, working with countries to understand their aspirations and context and then work alongside them to fast track their progress by sharing our technology and experiences. We can also share our leadership, expertise and advice not just in technical aspects but also essential areas such as gender equality and diversity.

I know this is already happening, we just need to keep it up so that progress is fast tracked. We also need to share experiences in responding to the challenges faced by all nations such as limited resources and increasing populations.

The third area that I want to focus on is to work on the front line, in urban slums. Through our work in urban slums around the world we have a deep understanding of the challenges and the blockages, we have relationships with government, we work closely with communities in all their diversity, and we work closely with local civil society. We want to work with you to build the capacity of utilities and their staff, to find ways to ensure services are delivered to the poorest and most marginalised.

As the High-Level Panel on Water observed, “Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost.” We know how central cities are to driving economic development, particularly in developing countries.

Urban populations are forecast to rise to 5 billion by 2030. We are seeing huge increases in the number of people living in slum conditions. Slums should be in the frontline of our agenda.

I have just returned from India visiting WaterAid and meeting our partners there. Whilst being the third largest economy in the world today, India is the worst country in the world for the number of urban-dwellers without safe, private toilets and for open defecation.

In India, over 40 million people practice open defecation. I know that many of you have heard this – it’s my favorite statistic – and what a way to make this a memorable breakfast…

What that statistic means is that in cities across India there is a vast amount of untreated human waste. How much, you ask? Enough to fill the MCG every year. I don’t mean just a scattering across the hallowed turf, I mean brimming to the roof. Every year.

While I let that sink in, I want to reinforce the human impact: a child dies every 2 minutes from diarrhoeal diseases – diseases that can be prevented with the basic human rights of access to safe water and sanitation and the practice of good hygiene.

While I was in India one community member said to me, “The world used to marvel at our filth, soon they will marvel at our cleanliness.” And he is right to be optimistic with the work that the government is driving to achieve an open defecation free India.

Of course, there remain challenges for the government and communities to work on with our support.

For example, in Bhopal, where every third person lives in a slum, addressing WASH issues in urban areas is a top priority for the local WaterAid team and partners. However, one slum I visited was declared open defacation free in 2007 and they have SUSTAINED it to the present day! Very impressive work.

I’m told it all started with WASH; the community got themselves organised and from there, started working on other issues. They now even have a school. Sadly, the threat of relocation hangs over them. There is currently really interesting debate around relocation and our role in influencing the major public housing push and how WASH issues are addressed.

So what might working differently look like? Let me share a case study of how this is already happening from Ethiopia.

By way of background, Ethiopia has steadily increased the proportion of urban residents with access to improved water in recent years and despite many achievements, there are still widespread challenges in Ethiopia’s towns. The public water utilities and town administrations struggle to keep pace with the rapid urban expansion.

There are over 980 towns across the country, and there are government units mandated to support the individual town water utilities, which are often overstretched. They have weak internal systems and processes, with inefficiencies in their operations.

An example of such inefficiency is the sheer size of non-revenue water in the sector. In 2015 the sector average for utility non-revenue water stood at 39%.

To help deal with these challenges, WaterAid Ethiopia has been implementing a Yorkshire Water (UK)-funded capacity development project in 20 towns across the country since 2014. They have taken a holistic, sustained, systems building approach to capacity development.

The project focuses on 12 core concepts that look at all the key components of governance, management and technical areas.

They have had huge achievements.

Project towns that have performed well have become ‘model towns’, which other towns in the regions can learn from. For example, Debre Tabor, one of the best performing of the 20 towns, has already hosted learning visits from over 160 towns.

The lesson we learned is that relatively minor investments in capacity development add considerable value to the much larger investments being made by others in infrastructure.

Infrastructural investments in the 20 towns are of the magnitude of GBP £45m, whilst the total WAE capacity development project budget is just GBP £1m, representing just 2% of the total investments in the towns.

We want to explore ways that we can develop similar outcomes. There has been a huge shift in the outcomes for people living in those towns, fantastic outcomes for the Ethiopian utilities, and of course Yorkshire Water also reaps huge benefits.

This model of partnership and collaboration is the way of the future. It is going to require time and experimentation and it will encounter success as well as failure. Certainly the partnership with Yorkshire Water didn’t happen overnight; it took time and effort before it evolved into the success it is now. Now it looks like a revolution in the way we work!

I want to leave you now by painting a picture of what the world will look like in 2030.

I have been imagining what it is going to be like to wake up in 4,619 days and see the changes we want to see in the world from our collective efforts today, tomorrow and every following day.

On that day, what will the world look like?

What will the world look like to one of the girls I met in Timor-Leste recently? A now 5-year-old girl will be 17 years of age. Let’s call her Olivia.

Firstly, she won’t be one of the 800 children who currently die every day from diarrhoea, which of course is preventable. One of the keys to that prevention is access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.

Instead, she will wake up in the morning and be able to have a drink of clean water from a tap close to home or even in her kitchen. She will be able to go to the toilet in the privacy of her own home.

She will have completed her education. Having toilets at school will have played a role in that as she will have stayed at school even when she had her period because her school had toilets where she could manage her period. In Olivia’s world in 12 years’ time there wouldn’t even be any stigma or shame associated with having her period. It would just be a normal part of a girl’s life.

As a result of not having to spend time collecting water or being sick, Olivia will have more time for education and activities that bring out her full potential. She will be surrounded by messages of possibility; she will have women around her showing her that there are no limits to what she can be she can be: an engineer, a teacher, a plumber, a nurse, the Minister for Public Works.

Having finished school, Olivia will have benefited from the trend we know happens – the longer a girl stays in school, the later she has children, the better educated her children are, the better off her family is and the better off her community is. At only 17, she will not be considering having children.

When she does decide to have children, she will give birth in a health care clinic with a skilled attendant. That skilled attendant will be able to provide the level of care all women should receive, and Olivia will not run the risk of infection or dying needlessly in childbirth because all the key components of a safe delivery will be there, including clean water and a toilet.

She will have men around her who respect her and share household work as well as the public sphere. She will no longer face the threat of violence if she speaks out at home or in her community, and she will no longer face the threat of violence if she has to walk at night alone.

She will have economic opportunities that break the cycle of poverty for her, her family and community.

Decades later, as Olivia’s body ages and she goes through menopause and the possibility of incontinence – which can mean the need to use the toilet more regularly – Olivia will be able to manage this with privacy and dignity.

This is the world we are creating together. Our partnership is evolving and we look forward to working with you to foster leadership and political will, working alongside utilities across the region sharing knowledge, and partnering to ensure that no one is left behind.

I hope that you leave here this morning with a renewed sense of commitment and urgency. I hope that you leave with the confidence that through our joint efforts, together we are making a difference. I also hope that you leave knowing and trusting that we are evolving together, focusing on how we can achieve the SDGs.