COVID-19 pandemic poses real challenges in the provision of quality water and sanitation services that can be successfully dealt with only by cooperation between local governments and public utility companies.

This was one of the conclusions of the webinar organised by the Regional Capacity Development Network for Water and Sanitation Services (RCDN), on 12 May 2020, with over 80 participants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. Water utilities are strong only if backed by strong and committed local governments and vice versa. Participants underlined that under the current circumstances the liquidity and financial operation of water utilities as well as the support by municipalities as their founders is a key issue.

The webinar, focused on “Cooperation between local government units and public utility companies in providing water and sanitation services during the COVID-19 pandemic”, was moderated by Ms. Aida Jusufhodžić, RCDN Capacity Development Product Manager from Aquasan Network in BiH who introduced the topic underlining that the uninterrupted provision of water services is essential in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, reduced number of employees, lack of adequate protection equipment, decrease of revenues as a result of decreased economic activity and stress on the water supply and wastewater systems due to increased water demands poses a serious challenge.

The keynote speakers were: Mr. Darko Tomaš, Mayor of Prnjavor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mr. Miodrag Glušćević, Programme Director for Urban Development, Environment and Communal Affairs of the Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities from Serbia and Chair of the NALAS Task Force in Solid Waste and Water Management, Mr. Stojan Eftimov, Technical Manager in PUC Komunalec – Strumica, North Macedonia and Mr. Milan Bulatović, President of the Association of Waterworks from Montenegro.

Participants learnt from Mr. Eftimov that the PUC Komunalec Strumica has re-organised itself well to continue providing safe and uninterrupted water services to citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst others, knowledge and experience gained through the last-year training on risk management provided by the Public Utility Association ADKOM was successfully put in practice.

Mayor Tomaš shared experience on how the pandemic has affected investments in the Municipality of Prnjavor. He underlined that there will be no budgetary cuts with regards to the infrastructure investments in the water and sanitation services sector and emphasised once again their importance.

Exchange between the water utilities in Montenegro and support provided by their national Association was presented by Mr. Bulatović. He commended national authorities for their timely and effective response to the crisis situation. Cooperation and coordination between the Association and other institutions was intensive and fruitful, in particular with the Union of Municipalities of Montenegro.

Mr. Gluščević confirmed that the Mayors in Serbia are fully aware of the need to respond to the crisis situation by enabling conditions for uninterrupted service delivery to all citizens including vulnerable groups. He emphasized that the public takes the water and sanitation service for granted, and when they are not available, they become important news.

Participants were able to send their questions in advance or to pose them directly during the webinar. They were interested to find out whether the COVID-19 pandemic contributes to increasing water utilities’ operational costs; how it affects technical performance; existence of procedures for implementing emergency measures, etc.

Under the current circumstances the liquidity and financial operation of water utilities as well as the support by municipalities as their founders is a key issue and therefore will be one of topics for the next RCDN webinars.

Some of the conclusions of the Webinar were the following:

  • Water utilities provide extended services with less resources i.e. funds and people.
  • COVID-19 has imposed the crisis management, and particularly financial management, as a top subject for further RCDN capacity development measures.
  • Cooperation between local governments and water utilities is crucial at all times, but especially during crisis. Water utilities are strong only if backed by strong and committed local government units and vice versa.
  • COVID-19 challenge is also an opportunity for water services to become more visible and acknowledged in the public since they are “invisible” under normal circumstances, but becoming top news for the public in case of crisis as such.
  • COVID-19 is also the opportunity for water utilities to grow stronger and enhance their resilience to crisis through introducing new services and making important strategic decisions.
  • Water utilities representatives confirmed that citizens were provided with safe water and sanitation services throughout the pandemic.
  • As seen in the video presented at the beginning of the webinar, researchers from the Netherlands and Switzerland were able to trace COVID-19 in the urban wastewater. This is important information and wastewaters could be used for further research for monitoring COVID-19 and establishing early warning system.
  • Associations of local governments and water utilities have been strong support to their members during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • This crises situation calls for expressing great appreciation to people working in the water and sanitation services sector, both to decision-makers but also to those being exposed on daily basis when working on water supply and wastewater systems.

All participants highly appreciated the opportunity to participate in this virtual discussion and welcomed the initiative and excellent organisation of the event. During the event, the key note speakers and participants have already identified several topics to be tackled at future webinars. They have put the highest priority on the one dealing with the financial liquidity of water utilities and the respective support by the local government units as their founders.