Sharing knowledge can help solve the developing countries water crisis and make life better for billions of people

By Thomas Van Gilst and Marco Beroš

Sharing knowledge and experience is hard work. It takes a lot of time and research to understand the capabilities and needs of clients and then gather the right experts to offer guidance quickly and effectively.

The global water and sanitation crisis that is hurting the lives of billions of people around the world requires an urgent increase in action, and one key solution is knowledge sharing. People have always had basic skills to find water for survival. However, the scale of the challenges and the solutions we need to find require expertise not readily available everywhere. To provide clean water and dignified sanitation services to people in remote and poorer parts of the world in sustainable, effective ways, we need to fill a significant gap in knowledge and expertise.

Global population and urbanisation are growing quickly. We consume resources faster than they are being replenished. City water authorities in many poorer countries are working with small budgets and little training. In less developed countries, there is more investment and advice needed for good water and sanitation projects than is available.

Inside and outside Europe

The European Investment Bank is unique because it works inside and outside the European Union. Inside the EU, we have raised service levels to very high standards over the past decades, developing significant experience and expertise at the same time. Our experts are well equipped to help weaker promoters mobilise the necessary expertise to prepare and implement tailored projects that best serve their communities’ needs, all in line with our procurement, environmental and social standards.  

The European Investment Bank is one of the largest lenders to the water sector, with €33 billion invested in over 300 projects in the past 10 years around the world through loans, grants and technical advice. In Africa, the Bank has provided nearly €2 billion to water and wastewater treatment projects over the last decade. The projects signed in 2020 alone are expected to offer safe drinking water to 29.6 million people and improved sanitation for 15.5 million people.

Skills, knowledge, tools

For the vast majority of projects outside the European Union, a large part of our work involves defining and mobilising technical assistance or capacity building. Before we sign a finance contract with a public authority or a private company, we make sure they have the skills, knowledge, tools, equipment and other resources needed to complete a project and manage the assets far into the future.

Working in the water sector isn’t easy. There are continually problems to solve, such as treatment plant performance, supply disruptions, leak repairs, pollution events, billing and collection. Water is also expensive to move. It weighs 1 000 kilograms per cubic meter and pushing it over vast distances and elevations from source to tap requires expensive pumps that consume plenty of energy. It is easy to see how poor performance leads to high costs.

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Collecting drinking water in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

A new town, a new plan

Every town or region has its own water source—a spring, lake or river—and the infrastructure is unique to the area and not part of a national grid, like electricity or telecommunications. Water and sanitation services are generally not managed at a national level, but at local or occasionally regional levels. Sometimes the service is simply run by the city with few dedicated staff. This means that, especially in poorer countries, expertise is thin on the ground and staff have limited experience with large capital investment projects. Experienced engineers tend to seek opportunities elsewhere, for example within ministries or in the private sector. Technical assistance, therefore, makes a big difference in designing and implementing good projects, as well as building local capacity. This knowledge transfer can create many savings for a utility. Whether it be through formal training or on-the-job training with the deployed experts, utility officials and engineers get acquainted with project design approaches, best project implementation practices, are trained with new software, implement better procedures, and eventually are in a position to make large strides in terms of operational efficiency and financial sustainability.

A good example of knowledge sharing that improved the capability of public authorities to run a project is our €45 million loan for a better water supply and sanitation system in towns on the Tanzanian banks of Lake Victoria. This project involved large communities of informal settlements on the Mwanza hills, with a lot of rocky ground. The settlements had closely packed homes with no proper pipes and other infrastructure, so improving water and sanitation was a huge challenge. We provided a lot of technical assistance for this project.

Regional officials were encouraged to design a project to meet the needs of a population that will grow substantially over the next decade, rather than take a cheaper route that solves problems only for a few years. Several hundred thousand people will now have safer drinking water and a better sewage collection and treatment system. The risk of diseases and other health problems in the Lake Victoria area was reduced substantially.

More experience and less risk

Moldova is a good recent example of technical assistance that helps a country far into the future. We helped the country design its first flood management plan. The purpose was to increase preparedness and reduce damage if the country is hit by more flooding similar to the disaster that caused a lot of trouble in the region about a decade ago. We helped Moldova prepare a preliminary flood risk assessment, flood hazard maps, assess areas at high risk, define clear objectives to manage flood dangers and form an investment plan. We helped the country review 3 000 kilometres of flood defenses and 5 000 dams and reservoirs.

Knowledge sharing at its most basic level makes sure the right decisions are made as early as possible to avoid going down the wrong road. It makes sure we look forward in the right direction, consider all options to design and build the correct facilities to meet the population’s needs in a sustainable manner. It makes sure we protect and improve lives today and far into the future.

Thomas Van Gilst is head of the water security and resilience division at the European Investment Bank and Marco Beroš is a lead water engineer.