Supporting water utilities in the Pacific and South-East Asia to respond to COVID-19

As Australia is working on recovering and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are cognisant that many countries still face public health challenges around accessing safe and clean water which are essential requirements for preventing viral spread and infection. As many countries are now transitioning to economic recovery, support for water utilities is needed to ensure business continuity to maintain cost recovery and revenue from water supply and wastewater services.

The Australian water industry is beginning to investigate the likelihood of transmission of coronavirus through wastewater testing and perceives a greater duty to share these and other lessons with countries that could benefit from support and water resource management experience.

As part of the Australian Water Partnership’s (AWP) overall response to support the Australian Government in providing assistance to developing countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, AWP is targeting the water utility sector and working with its partners that are on the front line for maintaining key water services during the crisis.

These responses include building on AWP’s support of two existing twinning partnerships:

  1. the Water Utility Improvement Program in Vietnam, Cambodia (DFAT direct support) and Indonesia, being delivered by the Australian Water Association (AWA); and
  2. the Pacific Water and Wastewater Association (PWWA) representing 30 utilities across 24 Pacific Island member countries, being delivered by HunterH2O.

AWP is currently focusing on supporting water utility sector needs in the Pacific Islands and countries in south-east Asia. As a result, the PWWA and AWA have recently started piloting the Australian Telewater Network for international development to share Australia’s experience and lessons learned with water utilities across these regions, and more broadly if the pilots prove successful—ultimately providing a framework and roadmap for a centralised Telewater network during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic phase.

Water Utility Improvement Program in Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia

The AWA—together with the Vietnam Water Supply and Sewerage Association (VWSA), Cambodian Water Supply Association (CWA), and Indonesia’s Persatuan Perusahaan Air Minum Indonesia (PERPAMSI)—is delivering a program that connects their countries’ water utilities to share experiences and resources in responding to COVID-19.

Activities include 1) Facilitation of a COVID-19 Australian water utility project support group, 2) a COVID-19 session within the broader digital delivery of Ozwater’20, 3) Surveys of water operators in Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia to assess challenges, information needs, and response approaches to COVID-19, 4) Short guidance notes on what water utilities in developing countries might need to think about in preparing for and responding to COVID-19, and 5) COVID-19 practical guidance webinars for in-country water utility professionals.

The surveys were completed in late May and the first guidance notes for water utilities and peak water associations have been published in , Vietnamese, Cambodian and Indonesian languages. Common key challenges identified in the surveys across countries include increased cost of production for utilities and water consumption in homes; reduced ability to conduct manual water meter reading or deal with emergencies; interruptions to the supply chain and shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE); and timely bill payments by customers resulting in a reduction in revenue.

“An important observation we made following the surveys is that Vietnam and Cambodia are fast moving out of the COVID-19 response phase and are well into an economic recovery phase, whilst Indonesia still faces many public health challenges are in need of preparation and response support,” says Paul Smith, AWA’s international manager.

Indonesia’s PDAM Surya Sembada visit Unity Water as part of the Indonesia-Australia Water Utility Improvement Program back in November 2019 to exchange knowledge on water quality, leak detection and incident management (source: AWA)

The key issues identified will serve as the focus of several webinars to be delivered by AWA and the peak water association for hundreds, and potentially thousands, of water utility staff across the region. The survey of Australian water utilities has identified guidance materials, tools and other instructional resources that will provide additional help, such as science on the fate and inactivation of COVID-19, a COVID-19 response matrix, and OHS guidelines for working from home. The full survey results can be found on the AWA Telewater page.

Key topics/questions from water utility members throughout Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia are also being gathered for Australian water utilities to assist on and will be published via Telewater.

Pacific Water and Wastewater Association Program

The PWWA is designing a Pacific COVID-19 Response Network (PacCRN) and Enhanced Connectivity Program that includes establishing an integrated communication platform for its member groups. The Telewater platform will help their member utilities in preparing for and addressing emerging COVID-19 related needs through sharing of experiences and resources through its region-wide network. Solutions will include those similar to the Indonesia pilot, such as practical guidance material and information repository, webinars, discussion forums, chatrooms and networking groups.

Pacific Telewater under development through the PWWA website (source:

The Pacific Telewater pilot will be carried out in a staged approach that initially builds new functionality into PWWA’s website to facilitate these Telewater services, and scales up support to include webinars and video conferencing to further engage its members.

The Pacific water utility needs survey is in progress, with their Young Water Professionals Program a focus for increasing capacity to respond to COVID-19.

Kathmandu Water Operators Partnership (WOP)

The AWP, together with the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), has supported the Kathmandu Water Operators Partnership (WOP). The next phase of this work—likely to start in September 2020—aims to guide Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL) Water to enhance their asset management systems to improve the supply of water while monitoring and minimising the affordability impacts on their customers. WSAA has remained in close contact with KUKL to determine if any urgent assistance is needed in response to COVID-19.

On the broader water utility sector response, AWP’s Program Manager Rory Hunter says, “the support to water utilities is an area that we identified where AWP could have an immediate impact in the response to COVID-19. We appreciate the quick and flexible approach from AWA, Hunter H2O, PWWA and the water utilities and associations in prioritising these activities.”

Feature image: Aerial view of water turbines used for industrial wastewater in SE Asia (source: Shutter Din/Adobe Stock)
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