Pritha Hariram interview: partnerships for improved development aid, performance tools, and women in water

An interview with Pritha Hariram, an experienced water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) specialist having worked on humanitarian relief and development projects in the Asia Pacific region. She talks about her current role with the International Water Association (IWA), the importance of multidisciplinary teams, women in water, and why integrated water management is the way forward in the water industry

Pritha has technical experience in the planning, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of community WASH projects. She is experienced in source water monitoring, treatment works, design and management, distribution system operation and maintenance and consumer use. She has worked for public, private, governmental, and donor agencies in Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, East Timor, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Maldives, Philippines, Sri Lanka and the Solomon Islands.

Presently, Pritha is the IWA’s Program Manager for the Water and Sanitation Services program. The program aims to afford a range of target audiences including service providers, regulators, and financial institutions with best practices in achieving universal access and improved service delivery of water supply and sanitation.

Prior to joining IWA, Pritha was an Urban Development Specialist with the Asian Development Bank where her primary role was to lead in the identification, development, implementation, and administration of loans and grants for urban water and sanitation programs in South Asia.

She also has extensive experience in hazard analysis and risk management of drinking water and wastewater systems to safeguard public health and improve operation and maintenance efficiency through her work in private and public utilities.

Interview topics

  • About Pritha and her professional background
  • Design engineering and the realities of working with national governments to manage water
  • About the International Water Association and its activities
  • The ins and outs IWA benchmarking tool, AquaRating
  • Gender and career development for water professionals
  • Emerging opportunities in integrated water management
  • Advice for emerging water professionals

What is your role currently in the world of water, and how do your background and experience in engineering support your work?

At the International Water Association, here in The Netherlands, my role is as program manager for the water supply and sanitation services program. My main objective is to extend the knowledge of best practice in the water supply and sanitation sector, globally, among utilities, regulators and academia, and also in partnership with some key agencies such as the World Health Organization, and development banks such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and few private financiers as well.

I find that my past experiences have helped a lot. I’ve always worked in the water sector, predominately focusing on engineering aspects of water supply and wastewater treatment and water quality management. I have also worked ‘on-the-ground’ with communities in relation to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), including with large investment projects for the public sector in the Asia Pacific region. I have gained experience in quite a few countries, starting with Australia, followed by the Philippines, Indonesia and a lot of the South Asian counties, including India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and a few others.

It has been really valuable to have that basic understanding of design engineering, of the fundamentals of how a water supply or wastewater system works, of what is practical on the ground. From that foundation, you can see what is — or is not — feasible from the engineering point of view, as well as the compliance point of view. That knowledge is very important in conceptualising and planning and discussing large investments — say, projects worth US$200–300 million. Pre-feasibility assessments are based on a lot of assumptions and you really need to know the basics, the fundamentals, of what can work and what can’t work. Without that, it is very hard to steer a successful investment program on the ground and you will have to bring in expertise to provide that knowledge because it is very important.

What is ‘design engineering’ in the context of water quality, and how have you implemented design engineering in Australia and in the Asia–Pacific?

The design engineering that I was working on was aiming for log reductions of pathogens, that is, 10-fold or 90% reductions, to be compliant with the legislation. It was fascinating because we always needed to know the most advanced technology that was available, as well as the most energy-efficient. It is slightly different in the Asia Pacific, depending on where you work. Most of my Asia Pacific work has been in developing countries where high-end technology is not particularly applicable. For example, following a natural disaster, my work was to get water from point A to point B and to develop a reasonable sanitation system — which might range from toilets to a normal septic tank that gets emptied. However, both have their own complexities.

In Australia, you are dealing with actual engineering complexities, rather than the human resource capacity or the legislative capacity or the financial capacity involved. On the other hand, in the Asia Pacific, where I worked, you are aiming for low-cost engineering solutions that may not be the most advanced or novel or innovative but bring in other complexities that you have to deal with: human resource capacity, financial capacity, legislative capacity, and so on.

A huge part of the job always is the team that you work with and how you interact with them. You can be the best engineer or the best scientist or the best whatever on this planet, but if you cannot communicate — within your teams as well as in important interactions with your clients and partners — then you must expect to fail. In all my work, in the Asia Pacific and in Australia, I have worked with excellent multidisciplinary teams in which everyone knows what they need to do to keep making progress.

As they always say in the water sector, the hardware is not the hardest part. Getting the capacity in, getting the financials in, getting the legislation in, the regulation, the framework or the institutional reform — that’s the hardest part. The easiest part is putting the pump and the pipes in the ground.

Can you explain a little about the realities of working with donors and national governments to improve water resources management?

When you start to work with [national] governments, you have to understand their environment locally: what can be applied there now, and what cannot. How long will it take before conditions allow something to be applied there? You have to be able to see the stages that are needed to turn a proposal into an actual project. That is not always easy, because of the time factors: the time needed to prepare a project plan ideally must match with the timing for signing a loan and dispersing the money, because [the donor] is also a bank. It is a balancing act and quite tricky.

These development banks do not always realise the value of their long-term relationships with the recipient national governments or countries and their national agendas, through which they can implement improvements in water resources management over time. Say the team with a project proposal puts in a submission for funding. They might not get the funding or loan at first, or even in the next funding round in spite of a push for it from external parties. But the long-term relationship means that it is certain there will be subsequent loans. Therefore in preparing the proposal and its several stages the team needs to be thinking a few years ahead, not just for the next two years, say. They have to think, “Okay, this region is probably going to be ready for this kind of a transformational change, because these other developments need to happen first and we can see the trajectory of that happening over the next few years. And we know there will be loans in the next several years. So we need to start preparing for that future loan as well as applying for loans in the more immediate and medium terms.” It’s a kind of balance, and there are also timeline pressures on the funding, with the donors asking if the money has been spent yet, and so on. Reality means being able to understand and accept the ‘system’ as is, and to carry on trying to get the best outcomes you can give for water management on-ground over the medium to long term.

The partnership is the key thing here because building something needs to be a partnership-driven initiative. A donor cannot push an agenda onto a national government. Likewise, when a request comes from the client or national government, the donor needs to be willing to take that on and exert whatever influence they can throughout that process. Basically, they need to be building a relationship, having a strong partnership, and setting up a shared vision. You often see governments repeatedly going to a particular donor, and that’s because they have built that partnership, that trust, and they are building that shared vision together.

Can you tell us about the International Water Association’s initiatives and their aims?

The IWA has set up several forums, or networks, as platforms for collaboration. These give peers an opportunity to come together, share their knowledge and develop some framing around a particular thematic area in the sector, and a unified way of talking about it. One example is the Utility Leaders Forum, through which, over recent years, we have initiated ‘the Lisbon Charter’. That charter is now adopted by a number of utilities in designing how they operationalise their services for water supply and sanitation. Another output, which we launched last year at the IWA World Water Congress in Brisbane, is the ‘Principles for Water-Wise Cities’.

In their essence, neither of these outputs is really new. Rather they bring together ways of talking about integrated water resources management (IWRM) as frameworks that are tailored to the target audience that we work with: that is, water utilities and water practitioners. They give the group a common language and understanding about what is meant by improving water supply and sanitation services, particularly via regenerative rather than basic services.

As well as the Utility Leaders Forum we also have a Leaders Forum. More specifically, some of the IWA’s specialist groups have also met and produced performance standards for utilities. These are international standards for utilities to navigate through. A more recent group is the Regulators Network for which an international group of regulators has met 3 or 4 times now, I think, over the last few years. They discuss not only water but also economic regulations around water matters.

Each of these forums brings knowledgeable people together in one room to talk through and produce thought-pieces which we then put out under the banner of IWA. We disseminate the outputs widely as ‘best practice’ so they can be taken up as an international standard. These are frameworks that we believe utilities or municipalities or regulators should be adopting to improve water management and water services globally.

The frameworks are quite broad so that they can be adapted or contextualised to suit the local areas where they will be applied. For example, the IWA Principles for Water-Wise Cities will not apply in entirety to every country or every city but each country or city will find a use for one or two of those principles, which they can then build on to develop their performance in other aspects of water management.

Tell us more about water management tools the IWA has developed, and how they are applied.

We have a performance management system or tool that we developed in collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) called ‘AquaRating’. This tool helps a utility to assess how it is performing across all its operational areas. That is, not just its service delivery, but also its governance structure, its human resource capacity, its finances, and so on.

Other performance management systems exist already, of course, such as ISO which is a well-thought-through performance management system for business. Many utilities are ISO-accredited, and some countries are also. The difference is that AquaRating is assessment purely for the water sector — for water and wastewater services. This means the assessment can focus just on that particular sector. For instance, IWA and the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Sierra Leone have used AquaRating for one of the utilities there, and it will serve as the basis for how they develop their utility improvement plan that MCC will be funding and implementing.

The Inter-American Development Bank is applying AquaRating across a number of utilities that are recipients of IDB funds, to influence where they should make their investments. To do that, they are collecting concrete statistical data that are independently validated. In other words, AquaRating is not just a tool for self-assessment or for consultancy vendors to tick boxes. It’s independently validated as well, and sometimes utilities also ask to be audited and go right through to certification. Then they can see exactly how they are performing and where they may need to improve — using donor funds. The tool provides realistic information that can help a utility navigate a path to improvement and after working through a development and implementation and improvement plan, they will use AquaRating again to test their progress. The water-wise Principles also work as a management tool.

IWA considers that the more utilities or municipalities adopt these tools, the greater their chances of leveraging financing because they are clearly aiming at best practice and may have greater credit-worthiness, which is an important factor in financing. Development financiers and private (commercial) financiers need to assess credit-worthiness to decide where their money will be at least risk. Development banks are in a position to take slightly higher risks, hence the type of funding that they do. However, private financiers in the water sector take lower risks, which is why they only finance certain types of things. These tools, these performance management systems and principles, give financiers some confidence that the entities they are investing in or supporting financially are on a trajectory that matches the vision of better water and wastewater management.

The purpose of AquaRating can be misinterpreted. At first, a utility may not want to be assessed or audited or certified, but it is not being forced on them. The idea is for them to use the tool to find out for themselves their priorities for development or improvement and where they could apply for external investment to help them in that. This is how utilities have applied such a system so far.

The IWA or IDB or whoever is supporting the utility will help them use AquaRating because it can be quite daunting — there are a lot of questions, which may not always be easy to understand. Someone from a utility background can help a user to navigate through it. Here, the IWA is in a unique position because we have a number of utilities as members and they can provide peer support as well as peer review, when it is requested by our donor partners or other utilities. That sharing of information can be extremely useful.

How do you think water professionals emerge, and what have you observed about gender roles among water professionals?

I think a water professional’s career path depends on the person. A water professional today is not just an engineer. Today, water professionals come from all kinds of areas of work, such as law, institutional reform, organisational development, social science, pure science, as well as engineering. They may become a water professional as a result of helping in some way in a water company or community group that manages water systems. The wonderful thing about IWA is that a huge number of our active members are young water professionals. For example, IWA’s Strategic Council signed a resolution on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) last year and it is the young professionals who have formed the task force to work on actions for the SDGs as part of the resolution. Both young professionals and middle professionals are prominent in our specialist groups and in giving keynote addresses at some of our events. The young water professional group in IWA is really alive and thriving globally: in some of our national chapters, it is the young water professionals that are the strongest and most active. At Utility Leaders Forums we encourage the CEOs to bring their emerging leaders, and many of these are middle professionals or senior management.

There is also a healthy balance of genders, which is something that we encourage. In fact, at the last Utility Leaders Forum in Brisbane at the World Water Congress, my first panel was all female CEOs or board members. In Australia, quite a few water utility CEOs are female. In the Asia Pacific, the prominence of women depends on the country. In South-East Asia, there is a nice mix of women and men in senior positions. In South Asia, I’ve seen more women in senior roles in Sri Lanka and the southern part of India. In the Pacific, again a good mix of female and male, but more male there because they see water as part of traditional engineering. Australia has a good mix, as has Europe. Quite a few of the utility CEOs are female, and/or the utility association heads and presidents are females. The IWA has a female president: Diane d’Arras.

What do you see as potentially the most exciting opportunities coming up in integrated water management both now and in the future?

I think I can speak on behalf of IWA as well as from my own observations in saying that the way to go is integrated water resources management; and at the city level, integrated urban water management, which can also be called water sensitive urban design, or green/grey infrastructure. That is the future of water management. It’s not enough now to merely put in a pipe to give a basic service. When you’re looking at a system — or even water supply and sanitation — you need to take an integrated approach, rather than just aim to get water from A to B.

The important part of ‘integrated water resource management’, or ‘integrated urban water management’ is the integration. Sometimes people focus on the technology — that is, the water sensitive urban design — but they forget about the stakeholders, the co-development, the co-implementation, the co-ownership, which are a vital part of integration. The European Commission is now funding a lot of projects that must have a multi-disciplinary team in order to meet the funding criteria. That does not mean a utility led, or city-led team, but rather one that includes social scientists and members of other appropriate professions, who are there to look after the multiple benefits of these systems. To look at multiple benefits, the project also has to include everyone who is going to draw a benefit from the project system. I remember when water sensitive urban design took off, bringing in land management and biofiltration aspects, the innovation was largely driven by utilities and that was good then because it needed a champion. But some of these systems are now starting to fail in terms of co-development because the co-implementation was not done properly.

It comes down to having the right governance structure in place, no matter how small the project, or how big the program or initiative. Utilities that we work with are now putting a huge emphasis on governance and are taking the lead in making sure the governance is right, from the beginning, before they embark on the hardware aspects. However, providing guidance in achieving the right governance is tricky, because governance structures differ so much from place-to-place and project-to-project. The IWA only tries to show how a particular city has developed its governance structure for a particular initiative. We don’t tell teams how to set up a governance structure but instead, we point out an example that might fit their situation or area.

Essentially, integration in water management means having a shared vision, shared between all the stakeholders that are going to partake in this project.

What advice would you give to somebody that’s really excited about the work that you’re doing and would like to build their career in a similar way?

I think it comes down to every individual to do it their own way.

First, I’d say believe in yourself, that this is the path that you want to take. Believe in your passion and your drive, and the opportunities will come. You will find a place where you can have the impact that you want to have, at whatever level.

And second, have an open mind. Be open to networking, be open to collaborating. Every day, I learn new things. Even when my role on that day is to provide advice, or develop a concept, I find I am learning things, in partnership with the person that I’m collaborating with at the time. It can be as small as hearing about an agency or organisation that does something I didn’t know about before. Somewhere, down the track, it may turn out that I recall that group and realise I can contact them for information or some other relevant thing. So this second piece of advice is to be always like a sponge and try to take things in as much as you can.

The need for multidisciplinary teams

Having worked in both the developed and developing world, Pritha suggests that there is more focus on innovation and technology in the developed world, while human resources capacity, low-cost technology play a more important in the Asia-Pacific. She stresses the importance of having a multidisciplinary team can bridge multiple perspectives to achieve positive outcomes. Water professionals increasingly require a multidisciplinary background. On this note, Pritha mentions that having a multi-disciplinary team is now a criterion to receive funding from the European Commission.

Pritha talks about the importance of building trust and having a partnership between donors and the government for effective development. The ACFID resource ‘Partnerships for effective development’ is a good resource in this regard.

Pritha suggests that the IWA is in a good position to take advantage of emerging opportunities in the water sector. This is based on being able to access a ‘realistic’ on-the-ground understanding of how governments work and how finances work. She highlights that integrated water management is the future of water management, rather than being able to fix a pipe or engineering solutions. “Be open to networking, collaborating” are important skills for the future

Some platforms by which water professional in utilities can collaborate

Performance tools

  • IWA established AquaRating — a performance improvement and management tool for utilities across all operational services in collaboration with Inter American Development Bank, specifically tailored to water and wastewater services.
  • The Millennium Challenge Corporation.
  • A task force established by the IWA adopted a resolution to promote the achievement of the SDGs.
  • Young Water Professionals (YWP) and emerging leaders are encouraged to be a part of IWA leadership forums, however, Pritha acknowledges that there is a knowledge gap between YWPs and high-level professionals.

Women in water

Pritha talks about her first panel at the World Water Congress held in Brisbane and mentions that it was an all-women CEO panel. She adds that in Australia there are a significant number of women who are CEOs of utilities. She observed that representation of women in South-East Asia & Asia differs depending on the country with South India and Sri Lanka having a good mix of men and women. Europe has a good mix of women as heads of utilities.

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This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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