Principles of Progressive Partnerships

If we are to achieve the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), between now and 2030 we must provide access to safe drinking water to almost half a million people, and access to improved sanitation to a million people, every single day. The scale of reaching the targets for water and sanitation in SDG6 is immense, but the challenge is not impossible.

Success requires many ingredients, but perhaps more than anything, this daunting task makes partnerships and collaboration absolutely critical. This is specifically recognised in SDG17, which promotes partnerships and cross sectoral approaches. The question for many in the water sector is not why do we need partnerships, but with whom and how should we develop impactful partnerships? In doing so, how can we add value to each other in meaningful, lasting, and inclusive ways?

I offer three Principles of Progressive Partnerships that will not only increase the number, but also improve the quality, of collaborations to achieve the SDGs.

1. Recognize invisible stakeholders.

We often dismiss certain people from our partnerships formula because we consider them as passive beneficiaries of our actions, or worse, the cause of the problem. We must instead see them as potential partners with whom we can co-create solutions.

Urban poor communities and informal settlers can be a difficult customer base for utilities. This led Maynilad, the private concessionaire serving the western half of Metropolitan Manila, to help establish cooperatives whereby a poor community can profit from operating its own water system. These cooperatives, run mostly by women of the community, are a successful model for urban water partnerships.

The environment is another invisible stakeholder – primarily because it can’t speak! But just last September, Australian legislators recognised the Yarra River as “one integrated living natural entity” and granted the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people, a central role in stewardship.

Indigenous peoples have a long and intimate history with water resources, and can have an innate understanding of the full-ecosystem and nexus approach that we are only now beginning to unlock. Recognizing and empowering them is so potent that the book Drawdown (2017) ranks IP land management as a more effective way to combat global warming than decreasing airplane emissions, or shifting to LED lighting.

2. Forge partnerships around problems, not ready-made solutions.

Human-centered design teaches us that if you seek to solve the problems of a certain community, you must fall in love with their problem – not your solution!

The Philippines has seen a rapid increase in public-private partnerships for urban water infrastructures. Investors typically shun rural areas where population is sparse, incomes are low, and potential for scale is nil. How then can we mobilize private capital for rural development?

After doing field research, our company, Metro Pacific Water, saw how we were approaching this problem the wrong way. Our ready solution – infrastructure, the way we solve water problems in urban areas – clearly did not fit the rural setting.

Enter micro-entrepreneurs: intrepid locals who are more than willing to help their community, if they only know how and are equipped to do so. Our company’s role now is to activate and support local water champions and turn them into rural waterpreneurs.

We must be willing to learn from the very people we seek to serve in order to develop solutions that are relevant to their problems.

3. Emphasize social innovation.

For all the technological prowess and financial resources we have at our disposal, we have lagged behind societal transformations.

Public communication and stakeholder engagement are some of the most important work in WASH, but these are also the most underdeveloped. No wonder society at large undervalues water as well as the work that water professionals do. This is also why mobilizing investments remains a hurdle for many emerging economies.

In order to hack into society’s often faulty mindset and memory, utilities must employ social innovations that radically change the way people relate with, and think about, water. One such way is to adopt and actively promote IWA’s Water-wise Principles, which seek to involve and empower citizens in delivering a vision for sustainable urban water.


Avoiding business-as-usual requires that we must also end partnerships-as-usual. Employing these three Principles of Progressive Partnerships will help deliver that outcome. Utilities have a notorious history of being insular and operating in silos, but the water sector today is opening up and branching out as it paves the way for the water-food-energy nexus. The water sector, being at the forefront of climate change and environmental risk, must lead and champion impactful partnerships towards achieving global goals.



Photo Credit: Photo by Levi XU on Unsplash

Yang G. Villa

Head of the Philippines for the Isle Utilities - Career-building role at IWA YWP Steering Committee
Yang has been working in the water sector for 13 years as a business developer. He is the co-founder of the IWA YWP chapter in the Philippines and was the Conference President for the 10th IWA Specialist Conference on Efficient Urban Water Management... Read full biography