Can the Year of Wastewater catalyse action in Albania?

By Arlinda Ibrahimllari*

As a young wastewater engineer at the Water Supply and Sewerage Company in Korça, the largest city in southeast Albania, I was given my first real opportunity to develop my practical skills as well as the ability to provide solutions to safeguard the health and wellbeing of both people and the environment.

When I started, in 2009, Korça discharged its wastewater through five outfalls into agricultural drains, which were modified by farmers to use the raw sewage for irrigation. The raw sewage partially passed through the Turani water supply aquifer field, and contributed to the pollution of the aquifer. As you can imagine, the contaminated drinking water caused some serious cases of dysentery and diarrhea in Korça.

The necessity for aquifer protection, and need to safeguard public health, resulted in the development and implementation of a large-scale project that transformed the city’s sanitation.

Eight years later, and we are halfway through the International “Year of Wastewater”, intended to mobilise action on this critical sector. The “Year of Wastewater” has lifted wastewater management up the list of priorities, and led to renewed attention on finding solutions to ongoing challenges. Yet what is clear to me, is that it is essential we increase our efforts further if we want to ensure sustainable wastewater management, and not only in Albania.

This September marks the second anniversary of the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 6.1 and 6.3 to provide universal access to adequate sanitation, and to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater being discharged into the natural environment. We have 13 years left to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater. In 2009, Albania discharged 75 percent of wastewater untreated into nature. Urgent action is needed. Wastewater may not be glamorous, but it is an important, exciting and challenging sector in which to work.

Luckily, water has been prioritised at the national level over the last decade, particularly during election periods. However, the allocation of capital investment funding has not been equal to the political promises. The capital investment that has been made has not been accompanied by proper investment in human resources or professional capacities to operate and maintain the infrastructure. The aging workforce, and lack of appropriately skilled professionals entering or staying in the sector, will become a critical constraint in addressing wastewater treatment needs in the coming years.

Achieving reliable and efficient services will require capacity building and institutional strengthening. The SDGs require a fast start up, with integrated thinking and collaborative action. They require multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral stakeholders to make it work. Emerging water leaders, those young people who grew up in this changing society, who are initiating multi-disciplinary groups, are well positioned to succeed in these aims.

However, to reach these wastewater targets, and to become a driving force behind the SDG Agenda, we must provide young water professionals with the skills and opportunities needed to reach their potential, support development, and contribute with their knowledge. This will ensure that these emerging water leaders are at the forefront of shaping the future they will inherit.

The IWA International Young Water Professional Conference 2017 will be in Cape Town, South Africa from 10-13 December.

The event will brings together 450 water, environment and related young professionals from across the globe to showcase how young water professionals are making an impact across the sector.

IWA provides support and guidance to strengthen and support the Emerging Water Leaders programme through different mechanisms; and by equipping them with skills, knowledge and confidence in their abilities.

*Arlinda Ibrahimllari is Chair of the IWA Emerging Water Leaders Steering Committee and Technical Director of the Sanitation Department, Korça Water Works Utility (UKKO) Albania.