Kigali 2023 – a platform for participation and progress

Opening Ceremony of WDCE 2023 in the iconic Kigali Convention Centre

IWA’s Water and Development Congress & Exhibition in December in Rwanda set a new benchmark as a practical water and sanitation platform by and for stakeholders from low- and middle-income countries. By Kala Vairavamoorthy.

The Water and Development Congress & Exhibition held recently in Kigali, Rwanda was an exceptional event.

For a start, it received great support from the host country and the local utility – the Water and Sanitation Corporation – and was a resounding success in terms of the usual metrics. Nearly 3000 participants drawn from 85 countries. More than 100 exhibitors. And a programme with more than 150 papers across 40 technical sessions, 42 workshops, and seven plenary keynotes and panel discussion sessions.

But what made it exceptional was what it represents for IWA and what it meant and delivered for those thousands of participants present.

The event put IWA at the centre of things broadly in terms of the sector and its focus on the Sustainable Development Goals – a vital agenda for low- and middle-income countries. That was evident in the partnerships and sponsorships, including WaterAid, the African Development Bank, the African Water and Sanitation Association, the World Health Organization, Water for People, the German Water Partnership, and UNICEF. It was evident too in the fantastic participation in the rich programme of the workshops, with IWA providing an outstanding platform for discussion.

Driving the sanitation agenda

The event also put IWA at the centre of some important specific discussions. Chief among these was sanitation.

Sanitation was high on the week’s agenda, reflecting IWA’s push to secure progress through its Inclusive Urban Sanitation initiative and accompanying #SanitAction campaign. The High-Level Summit on Sanitation convened an influential audience focused on shaping the direction of policy. IWA’s first Innovation Acceleration Forum, which ran in parallel to this, had a strong focus on practical solutions for sanitation, and a special IWA #SanitAction Innovators Expo in the exhibition showcased emerging sanitation technologies from the Africa region. To further help promote progress on sanitation, one of the week’s highlights was the announcement of IWA’s first Inclusive Urban Sanitation ‘Champions’ – a group of outstanding, trailblazing practitioners.

In the High-Level Summit on Sanitation, IWA convened a powerful and influential mix of policymakers, practitioners and researchers. Across three sessions, high-profile keynote speakers described priority actions to accelerate the delivery of SDG6 target on sanitation and hygiene; the need to strengthen sanitation-specific policy frameworks; innovative financing; and the critical role played by regulators and service providers.

This all indicates how, through the Development Congress in particular, IWA can provide the platform and help develop and direct the discourse on sanitation by bringing together a plethora of diverse and relevant actors.

” The event put iwa at the centre of some important specific discussions”

A vital platform

For the participants, there are a number of important dimensions where we can see the Congress series has now emerged as the vital platform for progress in our sector.

To begin with, it would have been clear to anyone attending the Kigali event that we have truly created an open platform for South-South exchange that can connect experiences between key regions, such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. This was evident in terms of the keynote speakers, the panellists and those making presentations, and also of the audience accessing those exchanges and continuing the discussion beyond the session rooms.

Next, Kigali was first and foremost an event for practitioners. At the heart of this was extensive participation by utilities from around the world and especially from Africa.

Utilities are vital practical actors in the progress on access to services. The Utility Leaders Forum held in Kigali – our first in the Global South – provided an outstanding platform for them to meet and exchange experiences. Meanwhile, the Congress also formed a showcase for utility innovation and leadership thanks in particular to the announcement of the latest results of IWA’s Climate Smart Utilities recognition programme. This reached its second edition in Kigali and focused on the achievements of low- and middle-income countries.

Beyond the utilities, this strong practical edge ranged from the High-Level Summit on Sanitation, where there was political representation, but with a bias far more towards those who actively develop and implement policy, right through to the developers of emerging sanitation technologies who showcased their solutions in the IWA SanitAction Innovators Expo. Others participating included regulators and development professionals.

This practitioner participation is vital if we look ahead to the needs and opportunities in the sector. The coming few decades will be a golden age for sanitation with an exciting window within which to deploy new approaches to infrastructure and services. Decentralised technologies are expanding options to allow solutions to be tailored to the local context. As we become more agnostic about these solutions, there is an opportunity to evolve towards services that are tuned to local needs and objectives – with practitioners playing a crucial role in that tuning. As a sector we will need to be receptive to innovation from different directions, including local and low-cost frugal innovations. Delivery around these new types of thinking can be enabled by the growing number of digital innovations. This all points to an essential need to connect the practitioners who will be the ones turning the new thinking into new actions. The magic only happens when everyone is in the room, and this came together beautifully in Kigali as we had all the actors present.

A platform by and for participants

What we also witnessed in Kigali was a relevance and vibrancy that emerges thanks to one of the central features of how IWA runs its events. Built by our water community for our water community, the programmes of IWA’s events are egalitarian in nature. Kigali demonstrated this wonderfully through the outstanding technical sessions, curated by a diverse, first-class global programme committee. This group shaped too the programme of more than 40 workshops. These are increasingly the powerhouse of our events, with IWA providing a platform for influential groups and partners to capitalise on the availability of such a strong and rich participant base to allow for meaningful discussions in those workshops to inform and empower the respective agendas under discussion.

So, we saw the participants themselves design and deliver the event in an organic process. It means those who were present in Kigali were able to tap in directly to the current concerns and latest insights at the level where practical change is needed.  And with participants – especially those new to IWA – having skin in the game, with ownership of the conference, they left believing that IWA is their association and that they can influence its agenda and direction of travel.

This very practical dimension to our Congress format was epitomised by the inspiring keynote given during the Opening Ceremony. This was delivered by Mathi Vathanan, Principal Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Government of Odisha in India, who set the tone for the Congress as a whole.

“Kigali is a template that positions iwa as a force for the future”

Vathanan shared insights into how his state – home to more than 45 million people – is successfully transitioning its intermittent water systems to 24/7. More importantly, the initiative ensures that all people can drink water directly from the tap, and so has been named the ‘drink from tap’ or DFT initiative.

His key messages included that the entry point for this transformation should be the urban poor. If effective and reliable services can be provided and maintained for these communities then provision for all others will follow.

Another critical feature has been the tapping of the previously unused human resources of women, forming highly skilled and effective women water teams (Jal Sathis) responsible for managing the delivery of the services to the communities.

Also, the state of Odisha employed strategic patience with respect to cost recovery. It has allowed operation at a loss during the time needed for utilities to create confidence among the communities being served that the utility is serious about providing a regular and reliable high-quality service; this in turn creating the motivation and willingness to pay for an excellent service.

Alongside these aspects, the state has also had the confidence to revisit, and where necessary overhaul, its policies and processes, allowing for success to be replicated rapidly.

Given my background working on intermittent water supply, I can truly appreciate the enormity of what is being achieved in Odisha. The progress has been nothing short of transformational, with radical change having been achieved in a matter of a few years by rapid scale-up of a pilot approach. Vathanan’s message is both uplifting and hugely encouraging as it demystifies what is needed to bring about change and gives cause for hope that the lives of the great number of people lacking access to safe water can be changed for the better. As he shared these experiences, I could see the light bulbs going on as other utility leaders in the audience saw they could relate to the challenges of Odisha and draw inspiration on how they themselves might become transformational.

Powerful and professional

Extending that, it shows that IWA can be the platform for the sharing of such insights and for us to help power a global transformation of prospects around water supply and sanitation.

This power of the platform is especially important. No one person or organisation has all the answers or can deliver the change alone.

So, we know for example that stakeholders such as IFI’s, global implementing agencies and foundations have a vital part to play in turning ambitions into action. We saw outstanding participation in Kigali on the part of many such organisations. This spanned the programme, from keynotes, to the special forums such as the High-Level Summit on Sanitation and the Utility Leaders Forum.

Kigali was a truly fantastic conference. There was a great spirit and huge amounts of enthusiasm around. The excellent venue and outstanding Opening Ceremony enhanced the status of the Congress as a highly professional forum. I believe that everyone there really felt it was a valuable event to be at and it will have enhanced IWA’s reputation in the region.

The challenge ahead is for Kigali to be a launch pad for a more impactful presence in Africa, while at the same time translating the event to secure an equally outstanding result for the next destination outside of Africa.

In Kigali, IWA delivered an amazing event by and for those looking to tackle the water and sanitation issues faced by low- and middle-income countries.

Hosting of the Congress in Africa tapped into the huge relevance of the event’s focus to the continent. No other region is booming at such pace. Population growth, economic development, and the expansion of a highly skilled workforce will add to pressures on water resources but at the same time ensure there will be local capacity to deal with those pressures. Rising urbanisation presents opportunities – an area of strength for IWA. So, with the Kigali Congress, we were in the right place at the right time.

Anticipating the shifting water needs ahead, Africa’s innovators and institutions can develop nimble and affordable ways to ‘leapfrog’ the legacy of clunky, costly, centralised, top-down policies and infrastructure that have literally been set in concrete across much of the world. They can better do this by connecting with IWA and its global network. From this perspective, the Kigali Congress was a forum to shape water’s place in that future economy. And more than this, we are already seeing exciting developments in Africa, such as in the use of digital technologies, that offer promising solutions for application elsewhere. We can all learn from this leapfrog opportunity.

This relevance and participation meant that those attending, drawn in particular from Africa and Asia, experienced a Congress at which they had a place and could feel at home. This is a big change. And the level of professionalism on display was outstanding. The iconic Kigali Convention Centre provided a great backdrop to a forum where all present had a voice and could play their part in the important business of driving change on water. Kigali was, in essence, a highly professional practitioner event for the people it is meant to serve. The success has certainly inspired the Secretariat, as we look forward to supporting delivery of our World Water Congress & Exhibition in Toronto in August. Kigali is a template that positions IWA – with the partners and stakeholders ready to participate in our forum – as a force for the future. •

Kala Vairavamoorthy is CEO of the International Water Association