Recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD*) published a comprehensive and interesting report on water governance in Tunisia. The report is available in French at the OECD iLibrary website: www.oecd-ilibrary.org under the title «La gouvernance des services de l’eau en Tunisie, surmonter les défis de la participation du secteur privé» (“Water utilities governance in Tunisia, overcoming the challenges of private sector participation”).
The 129-page report is part of the policy dialogue on water jointly initiated by OECD and Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean in the context of a project labelled by the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), “Governance and Financing for the Mediterranean Water Sector.” The dialogue was attended by national stakeholders representing government, water utilities, civil society, academia and donors. Workshops were held in Tunis in June 2013, October 2013 and March 2014 to collect the stakeholders’ reactions.
The report includes three chapters. The first chapter covers diagnostic elements of water governance challenges in Tunisia; the second focuses on how and under which conditions the private sector could be a partner in the future; and the last is an action plan for the improvement of water-sector governance.
The report’s main recommendations for Tunisian public authorities follow:
- Understanding the different modalities of private-sector participation (PSP) and identifying the most appropriate form of water-sector PSP according to the Tunisian background;
- Ensuring the financial sustainability of PSP in the water sector;
- Improving transparency mechanisms and stakeholders’ engagement to increase citizen buy-in.
On the one hand, Waterlex considers that reform of the water sector in Tunisia is necessary in order to strengthen the achievements in the domain of right to water. Reform should focus on how to improve public operators’ performances, particularly by consolidating their finances through the recovery of public users’ debts and the adoption of new water pricing mechanisms, and by initiating an effective decentralization to focus the strategic efforts of the national drinking water utility, Société Nationale d’Exploitation et de Distribution des (SONEDE), and the national sanitation utility, Office National de l’Assainissement (ONAS).
On the other hand, municipalities in Tunisia are fragile and inexperienced in water and sanitation utilities management, with a lack of legitimacy and limited financial resources. An agenda for municipal elections has not been defined yet, and the newly elected municipal councilors would need a certain amount of time to be able to manage their municipalities’ affairs. So, the suggested proposal about delegating water utilities to such institutions includes, in our opinion, substantial risk for users regarding continuity of service-and-water pricing, in addition to the risks of dependence on private operators and corruption similar to that faced in other countries.
However, mechanisms of access to information about water resources and utilities should be rapidly introduced at the regional level, such as a system to address public enquiries about new water projects or the creation of regional institutions in charge of monitoring water resources and services.
Private participation could be an opportunity to reduce public indebtedness if some major water-infrastructure projects could be realized through BOT contracts, such as desalination or water treatment plants, especially if these projects could provide organisational and technical know-how (e.g., sustainable energy processes and technologies). Joint ventures between public authorities, local private companies and rural water users association (Groupement de Développement Agricole, or GDA) users could also be an interesting alternative to a sudden privatization, particularly when it is difficult to find specialized local companies.
It must be kept in mind that some public-private partnership (PPP) models, such as concessions or affermage contracts in the water and sanitation sector, have not been very successful in southern countries. According to data from The World Bank, many of these contracts led to renegotiation and sometimes to termination and arbitration, especially in Latin America.
In any case, before experimenting with this range of contracts in the Tunisian water sector, some preliminary steps should be taken:
- Rapidly reform the current legislation in order to adapt it to the evolution in the domain of PPPs;
- Implement a sound structure for PPP monitoring similar to those in place in OECD states, with sufficient human and financial resources;
- Organise a high-capacity building programme dedicated to public managers in charge of PPPs in the government and in public companies focused on crucial aspects, such as financial package, negotiating international contracts and drawing up PPP specifications.
Moez Allaoui is Legal Desk Senior Advisor at WaterLex.
* Editor’s note: The English-language abbreviation is OECD; in French-language publications, it appears as OCDE.
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WaterLex is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) and membership association based in Geneva, Switzerland. It is a UN-Water Partner with UN ECOSOC special consultative status. Its mission is to develop sustainable solutions based on human rights to improve water governance worldwide, particularly in regard to consistent water law and policy frameworks. It works with an alliance of interested parties to improve water-governance frameworks, bringing them in line with country obligations under international human rights law. The interested parties are individuals and groups working in government (diplomatic missions), academia (professors of law, researchers), bilateral cooperation (water management advisors), the judiciary (high/supreme courts judges), the UN system (UN-Water family members), and civil society (NGOs that work on water issues). WaterLex works in partnership with 13 universities to continuously enrich the content of the WaterLex Legal Database. The organisation is funded by grants and project financing from public agencies, foundations, private gifts, and in-kind contributions. Established in 2010, when the human right to water was recognised by the UN, the organisation has a secretariat in Geneva with seven staff members, a supervisory board of directors, and a large pool of members and expert advisors. It is an official partner of the Global Water Partnership, UNDP Cap-Net, UNDP GWS, and UNECE, and a member of the board of the Swiss Water Partnership.