Building Trust and Sustainability in the Water Sector: Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

Conference Reporting, Stockholm World Water Week 2015

In our session at the Stockholm World Water Week, we discussed how integrity and trust can support the sustainability of water sector programmes. With insight from cases of how communities have contributed to monitoring or implementing programmes, we focused on the role and spaces for participation in government policy implementation and on the challenges of making it possible on a wider scale, in difficult contexts, and in the scope of SDG implementation.

Building Trust and Sustainability through Integrity: Focus on Citizens and Communities
Stockholm World Water Week 2015 session, August 26, 2015
Convened by WIN and Transparency International – Bangladesh, BAWIN, HELVETAS, and IRC


  • Transparency and Integrity in the Management of Water Resources in Nepal: The Communities / Local Government Interface
    by Yogesh Pant, Water Integrity Programme Coordinator, HELVETAS Nepal
  • A Citizen Monitoring Approach in Bangladesh
    by Sanjib Biswas Sanjoy, BAWIN Coordinator, Transparency International – Bangladesh
  • The Community-Managed Project Approach Promoting Integrity and Sustainability from the Bottom-Up in Ethiopia
    by Oona Rautiainen, IRC-NIRAS-Rambøll


  • H.E. State Minister Kebede Garba, Ministry of Water, Irrigation, and Energy, Ethiopia
  • Aziza Akhmouch, OECD Water Governance Initiative
  • Nick Hepworth, Water Witness International
  • Mala Subramanian, Arghyam Foundation
  • Jacopo Gamba, WIN


The Growing Rift between Policy and Practice

There are two major challenges that highlight the need for more participation and bottom-up approaches in the implementation of water sector programmes.

First, institutions, politicians and government seem to be losing the trust of their citizens and risk disengagement. The lack of trust, in combination with increasing risks of water scarcity, could be destabilizing.

Second, there is a visible gap between policy goals, especially international goals such as the MDGs, and realities on the ground. There are too few connections between goals at local, regional and national levels and monitoring is not being used to inform policy and reduce the gap more effectively between policy intentions and implementation at levels where it matters most.


Examples of Community Involvement in Planning, Implementing and Monitoring Water Developments

To launch the discussion and see how bottom-up and top-down approaches complement each other, our speakers provided examples of how initiatives to involve communities in planning, implementation, and monitoring of programmes can work.

Yogesh Pant of HELVETAS Nepal talked about engaging with local user organizations in 3 districts of western Nepal to plan and monitor local water developments. He claimed a bottom-up approach is necessary and can be enhanced by an effective interface between the community and local government: closer collaboration enables better response and quicker corrective action. He also pointed to the need to proactively communicate and promote international-level declarations into the local development agenda, and vice versa, the need for SDGs to focus more on creating an enabling environment at local levels.

Sanjib Biswas Sanjoy of Transparency International Bangladesh presented a video documenting a citizen initiative to monitor the implementation of climate change adaptation projects in southern Bangladesh. Citizen monitoring brought to light clear project mishandling and the disappearance of a significant proportion of funds. The climate adaptation project was ultimately unfinished and ineffective, a disappointing result that could have been avoided by closer engagement between decision-makers and citizens in early project phases. Sanjib Sanjoy concluded that blending top-down and bottom-up approaches is essential to ensure sustainability of projects. The involvement of the media is also key. Organizations like Transparency International and BAWIN can play the role of catalysts to enable closer contact between all these different actors.

Oona Rautiainen of NIRAS-Rambøll cooperating with IRC in Ethiopia described the successes of community-led WASH projects in rural districts of this country. In these projects, the role of district authorities has changed from being the implementing body to that of facilitator and provider of capacity building and technical support. They do not channel funds. Project planning, implementation and maintenance are fully owned by communities directly. To increase integrity and sustainability, the projects are only allowed to go through if sufficient O&M funds for a year are saved up in advance and if they are subject to a public audit at inauguration. The approach has been successful in delivering more effective water supply systems in rural areas faster and at higher cost efficiency, an example of financial and social benefits of integrity.


Can Bottom-Up Approaches Work and be Scaled Up?

Community involvement in water programmes has proved its effectiveness in many cases such as the ones discussed in the event presentation. These successes must of course be contextualized. We must recognize the limits of these types of community-centred initiatives in places where water challenges are different and water usage is evolving. Still, communicating clearly about their successes is important and can help open dialogue about the applicability of community management in different contexts.

Panellists specifically pointed out the need for better communication between decision-makers and communities at all levels. State Minister Kebede Garba of the Ministry of Water, Irrigation, and Energy of Ethiopia explained how ministers and high-level civil servants in the country travelled to all districts to present government plans and achievements, and encourage more active involvement. This is an example of how a national political will to communicate combines with and opens space for bottom-up processes.

“It has become very clear that the point of bringing duty bearers and right holders together is absolutely key to improving transparent decision-making” – Stef Smits, Senior Programme Officer, IRC

Panellists agreed that the quality and integrity of international processes to define global goals and agendas can be questioned to some extent. Still, the goals do point to increased participation and integrity as elements that are essential for their implementation. For example, SDG 6b directly recommends more participation. The OECD Water Governance Principles also highlight integrity and can serve as a strong tool for dialogue and action planning for SDG implementation at multiple levels.

“We need to touch upon the transformative capacity of collaborations. This starts with an inclusive process, by building trust and capacity, and embracing complexity.” – Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for Water Affairs for the Netherlands

Overall, panellists suggested that accepted/recommended universal principles and goals have limited practical applicability and relevance for local communities. What these principles and goals mean should be better determined contextually in a participatory and honest manner. International goals must be brought into the local conversation with different types of stakeholders, including the private sector. This will make it possible for communities and other stakeholders to relate them to their own situations and for civil society to hold governments and duty-bearers to account against international commitments. Until now, however, the capacities and incentives for communities and civil society to engage in this way are limited. For this to happen more, local languages, education, lack of resources and local context need to be taken into account.


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