WIN is proud of many of our partners, and this week we are featuring the work of our partner SWIM – Solutions for Water Integrity and Management. SWIM works towards a world in which every person has unconditional, conflict-free access to water and sanitation. We interviewed two “SWIMmers” to tell us about their organisation; Sara Ramos and Armin Bigham.
WIN: Hi Sara and Armin, can you tell us a bit more about SWIM, and what life backgrounds you have that led you to starting the organisation?
Sara: I am a 33-year old Environmental Engineer from Colombia. I had the opportunity to work for around 7 years in quite diverse fields from water management in industries to environmental impact assessments for infrastructure projects. This allowed me to have a broad view of water issues from different angles. While studying in Germany (Master in Hydro Science and Engineering) it was revealing that many of the problems I observed in previous years are rooted in inadequate water governance and lack of integrity. My perspective was broadened, and this led me to be a part of SWIM, as I am eager to engage actively on IWRM and water governance to work on the foundations for equal access to water for all people.
Armin: I’m 28 years old, German-Iranian and spent 7 years of my life in the United Arab Emirates where I had the chance to understand the highly fascinating and complex geographical and political dynamics of the Middle East. This was also when I realised that some oil-rich gulf-countries can simply afford to provide water resources through desalination, whereas many other countries have to be careful with every single drop of water.
We founded SWIM in the Summer of 2019 as we realised that conflicts or at least rising tensions over water resources were increasing globally, particularly in the Middle East. The violent demonstrations in Basra, Iraq, in 2018, over precarious water quality is just one example. We believe that these challenges will be exacerbated by rising population and extreme weather events such as droughts. It is therefore essential to mitigate these risks by acting before rising tensions turn into open conflicts, creating solutions to which SWIM wants to contribute.
WIN: Why is integrity important to you?
Armin: Integrity is an imperative principle for us. Corruption, poor water management and wasted or stolen water affect the poor and vulnerable first, depriving them of their basic human right to water and sanitation. Therefore, we at SWIM believe that open, accountable decision-making by everyone involved in managing water resources leads to strengthened integrity, which in return reduces the likelihood of water conflicts on all scales. It is crucial that water is managed equitably and sustainably, especially in transboundary water arrangements. What happens if equitable and sustainable management is not given is evident in the MENA region and Central Asia, where tensions are rising as we speak.
Sara: I have personally witnessed the tremendous impact that corruption has on ordinary people, and how it is entrenched in institutions and seems to have no solution. I worked on wetland preservation projects in Bogotá – Colombia, seeing first-hand how corruption affects all levels of contracting institutions and executors. For example, because of poor integrity, the construction of a road was prioritised over the preservation of one of the few remaining strategic ecosystems in the middle of the city. Moreover, the scandalous cases of corruption in my country are no secret, and I sympathise with the people who have been affected, mainly in rural areas or vulnerable conditions.
WIN: What do you think is the role of the youth in addressing the topic of integrity, and how can you be involved more?
Armin: I believe that the youth has the biggest responsibility to act for positive change. We are the generation that has been sensitised from a young age about the impact climate change can have on our future lives. The Fridays for Future movement has shown that our generation is aware of the challenges. We are the ones that will inherit the planet; we must have a say in what it should look like, and we will have to work with the challenges that are yet to come.
Sara: Furthermore, we will inherit the work from our senior colleagues and will be in charge of making it evolve. Therefore, it is essential for us to learn as much as possible in collaborations with established organisations in the water sector such as WIN to ensure that water integrity can be consolidated even when the conditions are more challenging.
WIN: What kind of work have you been doing with WIN, and what is important about it?
Armin: We had the chance to be an integral part of the “Government, Pay Your Water Bills!” campaign, where we were responsible for the research. We looked at how big the scope of governmental non-payment of water bills is on a global scale and tried to identify approaches to transform the problem. We investigated a great best-practice example from Romania that involves different stakeholders, from the regulatory authorities to the judiciary. We also looked into the impacts non-payment has on water utilities, customers, society and the environment. A policy brief is based on this research, and is being used for awareness-raising campaigns globally, for example in Mexico, Ghana, Zambia, Kenya and Nepal. It was a very interesting project, especially because non-payment is highly overlooked, which sets the perfect conditions for corruption. In Zambia, for example, we identified a utility where government arrears were so high that they represented 50% of its revenue. This represents a big drain on resources for the water sector and is an additional challenge for the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation and the SDGs by 2030.
Sara: We are now supporting the update of the Integrity Management Toolbox, which was created to improve service delivery and performance of water organisations – utilities in particular – by reducing integrity and corruption risks. With new research, and based on lessons learned from 10 years of implementation, we are updating and further developing the specific tools that utilities can use to address key integrity risks.
WIN: Thanks for your time Armin and Sara, and good luck with SWIM!