Traits of a leader: Water stories from Cambodia, Nepal

442

It has been around four years that Nepalis have found relief from the decade-long daily power cuts of up to 14 hours a day. It was nothing short of a miracle when Kul Man Ghising solved the problem within months of his appointment at Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), whose four-year term ended a few months ago.

Similar is the story of Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA), which was dramatically transformed under the leadership of Ek Sonn Chan. Although these two stories are around 10 years apart, there are many similarities which can be a source of inspiration for plaguing public institutions.

One of the daunting jobs in any failing public utility is to collect the bill and make people pay for the services. In one instance, a high ranking military officer tried to shoot Chan in the head, when he attempted to cut off the water supply line for refusing to pay his bill. A similar story relates to the determination of Ghising, who once went to the site to settle a construction dispute, with warnings of police action, a trait never seen in his predecessors.

These activities might seem like a small step, but they created remarkable hope, at least among his surrounding staff. This is how successful real heroes lead with example.

Old powerful guards of an organisation who are averse to change are the next obstacle. Chan categorised his staff into three different groups – highly experienced officers reluctant to change, ones indifferent to change and the young group desiring change. He pushed forward and motivated the young educated group. He also supported them with higher salaries, bonuses, incentives and other risk-reward schemes. These youths had a sense of responsibility towards the well-being of their citizens – they even voluntarily contributed a part of their salary, leading to the drafting of a sustainable solution for the poor to pay their water bills.

Regarding Ghising, a few of NEA’s rugged old guards resigned voluntarily, as they could not bear to see one of their subordinates leading them as the chief executive. Regarding the overhaul of the institutional structure, Ghising had a more relaxing time compared to Ek Sonn Chan.

There are many lessons that NEA or similar organisations could learn from PPWSA’s transformation.

In 2019, Nepal and Cambodia ranked 113th and 162th respectively in the Corruption Perception Index.

Yet, the cases of Ghising and Chan prove that it is possible to beat this poor outlook. The question is, how did these two leaders bring about change without undermining their integrity? Part of the answer lies in the political will to establish platforms. The then energy minister appointed Ghising, and Chan was appointed by the then Mayor of Phnom Penh, giving them political support to push through the reforms.

For instance, such a strong platform enabled Chan to tackle the illicit gauging of water connection fees.

Initially, the PPWSA used to charge $200 to install a meter and $1000 for a water supply connection. After bargaining with the supply teams, the result was a staggering price reduction to $15 per water meter – making water more affordable and available to the consumers. Accepting the corrupt environment and expelling the racketeers gave him wider public acceptance and trust.

In Nepal, although the public sentiment is against the current government, Ghising had regularly shared the credit with the government. One should know how to extract support even while filing differences with the government. Various attempts were made to discredit and topple him, including corruption charges in the purchase of LED light bulbs, but none were successful.

Political appointment alone is not sufficient. Both Ghising and Chan have a robust engineering background with demonstrated experience needed for their posts. Not only should employees of public organisations undergo training, their seriousness during the trainings and the outcome in the field should also be calibrated through different exams. Those who outperform should be allowed to move up the ranks with more challenges, responsibilities, rewards and recognition. With these policies, the PPWSA carries out almost every activity without any contractors.

Under the leadership of Chan, people of Phnom Penh and other major parts of Cambodia can directly drink water 24/7 from the taps connected to their houses. The population served by it has increased from 25 per cent to more than 90 per cent. Non-revenue water has decreased from 72 per cent to 6.2 per cent — comparable to that of Singapore and Denmark.

Production capacity and distribution network has increased by 262 per cent and 456 per cent respectively.

With these transformations, it has set a global example that it is possible to transform a public institution even within a very corrupt system. Today the PPWSA is listed and traded in the stock exchange of Cambodia.

Similarly, NEA, which was on the verge of going bankrupt, has become the most profitable public company just within four years of Ghising’s leadership, supplying 24/7 electricity to its customers. It is all about leadership.

There are many such stories around the world. The Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) of Bangladesh, National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) of Kampala, Uganda and Departmento Municipal de Agua e Esgotos (DMAE) of Parto Alegre, Brazil are some other success stories.

National level institutions have been transformed, but what about the nation itself? To realise the overall national level transformation to happen, leaders like Chan and Ghising from the developing world should govern their national politics, not just a small institution.

The question is, how did these two leaders bring about change without undermining their integrity? Part of the answer lies in the political will to establish platforms.

The then energy minister appointed Ghising, and Chan was appointed by the then Mayor of Phnom Penh, giving them political support to push through the reforms

:SAGAR DHAKAL

Dhakal @watersagar is an engineer and policy and management graduate from University of Oxford, UK


Source : The Himalayan Times.