Water as Common Ground

April 18, 2003
Cross-Border Training Program Viewed as Model for Developing World

Poor water quality, inadequate infrastructure and mismanagement have plagued the U.S.-Mexico border region for decades. An innovative program is attempting to address these difficulties in part, by providing practical training for water utility professionals. This binational forum known as the Utility Management Institute (UMI) not only enhances mutual understanding of the challenges each country faces in managing its resources, but potentially forms the basis for cooperative solutions.

At the North American Development Bank (NADB), which sponsors the UMI, enhancing managerial skills is seen as a fundamental part of building a sustainable future for utilities along the border. As NADB Managing Director Raúl Rodríguez sees it, sustainable development doesn't happen without effective management. "Improving the skills of utility professionals is viewed as a crucial step in effectively managing water resources throughout the developing world." Others are increasingly agreeing with this approach. "Because of the commonality of challenges, other institutions have sought out the UMI as a model training program that can be applied to other parts of the world."

Building 'Bridges'

Established in August 1999, the UMI is based upon the need to invest not only in physical infrastructure, but also in the people who manage the systems. The UMI provides utility managers and their staffs from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border with an opportunity for on-going professional development, at no cost to the participant.

"The UMI program provides a cross-section of topics-management incentives, financial analysis, performance monitoring and leadership skills-that are germane to both U.S. and Mexican participants," notes Craig Tinney, 2002 UMI graduate and Border Infrastructure Engineer for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. "It also gives local officials greater access to NADB personnel."

In addition to getting to know NADB staff, participants have an opportunity to establish contact with a network of professionals in the utility industry. Networking is an integral part of the program and it helps Mexican and U.S. participants understand the different dynamics of management in countries with two distinct cultures, says Laura Stout, Executive Director of the UMI. "We make sure that what's being learned about these issues in the classroom continues with discussion among participants and faculty members in a friendly atmosphere out of the classroom."

The UMI approach combines lectures from practitioners in the field with a number of group exercises. According to Tim Treviño, Senior Program Development Specialist for the NADB, "Group exercises are designed to encourage collective problem solving, but also to create a 'bridge' for water utility professionals along the U.S.-Mexico border. By 'bridge', we refer to the eventual understanding and recognition that within utility management, whether in the U.S. or Mexico, the issues are the same, but resolution could and should be different as a result of the local dynamic."

Binational networks whereby participants can maintain relationships with other border utility professionals upon course completion have proven highly useful. Gloria Cervantes, Assistant Director for Commercial Areas for the water and wastewater utility in Tecate, Baja California, believes the UMI experience has positively affected not only internal operations, but has given management a bigger perspective on water and wastewater management. "The UMI course offered in Baja California has boosted staff development, and thus the utilities'. The increase in management capacity and teamwork has resulted in a more coordinated use of resources and given staff a broader, more international outlook."

Upon completion of the four basic UMI models, alumni can participate in graduate seminars that address specific topics such as Public-Private Partnerships, Negotiations, and Emerging Technologies and the Administrative Challenges while providing a venue to network with other border professionals. This curriculum offers an ongoing opportunity for the development of long-term working relationships among border utility professionals. "The best part of my UMI experience," notes Fred Sandoval, Assistant City Manager for Pharr, Texas, and participant in several graduate seminars, "was the great friendships and professional contacts formed in the process."

To date, more than 400 utility professionals, representing 80 border communities in Mexico and the U.S., have participated in the basic UMI program. With this reach, the NADB is striving to improve the financial condition of utilities throughout the border region, with the ultimate goal of sustaining infrastructure that meets local water and wastewater needs.

Model for the Mid-East

Noting the program's success in the U.S.-Mexico border region, NADB representatives have been approached by water institutions across the globe. A recent example is an information exchange effort with the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). While the two institutions have divergent geographic responsibilities, the PWA and the NADB each recognize the need for capacity building amongst those who manage water utilities on a day to day basis.

With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the PWA has developed a Master's of Science Degree program in water resources management in conjunction with Purdue and several Middle Eastern universities. The UMI was identified by the PWA as a model program that could be used to augment the content of their master's degree curriculum. As Dr. Nahed Ghbn, PWA Chairman Assistant, states, "The program implemented by the NADB will help us to learn more about the practicalities of water utility management in the U.S. that apply to our region. We believe this transfer of professional experience through such an innovative higher education program will lead to proper capacity building and human resources development in our territories."

The NADB and its sister institution, the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC), also provided information about capacity building programs to a six-person delegation of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians during their recent visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, through a U.S. State Department program in cooperation with Friends of the Earth-Middle East.

"Despite considerable differences, environmental and water supply issues along the U.S.-Mexico border do have parallels along the 'Green Line' separating Israel and the West Bank, and I believe there is much that we can learn from each other," notes Ed Hamlyn, Program Coordinator for the Center for Environmental Resource Management at University of Texas at El Paso and a member of the ad hoc hosting committee.

Thomas Rhodes, a Mission Environment Officer for USAID in the Middle East, adds, "USAID and our partners at PWA were very pleased with the excellent materials that NADB shared with us, and with (the Bank's) remarkably helpful and positive response to our requests for technical expertise. We hope to be able to work more closely with NADB in the future."

Other International Inquiries

While the Bank is limited in its ability to provide direct financial assistance to only those projects benefiting residents within the U.S.-Mexico border region, this is not the first time in which other parts of the world have sought the Bank's expertise. Two years ago, officials from USAID requested copies of the Bank's curriculum for a similar program being developed in the Balkans. Such collaborative efforts demonstrate the tangible benefits that can accrue to all parties through cooperation. This sharing of information regarding water management forms the common ground exemplified by the UMI.

The UMI is currently in its fourth year of operations. Two series of the program modules are scheduled throughout 2003 in San Antonio, Texas; plus an additional series in Tijuana, Baja California, and in Hermosillo, Sonora. For more information, please contact Juan Antonio Flores at (210) 231-8000 or [email protected].

Source: Newstream