Bado Mnthali has worked in engineering consultancy since 1999. He is an engineering, project management, risk management and utilities consultant. His geographical experience has been in the USA, Africa, and the Middle East. He has also worked as a development and specialist engineering consultant on water and wastewater sector projects. Bado serves as a volunteer Utility Specialist for ROCKBlue. His consulting work includes engineering, business, and project management in collaboration with other professionals such as economic analysts, utility management specialists, asset managers, accountants, and planners, to name a few. His most recent work in the area of utility risk management consultancy has placed him in a unique vantage point in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Can you briefly describe the situation of the municipality where you work?
- What would the utility consider the top concerns as it relates to COVID-19?
- If it is determined that an area of the business cannot continue to operate through the crisis, is it possible to move workers off site and allow them to work remotely; and what support is required from the management structure?
- Is there currently a lockdown order by the government in place for the utility or the State?
- Is the staff so occupied with their own organization that it is a challenge for them to think outside of the organization to their community?
- What is the utility plan for addressing the unique problems of the COVID-19 virus?
- What are the lessons learned so far?
- Were there any international organisations that contributed to the work that you have been doing for the last couple of weeks for your client; and were you provided information, tools or manuals or any kind of help?
- Is there an equivalent organization to the African Water Association?
1. Can you briefly describe the situation of the municipality where you work?
It is a government entity funded by the State but with some external revenue streams from the sale of treated wastewater that provides irrigation water to farms, parks and various developments and projects. The utility is also responsible for management of the drainage in the State.
The organization is well resourced but even with all the resources, the planning necessary to cope with a disruptive event like this was not all initially in place nor understood by everybody within the firm.
The transition has not been smooth, but people within the organization have worked through it and have come to the realisation that a different approach may be necessary for some tasks going forward.
There were existing risk and contingency plans, and procedures in place for the utility but the uniqueness of a COVID-19 virus pandemic presented a distinctive set of circumstances that in several aspects pre-empted the prior documented plans and procedures. These unique circumstances had not been anticipated by the utility management.
The extent of the impact to the organization and the duration of the risk will not be known for some time to come. Therefore, the plan must be for a situation that will be ongoing for an indefinite period and one which may change in nature going forward. The planning must also account for a health crisis that could transition to a potential economic crisis.
The utility plans that have been rolled out and implemented in the last two or three weeks may not be static for the next several months because the response to the current crisis is still evolving. There is much that is not known both from a health perspective in terms of the duration and the extent of damage that has been done to the economy and to the critical resources required to carry out projects and operations. This crisis will inevitably have an even greater impact on utilities that have fewer resources.
In terms of structure, this organization has two major divisions, one for projects called Projects Affairs and another for asset management, operations and maintenance called Assets Affairs. Projects Affairs builds new infrastructure utilising a staff of approximately one thousand engineers and other professionals, overseeing a Contractor workforce of approximately ten thousand.
Assets Affairs then assumes responsibility of the newly constructed infrastructure and provides the ongoing asset management, operations, and maintenance functions. There is also a strong professional team of about a thousand, supported by twenty seven O&M contractors working with the organization on projects of varying size and running key facilities such as large treatment works and high volume pumping stations. The budget for infrastructure and drainage operations and projects has in recent years exceeded the equivalent of US $2 billion.
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2. What would the utility consider the top concerns as it relates to COVID-19?
The utilities top concerns, in order of priority, are:
- employee health, including contractor workforce required to carry out operations and maintenance as well as deliver projects
- business continuity as an essential service provider, and maintaining the same high level of service while in continuity mode
- supply chain continuity which is required to maintain operations and high service level by being able to obtain strategic consumables and spares
Employee Health. The primary concern in this pandemic, first and foremost, is employee health and safety. Within the health and safety considerations, there are two different aspects of concern. One aspect centres around the professional staff which is office-based and their maintaining capacity to manage operations and provide customer service, and the other aspect is the onsite operating staff that works on various remote project sites and infrastructure sites that require 24/7 operation. The operation side is operating and maintaining the physical infrastructure, the treatment works, pump stations, etc. There is also the contractor staff, including the professional staff and the contract labour that includes all of the builders, artisans, operators, and labourers, which is the largest group of employees. So that is a large staff compliment, and the labourers are the most vulnerable group in terms of health and safety because unlike the professional staff, they tend to live in crowded compounds.
Although there has been a drive to improve worker welfare, there is still a disparity in the type of living conditions. That can be problematic when it comes to social distancing and maintaining a healthy personal environment. However, worker welfare is improving, and efforts are being made to promote a healthy personal environment through regular inspections of accommodations to ensure cleanliness and enhance health standards.
The utility has also provided a series of workshops at the labour camps conducted by a medical doctor to train the staff on the do’s and don’ts of the virus; how it’s transmitted, what is a risk and what is not a risk and basic hygiene practices that are necessary to ensure that the virus does not spread within the worker community. Health and safety were the most critical aspects reviewed by risk management who determined that by rotating shifts the workforce could be split so that not all of them are in the same place at the same time. And that splits the risk, as far as having the entire workforce down or quarantined. There could then be a component of the workforce that might possibly be quarantined while the rest are available to continue projects and operations.
Then, in terms of the office space requirements, it was necessary to comply with a building occupancy reduction by reducing the number of professional staff in the office. The utility actually reduced staff down from full operations to accommodate 80 percent of the professional staff working from home as a preventive measure. This resulted in a key staff of 20 percent working in the office and managing operations and linking with those who are now working remotely. So that covers the first major concern.
Obviously, staff wellbeing is of paramount importance to the utility as well as the health and safety of the utility customers and the general public. The organization is composed of people, not machines, so the human element is of prime importance.
It is necessary to keep people informed so that they are aware of the current situation and apprised of changes as they occur. This requires frequent, timely communication from the incident management team. So, good communication and good safety measures would be top priorities for the utility.
Business Continuity. Another concern is the impact to the business, and its high standards as defined in its Service Level Agreement. It is necessary to develop a business impact assessment that considers the impact of the crisis on business unit core functions, project progress and supply chain impact. So, a business impact analysis was developed, as a first step in the risk management process, to look at the areas of the business that were most impacted by the pandemic in terms of disruption to operations; unavailability of resources, including chemicals and labour; and quarantine and travel restrictions that might prevent movement of key personnel.
Supply Chain Continuity. Another significant issue is the supply chain and how it impacts the contractor complement’s ability to effectively perform on utility projects. It was necessary to first do a comprehensive project impact assessment to prioritise projects that are critical for the objectives of the business, and possibly delay other projects deemed less critical.
A major business consideration of this utility, in fact the biggest objective, is the focus on timely completion of projects needed to support the country’s efforts toward an upcoming event of global significance, carrying with it immense reputational pressure. Achievement of the major national objective thus became the point of reference in terms of evaluating the criticality of projects and identifying which projects must be completed and operational by the time they are needed. Other projects that would be advanced would include certain projects that were previously identified as required to upgrade or maintain a prescribed level of service throughout the utility’s service area. This would result in a reprioritisation of the business on the project side.
A similar evaluation will be required within the asset management function, for example. These requirements would include an inventory of critical infrastructure components so that there is a redundancy of replacement parts for things like pump stations and treatment works. Reliable supplies of chemicals, such as chlorine, are required for wastewater treatment. Suppliers of these chemicals must be identified, and continued delivery capacity reviewed. The current inventory of chemicals must be quantified, and an evaluation must be made regarding options for procurement of additional chemicals that are needed.
China is a traditional supplier of chemicals used in the treatment process so in the event of a shutdown in China, for example, it must be determined if these chemicals can be procured locally or regionally, and if so, what is an alternative source and is there any associated change in quality and cost? Compounding the complexity of the situation are the procurement regulations regarding changing a supplier or changing contracts. This issue requires a significant amount of planning.
It is also necessary to adjust procurement regulations, to procure from a supplier that would not have been preferred and at a price that would not have otherwise been accepted. The quality of treatment chemicals is extremely important so a new or different supplier must be vetted before chemical procurement to ensure that the chemicals are of proper quality and these impacts must be analysed at the project level.
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3. If it is determined that an area of the business cannot continue to operate through the crisis, is it possible to move workers off site and allow them to work remotely; and what support is required from the management structure?
During this period, management had the opportunity to identify core staff who should be situated in the office and develop systems for the remaining staff to work remotely. The phased restriction approach adopted gave workers time to adapt to changing work conditions rather than just imposing a hard deadline and shutting everything down, not giving people a chance to prepare or mobilise to a different working arrangement. I have observed unplanned reorganisation in other work environments that has caused significant discomfort among staff.
Another aspect of dealing with loss of access to site or ensuring continuous operation while minimizing risk to key staff, is that of accommodation at operational facilities. Large treatment works and pump stations have been equipped with ample accommodation for resident staff, and these facilities were inspected, approved, and utilized as a backup plan.
In terms of the expectations placed on management, a unique crisis like this must be well managed. So, it is of primary importance to establish a management structure representative of the organisation’s existing leadership that has the authority to make critical decisions on behalf of the business during the period of the crisis.
To clarify on authority, the administration structure is led by an incident management team composed of the business unit managers of the projects unit and the assets unit. This incident management team has as its chair a member of management who is already a director of the business unit. Accordingly, the business unit director is the chair of that incident management team so that there is no need to restructure the official delegation of authorities. The crisis management formation would include the director and key management staff so that decision makers during the crisis are the same decision makers who would have authority under business as usual conditions. This management structure then avoids suddenly overturning the existing leadership structure of the organization.
This management team convenes jointly on a daily basis for a minimum of 30 minutes to review the current status of the situation and to get key updates regarding changes to laws and regulations. Key decisions are then made on immediate actions to be taken.
Currently, the State has a National Coordination’s Centre (NCC) that draws resources from all entities operating within the state. So presumably the countries in which our utility partners are based have similar national coordination centres or committees that have been set up to coordinate responses among different agencies. There is an NCC representative within the incident management team to provide that link.
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4. Is there currently a lockdown order by the government in place for the utility or the State?
No, there is no lockdown order per se, but a series of gradual restrictions on movement and building occupancy. The absence of a lockdown order, while it may not be in the best interest of personnel safety, has allowed continuity of operations and has allowed work forces to manage themselves into a continuous operation mode to facilitate a gradual reduction in workforce, allowing staff to move off site in a controlled manner.
International travel restrictions have come into play as far as key staff who ended up being locked out of the country at the start of the crisis. For other types of business, the petroleum sector is still running, and critical utilities are still running. The retail and entertainment industries, hotels and restaurants are definitely directly halted. However, the food supply is ongoing, and it is possible to go to the shops and get groceries and pharmacy, as is the case with most locations globally that are on the stricter stages of lockdown.
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5. Is the staff so occupied with their own organization that it is a challenge for them to think outside of the organization to their community?
No, not at all. Naturally, it is relevant to look at the immediate circumstances within the utility and not project a lot outwardly. However, the utility fully understands its role as an essential service provider to the community and consequently is striving to maintain an appropriate level of service to the extent possible in spite of current restrictions and circumstances.
The customer care function will carry on as normal, receiving complaints and managing public relations, albeit with the absolute minimal physical contact. The utility has developed procedures to provide comfort to communities in terms of cleaning, just as one example. The utility manages the road network as well, so the road division will be doing disinfection and cleaning around hospitals. The utility has involved the public in this endeavour essentially to give them comfort and demonstrate that they are of prime importance. Further, the end product supplied by the utility, treated wastewater, must be treated to a very high standard to protect the health of the end user.
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6. What is the utility plan for addressing the unique problems of the COVID-19 virus?
The unique problems that the utility is facing include a severe health crisis that may precipitate an economic crisis, compounded by a logistics crisis due to the shutting down of air travel and national borders globally. These are unique situations and that is why it is necessary to develop a detailed business impact analysis for projects, for assets management and for the supply chain impact analysis as I alluded to in my earlier remarks.
Due to the nature of the COVID-19 crisis, the long term outcome is difficult to predict because the duration cannot be determined unless or until a vaccine can be developed in the near term. Therefore, planning efforts must not only be comprehensive based on current knowledge and conditions but must also be sufficiently flexible to incorporate change as the knowledge base increases and local conditions change with the passage of time. As more information becomes available and as the local situation evolves, the planning will remain flexible to accommodate these issues.
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7. What are the lessons learned so far?
Formulating an approach to managing the COVID-19 crisis has led to the development of a more extensive body of knowledge and information necessary to deal with the various aspects of the crisis. For example, effective business information and knowledge management systems allow the utility management to know which projects are ongoing, critical, or delayed, what personnel are assigned to those projects, and how those projects are progressing and/or impacted by the crisis.
Initially, it was discomforting to realise how little information is available for both projects and employees. The utility management conducted a significant exercise to identify staff that were essential should they be subjected to curfew restrictions. Essential staff would require a specific type of pass to prevent restriction from travel by national authorities. In a national health crisis like this, someone who is critical to the operation could suddenly become unavailable for various reasons and the lack of contact information would serve to exacerbate the crisis. Two crucial lessons learned were the importance of thorough and accurate business information in a crisis, and also the value of remote working from home for management and technical staff members. Two weeks ago it became an absolute necessity to be able to work from home and business managers finally realised that they must know how to work remotely, to assign tasks, to delegate properly, and to communicate by sending and receiving needed information.
The resulting information management systems that have subsequently been put in place are commendable and were developed very rapidly after being exposed by the crisis. Finally, the art of good leadership and good communication are essential to keep engaged with staff and to keep people informed within the utility and within the customer base as well as the general public. Proper leadership and communication will serve to reassure the utility staff and the larger community, letting them know that the utility is doing its part to help and that it is not the end of the world.
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8. Were there any international organisations that contributed to the work that you have been doing for the last couple of weeks for your client; and were you provided information, tools or manuals or any kind of help?
In terms of business continuity, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has a comprehensive set of specifications for what is called societal security and business continuity, and these provide good guidelines to help organisations prepare plans for major disruptions. That is critical and many organisations do not prepare such plans. Fortunately, some previous managers within this utility had an understanding of risk and contingency and the foresight to develop good management guidelines which we can draw from. Within the state, the ministry responsible for public health has provided good guidelines for organisations to use in managing hygiene in office buildings, at worker sites and worker accommodations. These guidelines have detailed what the minimum standards are that must be maintained in terms of the COVID-19 disease. This information is further supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the global resource for hygiene and management of health risks, both in offices and operational sites. Johns Hopkins University publishes daily updates and is a reliable source for health information and many other organisations have produced working from home guidelines.
Because the utility works with treated effluent, an analysis of the effluent was done to make sure that COVID-19 was not being transmitted through the effluent. For that analysis, the utility used research from IWA and EPS as well as the Center for Disease Control (CDC). We have not used a lot of information from WEF or AWWA with regard to this specific crisis, however, having perused recently published crisis management guidelines for water utilities, these will certainly be drawn upon for future plans. Also, and quite importantly, there was enough localised knowledge within the crisis management formations to put together plans that fit the organization, which is critical for buy-in, and ownership.
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9. Is there an equivalent organization to the African Water Association (AfWA)?
Yes, there are similar groupings in the Middle East, however, with the rapid onset of the crisis, as well as attendant restrictions and closures, there has been limited engagement directly with the utility. However, the utility operates with a unique, self-developed set of guidelines. There are organisations available on the web that can be accessed for reference materials and technical information. By nature, the utility looks for what is practical and what would most likely work for a given situation. It is possible that this basic approach might be applicable to other utilities that are being helped by ROCKBlue, including some African utilities among the AfWA membership, that might be under-resourced and need to tailor practical solutions on limited resources.
There is much to be learned from the rest of the world, but local solutions seem most appropriate for local context, and this approach has so far worked well for the organization in terms of achieving continuity and maintaining service level. The crisis faced by this utility requires a lot of local knowledge and understanding. How do people manage in the local context? How do people communicate in the local culture? It was necessary to work within the local circumstances, culture, and customs, so that the plans that are developed are accepted and owned by the people tasked with implementing them.
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