This series provides questions and answers with people who are doing meaningful work in the water and sanitation sector to make a difference in lives, communities and the world.
By Kathy Kelley
Richard Noth, co-founder of ROCKBlue spoke to us from his home outside Washington, D.C., about what makes ROCKBlue unique, what makes it successful, and how they work to help get utilities on their operational and financial feet. Mr. Noth also discusses the overall state of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and talks about the build-operate-transfer model, a successful methodology often used to attract private sector financing for public projects in the developing world.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Please share a bit about your background in water and sanitation.
My degree is in Public Administration with an emphasis on economics and public policy analysis. In 1975, I took a volunteer job through the United Nations Volunteers/Peace Corps program and went off to Bolivia for two years as a regional planner, where I married and settled. I was finishing up some entrepreneurial work in 1986 and the local office of Coopers & Lybrand asked if I wanted to work on a strategic plan for the water utility in La Paz financed by the German Technical Cooperation agency, GtZ. So, I headed up a small project to do that work for four months or so and that began my whole career in the management and finance of urban water utilities. It just started to snowball and I continued to do that with GtZ and other donors including the USAID and the World Bank throughout Latin America. Subsequently, I’ve worked in over 40 countries and lived with my family in a few of them.
Who or what inspired you to co-found ROCKBlue? How did it all begin?
I had worked with Peter [Macy] on assignment through his consulting company and he had talked about this idea for some time. In 2013 he said, “Let’s do it,” so I said “OK,” and he, Satish Menon and I banded together and founded it — Peter did the legal work. Satish and I took a maiden voyage about a year later to do some volunteer work in Lesotho with WASCO, the water utility there. They had asked for help in securing funds, so we focused in on helping them prepare documents that they could submit to their own government and foreign governments to solicit financing. We put together a dossier for seven important initiatives, four for expanding wastewater systems, one for water, another for demand management and the last for smart metering in the capital, Maseru.
What distinguishes ROCKBlue from other NGOs working in the WASH space?
There are many NGOs in the WASH space but few in our urban WASH area and that’s one big distinguisher. Another is that we mentor and connect the utilities that are our partners. We mentor their senior managers on how to identify key priorities to improve their performance and we help them develop a plan to do that work. We also help support them in implementing that—they may need technical advice in a specific area — coaching, training, we try to fill in all these gaps so they can implement their own intentions.
When the utilities improve their performance, they become gradually more capable of taking on larger amounts of financing. There are only one or two other organizations that are really working in this space and we’re the only one we know of that is registered as an NGO in the USA. We also have a branch that’s registered in South Africa.
Can you explain what a build-operate-transfer model is?
Governments are hard-strapped to provide financing for major utility projects. One avenue for doing that is to get the private sector involved. And one way to do that is to identify a specific project, like a new wastewater treatment plant for example. I’ve worked with the North American Development Bank in my own work to help them finance these kinds of projects. The utility will provide terms such as, we need to treat in this locality so many cubic meters of wastewater; these are the characteristics of the wastewater that we need to treat, and here are the characteristics of the end product of the wastewater that we want to achieve with this treatment plant. Responding to a public bidding, the private sector will come up with the whole design, provide their own financing perhaps mixed with some government financing, build it and operate it for a number of years — usually 20-30 years. It’s profitable for them, and it’s a win-win for the utility because at the end they’ll not just have a facility, they’ll have a facility that’s properly managed and maintained. This way, these projects last as long as they were designed to last.
What obstacles does ROCKBlue and the world face in tackling the global water crisis?
There is one crisis with water becoming scarce because of environment and climate and because of urbanization and population growth. When a partner utility of ROCKBlue faces water scarcity, that becomes an important factor in our work with them, although water as a natural resource is not our forte.
The other crisis — it’s a long-term effort — is addressing weaknesses in the capacities of urban water utilities and in the governance and policy frameworks they work in so that the water and sanitation services for their populations are sustainable. Decades ago, there were huge deficits — billions of people without access to potable water — a lot of children dying, a lot of stunting. There have been great advances in the world, so that the overall numbers of people without adequate water service have declined in recent decades both in urban areas and rural areas. In order to build on these advances and to ensure they are available for generations to come, water sector institutions need to be made more robust.
There are still hundreds of millions of people who are not served with water, and billions who are not served with adequate sanitation. The world did not do well in meeting the targets for sanitation. We’ve fallen farther behind. So now the thrust of organizations like the Gates Foundation and the World Bank and others — yes, keep up with water, but do something serious about scaling up better sanitation for the world’s poor. ROCKBlue is working with utilities to help them become more efficient, recover their costs and gradually become credit-worthy so that the world lenders can help them meet their goals. The utilities have to get themselves to the point where they’re able to manage well what they do, identify their needs, and get adequate financing for them, starting with their own customers. We can help the utilities become credit worthy even for private bonds, since development partners provide only a small fraction of what is needed. We want to help them improve from just scraping from day to day and reacting to emergencies all the time, to becoming more proactive, have better capacity, to provide better services to a population that then becomes more amenable to paying the real cost of those services.
You’re planning to expand into two more African countries this year. What are your longer-range plans? More countries in Africa? Any thoughts about expanding to Asia or South America?
In addition to those two countries, other opportunities are coming up through our consulting work in one other country. We’re proposing now doing some work through partnerships with European utilities and African utilities, with us being kind of a facilitator and mentor of that. Right now we’re focused on English speaking Africa, and I think we’ll continue to grow in that sphere in the near future.
What else would you like people to know about your work?
ROCKBlue provides an opportunity for people to get involved at all levels to help with this cause. We’re here as a conduit to connect people who are able to make a contribution to those utilities that could use it. We’re also doing some more specific focused work in creating paths for women in the sector — usually it’s dominated by men. We do webinars and blogs to spread knowledge. And again, we’re helping utilities to become more efficient and self-sustaining, aiming to be more credit worthy as they need more than just donations and soft loans that their governments often repay. By our working with the utility, donors or lenders can gain some confidence that the projects that are being identified for financing are really the ones that should get prioritized, and that the utility has the kind of support it needs to manage those projects adequately.
Kathy Kelley is a Chicago-based writer and editor with ROCKBlue and a freelancer with more than 30 years of experience. She has written about everything from environmental issues to technical engineering topics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from Michigan State University.