How a Kyrgyz water company is coping with the Covid-19 pandemic
Cholpon-Ata is one of the largest resort towns in the Kyrgyz Republic and home to over 14,000 people. The town is important for the country’s economy thanks to its beautiful location on the northern shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. The EBRD, the EU and other donors are helping to fund vital upgrades to the region’s water supply.
Cholpon-Ata is in urgent need of better water infrastructure. Its residents and visitors often find themselves without water. The water mains and pipelines, some of them installed 60 years ago, keep bursting, with some neighbourhoods even lacking access to tap water altogether. This makes it hard to meet even the most basic hygiene guidelines, the importance of which cannot be understated given the current coronavirus pandemic.
To date, no cases of Covid-19 have been registered in the town, but the water company’s Director, Makhmut Turdakunov, has nevertheless promptly introduced mitigation measures.
While Kyrgyz companies across all sectors are shutting down, strategic utilities like the water company need to ensure uninterrupted services. Employees from other districts stay home to reduce the circulation of people and local employees work on shorter 3-day shifts at the pumping stations.
“The water company’s work and the importance of water for hygiene has grown amid this crisis situation. Everywhere in the city there are posters and reminders to wash hands. Without a suitable water supply, the situation can deteriorate very quickly,” says Mr Turdakunov.
A public utility plays a vital role in pandemic mitigation
The company found another way to help the city cope. In the absence of a special vehicle for disinfecting, the city is using a company water tanker to spray chlorinated water in public spaces. With water saving lives, the Cholpon-Ata water company clearly understands the greater strategic importance of its infrastructure projects.
To increase the resilience of the company and its operations, in 2019 they embarked on a water supply rehabilitation project. The local municipality received a €1 million loan from the EBRD, a further €1 million loan from the European Investment Bank and a €3.1 million grant from the European Union (EU).
With this much-needed funding, the water company is upgrading and expanding the water sources and network. It will build three new water reservoirs and a laboratory to check the water quality, install water meters in households and replace essential equipment. The company has already started installing a 21 km network of new plastic pipes and 400 manholes across the town.
For immediate repair needs, the company also purchased maintenance vehicles – two backhoe loaders, a pickup truck and a specialised mobile workshop.
Improvements in efficiency underpinned by strengthened foundations
Aziz Temirbekov, a repair engineer at the water company, recalls: “Before, fixing a leaking or broken pipe could easily take a day. Now, our specialised vehicle has everything – tools to cut and join plastic and metal pipes, a special pump and a mobile electricity source for the equipment.”
Currently his team receives up to 15 calls a week and resolves pipe breakages within hours, helping more customers quickly get back their water supply. By 2022, after completing the water network upgrades, there will be much less need to fix pipes, and the company will serve more customers, delivering safe drinking water to both the residents and short-term visitors of Cholpon-Ata.
Meanwhile, as the Covid-19 situation in Kyrgyz Republic evolves, Aziz is proud that his work goes beyond just fixing pipes and helps residents meet their health needs as well.
Along with the infrastructure upgrades, the project helps the company to become a more efficient entity with support from the EBRD’s Early Transition Countries Fund (Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taipei China and the United Kingdom).
Work is underway to improve management, increase transparency in reporting and accounting, introduce a new tariff methodology, increase payment collections and communicate better with customers.
By introducing adequate tariffs and installing over 2,500 water meters, the company sees a clear path to becoming a financially healthy enterprise, capable of maintaining the water system and delivering safe drinking water to users while strengthening their personal hygiene for many decades to come.