By Tania Páez
The pressure to obtain short-term results is not exclusive to the corporate world. Development projects are also subject to the same type of pressure. While CEOs feel compelled to show profits to shareholders every quarter, politicians need to show voters the results of their development projects every election cycle. That can make it difficult to implement long-term projects for which voters won’t see immediate results. To make matters worse, projects started under previous administrations are sometimes changed or even abandoned by the incoming administration.
When a country manages to overcome such challenges, its achievement should be duly noted—and that is what has happened in Uruguay, which has been successfully implementing a large-scale sanitation project in Montevideo with support from the IDB for nearly four decades.
The Uruguayan capital—whose 1.3 million residents make up nearly half the country’s population—was the first city in South America to build an extensive sewer system, which now covers nearly 91 percent of its urban population compared with 69 percent when the project started. Thanks to this system, 60 percent of the sewage is now safely discharged through a submarine outlet, which has allowed Montevideo to clean up its most popular beaches, and reduce contamination of rivers cutting across the city. By 2015, 100 percent of the sewage collected will be treated and the Montevideo bay organic polluting load will be reduced in 65 percent, due to the construction of a second submarine outlet in the west side of the city.
Montevideo was the first city in South America to build an extensive sewer system, which now serves 91% of its urban population.
How Did Uruguay Succeed where Others Have Failed?
Here is how it beat the odds:
- Long-term mentality: When the project started, only downtown Montevideo and a small number of neighborhoods were connected to an antiquated sewerage system that dated to the beginning of the 20th century. Most wastewater was untreated and dumped along the River Plate coast and popular recreational beaches. Authorities realized that nothing less than a comprehensive plan would solve the problem, and that implementation would require a large investment – more than $500 million – that could only be executed over a long period of time.
- Stakeholder buy-in: Improving sanitation conditions was considered a top priority by Montevideo’s residents for years. That was fundamental to making the project a long-term priority for the city, the executing agency, and the national government, which has been financing the project.
- Laying a solid foundation: The city has worked with national and international experts to devise a long-term development plan that, on the one hand, laid the technical foundation for the project by incorporating best practices in urban development and sanitation, and on the other, helped future administrations understand the “big picture’’ and the importance of continuing the works.
- Show, don’t tell: This IDB was among the first to conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis using a methodology known as “contingent valuation,” which allows beneficiaries to quantify in monetary terms project benefits that do not have a market value—such as less pollution of their favorite beaches. This evaluation showed in a clear and measurable way the project’s economic benefit to Montevideo’s citizens. It was also a fundamental tool that enabled different administrations at both the national and municipal levels to validate their investments in the project and maintain their commitment.
- Good governance: Since the beginning of the project, the city of Montevideo has been the executing agency responsible for its design and implementation. The city has created a highly qualified technical team to manage the project. The team’s responsibilities, purpose, and personnel have changed little over the years, despite several changes in administration. This continuity—the team is currently working on the fourth phase of the project—has helped ensure that any project changes were solidly based on technical grounds.
Overcoming the political cycle is a difficult task for any government seeking to leave a tangible and lasting legacy. Montevideo’s sanitation project shows that this goal is achievable if policymakers dare to think long term and lay the proper institutional and political foundation to ensure that a project can endure changes in administrations, political differences, and the test of time.