Vigen Sargsyan, Sr External Affairs Officer in the Armenia World Bank Office, offers this story.
One day every summer, water consumption skyrockets in Armenia's capital Yerevan as people celebrate Christ's Transfiguration. Starting in the morning, everyone pours water over one another until the streets are soaked.
Aside from that one day, the rest of the year, water is treated as a precious commodity in Armenia. It is expensive and not always plentiful or clean enough to meet the needs of the capital's citizens.
Henzel Khatchatryan, a water supply worker for almost half a century, explains that the system was neither maintained nor modernized, yet was expected to supply a growing number of new apartments.
"We could not keep up with construction in the 1970's and 80's—new buildings were being built, but residents were stuck with the old utility network. Expanding the city and building apartments was a priority, construction of new utility systems was not," he says.
Neglected for decades, municipal water and wastewater systems leaked, wasted and misused water. As a result, most residents only had water a few hours a day. When water did come out of the tap, it was often unhealthy.
Armenia's government has strived over the past decade to improve access to reliable and safe drinking water. Two projects, financed with $50 million in World Bank funds, have made improvements in water delivery and quality, and customer service.
"Five years ago when we were preparing to buy this 6th floor apartment, our main concern was how long water was available," says Davit Hovsepyan.
"We thought we'd have problems, that there would be water only for a few hours a day. But the situation has improved each year. Now, we usually have an around the clock supply," he adds.
Now, thanks to the projects, 332,000 households in the capital have running water 21 hours a day, up from six.
Water quality and customer service began to improve after reforms put a private company in charge of managing the utility company.
Installing water meters was a big change, and one of the first. There are now 300,000 meters covering 96% of individual and institutional water users; in 1999 there were 1,000 for the whole city. And consumers are cooperating: collection rates have climbed to 99%.
Most of the city's pumping stations have new, efficient systems that use 40% less energy, saving electrical costs.
Wells have been rebuilt, minimizing operating costs and water losses. Chlorination stations were refurbished or constructed at nine water sources.
Yerevan's water supply is monitored in real time through a new software program. The entire network of water mains and pipes can be seen on a single computer screen which shows who is receiving water at any given time, and where bottlenecks occur.
"The software program helps to identify where accidents occur," says Martin Maralchyan, YerevanJur Zoning Group Manager.
He points to a screen: "Here, the indicator should have been 95 liters per second, but it has been reduced by 10 liters. In such cases, we immediately inform the repair and restoration department so that they can take care of the problem."
Regulatory valves and electronic recording devices help deliver water to neighborhoods based on demand—insuring a more continuous supply. Yerevan's main reservoirs have been completely rehabilitated and operate to full capacity, which also insures a continuous water flow.
A customer service hotline answers consumers' questions and responds to emergencies around the clock. People report problems with water quality or meters, and water or sewage main breaks.
When investigating complaints, the water company often finds illegal connections and breaches of operation and safety—on average 500 a month.
Water from 15 different pipeline junctions around the city is tested daily in a laboratory renovated and equipped with World Bank support. Also, water in 27 reservoirs and over ten springs is tested. Any consumer complaint is immediately investigated.
"We immediately contact the resident, dispatch the team, test and provide an answer," says Sofia Asatryan, YerevanJur's Central Laboratory Director. "Praise God, serious cases are seldom. Most dissatisfaction relates to the taste, but this is caused by chlorination and you cannot avoid that."
Over the last ten years, the country has significantly improved the way it manages and protects its water resources. Considerable investments are still needed, though, to reduce excessive leaking and rehabilitate old infrastructure. Institutional and financial capacity needs more reinforcing, as well.