Rethinking “Compliance”: Lessons Learned From the First INECE Compliance Conversations

Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Lack of access to safe wastewater management infrastructure and improved sanitation is a global challenge that affects over 2 billion people worldwide. While large-scale wastewater treatment plants are common throughout the world, off-grid communities that exist outside of areas covered by centralized water infrastructure are often geographically isolated or economically marginalized, making these services not only unaffordable but inaccessible. In the absence of these networks, many communities have chosen to adapt. Although it is typically considered to be unlawful or illegitimate by their national governments, communities have begun to build decentralized systems to treat and reuse wastewater for agricultural purposes.

The absence of formal water treatment systems combined with the rising demand for recycled water has created a recognized need to develop more effective ways of providing wastewater management services in Palestine, and in off-grid communities around the world. A gap remains, however, between the development of new technologies and the ability of communities to safely implement and operate these systems. How can we develop regulatory and compliance frameworks that are capable of addressing the unique challenges and circumstances of off-grid communities?

In February, the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE) hosted the inaugural session of Compliance Conversations on this very question. The session brought together experts and practitioners from 21 countries and five continents to freely share their experiences and insights from the field. This particular session was proposed and led by Dr. Clive Lipchin of the Arava Institute, who has spent the last few years working with Palestinian communities to install systems that recycle household greywater.

In order to respond to this question, INECE convened practitioners and academics to share their unique legal, scientific, and social perspectives. In addition to Dr. Lipchin, the panel consisted of Sarah Allard, a postdoctoral fellow for CONSERVE; Rhett Larson, a professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law; William Piermattei, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law; and José A. Rivera-Gómez, from the U.S. EPA Region 2 office in Puerto Rico. In the first session, each of the experts shared their experience working with wastewater and off-grid communities before responding to questions and experiences shared by the attendees. The questions and experiences provided in the first session laid the groundwork for the second, in which the experts outlined the unique circumstances associated with most off-grid communities and considered what the components of a compliance framework might be in light of those circumstances.

Over the course of the two sessions that composed this conversation, several key themes emerged. First, to be successful in these off-grid areas, any compliance framework must be holistic. Planners and practitioners need to find ways to develop and implement novel technologies while also considering preexisting social structures and norms in the given community. Recognizing the livelihoods and agricultural practices that sustain these communities is key to implementing an integrative framework for water management in which new technologies can then be incorporated. This balance, along with consistent transparency, openness, and discussion, leads to the most essential aspect of working with off-grid communities: community buy-in. Without the community’s support and trust, new technologies cannot thrive or even survive. Instead, regulations should attempt to situate themselves in customary laws and relationships to resources.

Another lesson is that “humans [act as] natural regulators,” as was stated by Prof. Rhett Larson during the session. This notion speaks to the element of human nature that makes us inclined to create use rules or norms to follow when handling a resource of value. If regulation in some form is inevitable, then the role of the global community is to encourage systems and models that will keep communities safe and healthy and deter conflict so that the resource can continue to be available to those who need it. Practitioners need not reinvent the wheel (or the well, in this case) to work toward this goal. The aim should be to create systems that are simple yet effective, so as to require the least amount of formal or technical regulation. Overly complex laws that impose responsibility on multiple parties are not well-suited for off-grid communities.

Where possible, the systems should impose few technical requirements on the user and all technical responsibilities should be user-friendly and accessible for community members. Allard suggested the use of a simple checklist that would walk users through the steps required for monitoring or maintenance of the system. This was a sentiment echoed by Professor Larson and Dr. Lipchin, who both noted the role that technology can play in helping users monitor systems. The ability of communities to collect this information not only allows them to monitor the quality of their water, but creates less responsibility for formal partners, should relationships emerge.

This discussion made it clear that compliance is possible for off-grid communities, it just might look different than what those who operate “on the grid” are accustomed to. Within the context of isolated communities, we need to rethink what “compliance” means. Compliance can be defined by the expertise of practitioners and planners, but ultimately it is essential that it be informed and shaped by the communities themselves.

The complete discussion will be included in a working paper that will be developed by the panelists, in partnership with the INECE secretariat and made available to INECE members.

Visit the INECE website to find more information about Compliance Conversations or to read the notes from past sessions.

Do you think Compliance Conversations could be a good tool for addressing a current problem you are working on? Submit your proposals here!