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Partnering for water resilience: Coliban Water and Phu Tho Water Supply Company

The theme of this year’s World Water Day (22 March) is ‘Water for Peace’, focusing on the critical role water plays in the stability and prosperity of communities all over the world.

To mark World Water Day, Source caught up with one of the Australian Water Association’s international water utility partnerships about how two-way knowledge sharing is engendering water resilience in the Asia-Pacific region.

Victorian utility Coliban Water has been working with Vietnam’s Phu Tho Water Supply Joint Stock Company (Phu Tho WSC) for more than seven years now, showcasing the depth of trust and support that can be achieved when committing to long-term partnership.

This partnership has been supported by the Australian Government via the Australian Water Partnership and is currently supported under the Partnerships for Improved Water Safety and Water Supply Resilience Vietnam program.


Phu Tho WSC CEO Madam Doan Thi Kim Quy said the Vietnamese utility values the partnership highly, a friendship that has now been maintained and nurtured over many years.

“We sincerely appreciate Coliban Water's partnership, which has accompanied and assisted us in overcoming challenges and difficulties to achieve the best results, ensuring clean water sources for urban and rural residents,” she said.

“Coliban Water and Phu Tho WSC have now forged a partnership spanning seven years, despite our differing nationalities and languages.

“With the common objective of mutual growth in the water sector, we have come together, transforming into friends, but also trusted allies and essential partners in our journey.”

Coliban Water Managing Director Damian Wells said Vietnam faces climate change challenges, as well as transboundary water sharing and water quality issues, but there are solutions and guidance available to help address some of these issues.

“We have a strong and ever-strengthening relationship with our colleagues at Phu Tho WSC. Our people here at Coliban Water are very protective of our genuine partnership; it’s a two-way learning process that continues to unfold,” he said.

“In Australia, we spend a lot of time and energy researching, developing and refining technologies. The Vietnamese water sector is able to leap-frog and embrace our learnings. And we’re here to support that fast-tracking toward an improved water supply.”

Addressing water quality

Madam Quy said Phu Tho WSC faces many challenges, including the mounting complexities of climate change, escalating environmental pollution from industrial and agricultural developments and resource exploitation.

“All of this has significantly impacted our water extraction and supply operations. Rapid urbanisation has further intensified these challenges, with increasing customer demand for both quality and quantity,” she said.

Wells said the majority of knowledge-sharing so far has been about improving efficiency at water treatment plants and improving drinking water quality across the board, with reliable and safe drinking water considered a key enabler of other benefits.

“We visited several of Phu Tho WCS’s treatment plants with some of our water treatment and SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) specialists. Together, we realised there was a big opportunity to improve efficiency and processes by introducing automation to the drinking water treatment process,” he said.

“The plants were very manual and with that comes a risk of human error, as well as major operational challenges. We wrote up a big report, outlining what would be required to automate the treatment plants, including suggesting some appropriate technologies and ideas.

“At the time, we didn’t fully appreciate the appetite Phu Tho WSC had for change and improvement. The next time we hosted Pho Tho WSC in Australia, after COVID travel restrictions had been lifted, they showed us a video about the new plant that they had upgraded. It was phenomenal.

“Our team was blown away that all of the advice they had offered was taken and implemented in such a significant and transformative way.”

Wells said this was a key learning for the Australian context and provided inspiration in regard to making the most of advice and feedback.

“The improvements that Phu Tho WSC achieved were really all about effective leadership. Phu Tho WSC realised the recommendations provided were valuable and moved fast to execute,” he said.

“In Australia, we can focus quite heavily on consensus decision-making. But sometimes progress needs to come before perfection. Once we know enough about an issue, it’s important to press go.

“I certainly believe we should be doing what we can to support our neighbours to improve standards and liveability, but to see the actual results of the relationship was unbelievable. We must continue to support this work.”

Continued improvement

With a commitment to self-improvement and the provision of top-notch service to customers, Pho Tho has begun to tackle drinking water quality issues with support from Coliban Water, Madam Quy said.

“We've embraced innovation in our technological processes, implemented cutting-edge scientific and technical water treatment methods, and automated our production processes to continuously improve water quality,” she said.

“Together we have successfully implemented an automated water treatment system, meeting safety standards at the Viet Tri Water Plant and the Phu Ninh Water Plant. We are continuing to automate the remaining water plants.

“Furthermore, we've prioritised advanced training for our workforce, including exchanges and learning opportunities with Coliban Water and participation in training programs recommended by the Vietnam Water Supply and Sewerage Association.”

Madam Quy said the collaboration between Phu Tho WSC and Coliban Water has also been commended by the Australian Ambassador to Vietnam as a highly successful model of cooperation.

“Phu Tho is steadily growing. The water supply system has expanded throughout the entire province and has been recognised by both the provincial government and the local residents of Phu Tho,” she said.

“In the coming period, Phu Tho WSC looks forward to sustaining and furthering its collaboration with Coliban Water to devise concrete plans and actions aimed at improving water quality and enhancing the water sector's resilience amid climate change.”

Wells said Coliban Water also looks forward to continuing the partnership with Phu Tho WSC.

“Coliban Water has worked with several inspirational leaders at Phu Tho, from whom we have learnt a lot in terms of their ability to make things happen and deliver projects on the ground for the benefit of their customers,” he said.

“A lot of progress has been made, and we are committed to continual improvement. Achieving the first 80% of a result is great, but the last 20% usually requires a lot of work.

“When it comes to safe drinking water and networks, we need to be super clear that the job is not yet done, and we will continue to support Phu Tho WSC until it is. The amount of plastic that can be avoided from bottled water will be incredible once they have safe drinking water from their taps.”

From Coliban Water’s perspective, during the war for talent, the partnership stands as an important value proposition for the Victorian utility.

“Our people value this work very highly and regard it as one of the reasons they love to work at Coliban Water. That shouldn’t be overlooked,” he said.