Paul Bourdillon: “Long-term water management is a development issue”

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On the occasion of World Water Day on March 22nd, 2021, Afrik 21 met with Paul Bourdillon, CEO of SUEZ Africa - Near East, to discuss the challenges of water and sanitation management in Africa, including those of long-term financing.

Afrik 21: If drinking water management and wastewater treatment are a condition for development, how would you characterise the situation for emerging Africa in the 21st century?

Paul Bourdillon (CEO of SUEZ Africa – Near East): If you look at a map of the world, which represents the one billion people who do not have access to drinking water, you can see that a significant proportion of them are in Africa. And although this number has been decreasing over the last 30 years or so in percentage terms, it is still increasing in absolute terms. And this is a big challenge for us, because Africa’s situation is characterised by three major trends that will continue over the coming decades: population growth, rapid urbanisation and the effects of climate change.

Take the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and the priorities mentioned by the African heads of State on energy, education, health, food, etc. In reality, in Africa, since water is the most basic human need and the most essential to life, we realise that almost everything is linked to water: agriculture and food, obviously, but also  healthcare. As we have seen again with the Covid-19 health crisis, without clean water for hand washing, it is impossible to prevent the circulation of the virus. Let’s look at all these issues and you’ll see that our jobs are essential and at the heart of the development issue, especially on a continent where around 30% of the population has no access to clean drinking water.

And do you have the feeling that, when you intervene in a country, the situation really changes?

Without false humility, I like to think that every time we intervene, things can really change. Most of our actions have significant impacts , especially as we intervene mainly in cities, where the impact is multiplied. The history of SUEZ began more than a century and a half ago and we have been in Africa since 1948 with the construction of a first water treatment plant in Egypt under the Degremont brand (now SUEZ Treatment Infrastructures, editor’s note). We have built more than 500 plants throughout the continent, in almost every country, and 90% of the capitals currently have a SUEZ plant. And this is the key to our commitment in Africa: long-term presence and support.

In what way?

Our current strategy is to go even further alongside our local partners as our offer evolves towards more services. We are no longer focused solely on building plants, but we are expanding our offer to include operations and services, in order to make the change sustainable. Nevertheless we continue to build plants throughout Africa: we have just completed a plant in Mali, others are under construction in Kenya, Uganda, Algeria… Moreover, we are building a plant extension in Egypt and a plant is being completed in Senegal. But SUEZ’s strategy is evolving towards more services, we are focused on projects where we do both construction and operations.

SUEZ - Egypt, Gabal wastewater treatment plant in Cairo - photo credit Thomas Goisque

Egypt, Gabal wastewater treatment plant in Cairo – photo credit Thomas Goisque

How do you support your stakeholders over the long term in financing a plant and the associated distribution services?

This is a key issue because we have seen several examples, whether in water or waste, where our clients have obtained financing to build a high quality facility. And then, five years later, the plant is no longer working because the operating budget was not considered. The result is that ten years later, a new plant has to be built, which is very expensive, and the client ends up making two large Capex (Capital expenditure, editor’s note).

So, as we work a lot with international donors – the World Bank and its subsidiaries, AFD, EBRD, EIB… and others – we make them aware of this issue. It was previously not part of their philosophy. They did not have in mind to finance long-term operating expenses. In fact, we don’t ask them to fund the whole operation, but we suggest that they find a way to be involved. And it’s starting to happen.

For example, for the extension of the wastewater treatment plant we are building in Egypt, on the eastern side of Alexandria, AFD has agreed to finance several years of operations. Such involvement can take other forms, like the implementation of a payment guarantee, the financing of a few years of operation… Another example: The World Bank is currently involved in models with ten-year concessions and financing a budget dedicated to maintenance and major renewal works. We are also working very closely with MIGA on the possible establishment of long-term guarantees. In any case, I have the impression that things are moving forward.

How is long-term support illustrated locally?

In Morocco, for example, through our local company Lydec, we hold the concession for the Greater Casablanca area for water, sanitation, but also electricity distribution and public lighting. We have been managing the entire cycle, that is, the management of drinking water production tools, the distribution networks, customer relations, but also the sewage networks, as well as the wastewater treatment plants, since 1997. And these long-term contracts are real challenges. Morocco has changed completely in 25 years, and during that time, Lydec has managed to accompany the changes and increase the quality of service, which is recognised by consumers and the customer.

I could say the same thing about Algiers, even if it is not the same type of contract. SUEZ always adapts to the local situation; each country has different needs and expectations. In Algiers, the authorities preferred to entrust us with a management contract. We are working with a public entity that is totally Algerian and to which our managers and experts provide support so that it can develop, with the transfer of know-how and training. In particular, we have used a tool developed by the Group called WIKTI. It offers 37 themes, both technical and managerial. We assess the level of maturity of each activity and each operator, and then we set up personalised training programmes and progress is measured regularly. When we arrived in 2006, the population only had drinking water for four hours per day. We worked tirelessly together with the authorities and after five years of effort, the water was flowing 24 hours a day. However, the population of Algiers is growing and the challenge of providing a permanent quality service is only increasing due to the effects of climate change.

We are aiming to achieve similar results in Senegal, where SEN’EAU (of which SUEZ is the technical partner and 45% shareholder, editor’s note) has won a 15-year contract to manage the production and distribution of drinking water in all urban and peri-urban areas across the country. I think we have made a good start, with an excellent first year of operations, especially in the context of Covid-19. But the biggest challenge is still to come in relation to population growth. We currently cover 7 million inhabitants. If the forecasts are confirmed, the same urban area will have 15 million inhabitants in ten- or fifteen-years’ time. So, our objective is not only to continue to provide quality services and continue to improve them, but also to increase production and distribution capacities with our Senegalese public and private partners. The challenge is enormous and magnificent, for a country of great beauty, with very strong economic, legal and political fundamentals.

SUEZ - Senegal, SEN'EAU employee working in a drinking water production plant - Photo credit LayePro

Senegal, SEN’EAU employee working in a drinking water production plant – Photo credit LayePro

This long-term commitment will transform you, anchor you more strongly within the African territories…

Yes indeed. Local anchoring is in fact one of the 5 key focuses of our value proposition. We work on a daily basis with all the stakeholders: start-ups, consumer associations, farmers and other players in the local economy. We also train local teams, as I just mentioned for Algeria, but also in Senegal. There, we very recently launched the first class of a newly-created plumbers’ school at the Diamniadio Training Centre. I’m very happy to say that, in three years time, 25 boys and 5 girls will have graduated and been trained to work on drinking water pipes.

In addition to this local anchoring, we are cultivating four other key priorities. Firstly, improving the health and quality of life of the population by providing access to water and sanitation, not forgetting decentralised units for rapid access to water, particularly in rural areas. Secondly, reducing climate change impacts. We reduce our customers’ and our own emissions by using biogas in green landfills and sewage sludge to produce green energy.

Thirdly, the protection of the planet’s natural capital, with the protection of groundwater, the protection of water resources through wastewater treatment, the sensible use of resources and awareness of economical consumption. Finally, the strengthening of the circular economy, with the reuse of wastewater and, of course, the recycling of waste.

In your opinion, what are the priorities for action to be implemented for the supply of drinking water, particularly for the populations of West Africa?

You know, situations vary enormously from one sub-region to another and even from one country to another. Our strength is that we adapt to the needs expressed by local stakeholders and work with all the local players. But the permanent challenge is to think about the entire water and sanitation cycle, in the long term, under various conditions of drought or flooding: the protection of groundwater, the rational use of water resources, treatment to produce quality drinking water, routing with leak detection, awareness-raising, distribution and customer relations with appropriate invoicing according to needs, as well as the treatment of wastewater, which integrates renewable energy, and last but not least the question of wastewater reuse.

In this respect, more and more countries, which are suffering from water stress due to climate change, are turning to alternative water resources…

With the dynamics we talked about at the beginning of the interview, population growth, urbanisation that will increase from 40% to 60% by 2050 and African megacities that continue to grow, as well as the impacts of climate change are already visible. And they will only get worse, especially in North African countries, which are increasingly facing water stress. Alternative resources are indeed a major challenge for the future in the countries where SUEZ is present. We are pushing for the ‘reuse’ of treated wastewater wherever possible. This saves resources and allows them to be used exclusively for the production of drinking water. Until recently, facilities used only primary and secondary treatment that allowed the water to be released safely into the environment. Now it is necessary to go further. We advise adding tertiary treatment, for example using oxidation and/or reverse osmosis processes, to allow reuse of such wastewater.

Do you reuse treated water to produce drinking water?

We recommend adding a natural filtering barrier before human ingestion. But there are so many other possible uses: from re-injecting the water into the water table, to irrigating agricultural fields, watering parks and gardens, and even uses in industry… We are engaged in a real circular water economy project.

And what do you think of the current desalination race, obviously in North Africa, but which is also beginning to affect certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa?

We have built more than 3,000 desalination plants around the world. SUEZ has strong expertise in this area. But the process remains costly and energy-intensive. We believe that it is an appropriate solution only once the entire water cycle is well optimised. If you have a 50% leakage rate in your networks, it would be better to first work on drastically reducing this leakage rate before building an expensive desalination plant, which will consume a lot of energy, while half of its production will potentially never reach the population.

And are you thinking about an offer that would combine desalination or water production plants with solar energy?

I’m convinced that the energy and water businesses are getting closer and closer and that more and more bridges will be built. We are currently evaluating projects to link solar energy and drinking water management in certain African contracts.

On March 8th, we celebrated World Women’s Rights Day. On this day, March 22nd, 2021, we celebrate water. How do you make the link between improving the status of women in Africa and better water management?

If I talk about my personal example: I have three daughters and I want them and all women to have equal opportunities. At SUEZ too, this issue is really at the heart of our actions. In Senegal, our managing director is a lady. Jany Arnal is doing remarkable work on the ground, particularly in developing local talent, including women but also young people. And we have very mixed and diverse teams in all of our activities. But, to make the link with the first question you asked me: for SUEZ, the development of a country depends on the development of the abilities of all people, both women and men. Bear in mind , in Africa where people spend more than half an hour a day fetching water, that in 8 out of 10 cases, this task is given to young women… Well, we know that, as a result, these young women are prevented from getting a proper education. Whereas, if we can bring them water, society and the whole country will be greatly enriched and enhanced. Everyone will win.

Interview by Jean Marie Takouleu

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