The Strategist

Drinkable water in Africa: the challenge taken up by Veolia Water Technologies

Interview with Sébastien Gary, Veolia Water Technologies Director for Development in Africa

09/07/2018 - 18:24

In Africa 320 million people still do not have access to drinkable water that meets the basic hygiene standards. The filtering of used water is an issue as well since 80% of it is simply rejected into the wild and pollutes the environment. Veolia Water Technologies (VWT), a subsidiary company of the French multinational and present in 77 countries, specializes in the services and the filtering of the water. Its new Director for Development in Africa, Sébastien Gary describes for us the many challenges that await VWT in this part of the world.

You have just been nominated Director of the African development of Veolia Water Technologies, what are your long-term goals?
It is difficult to answer that question because Africa, and especially the sub-Sahara region, is facing a situation without precedent. The continent is facing demographic issues and a very fast urbanization. Indeed, the population shift from countries to countries within Africa and to occidental, countries makes it difficult to know what our long-term goals should be. Of course, the goal is to give access to drinking water to everyone continuously during the year and during the day. We also must ensure that the resources are still available after a few years.

It is easy to dig dwells and give access to drinking water, but we cannot be sure that the dwells will operate for fifteen years. First, water will eventually become scarce, and second waste water will be produced and will need to be treated.
If you look at the Senegal river or Niger river for example, the existing water plants are already at the limit because waste water is not treated. Our main goal is to provide the African continent with drinking water and new solutions regarding the waste water management, so the population will always have access to good quality water.
For a long time, you have been managing the services as well as the filtering of the water.  Water is not a usual product. What are the specifications of such an activity in Africa?
A common mistake is to think that there is a scarcity of water. The truth is that there is a scarcity of drinking water. Most Africans have access to water and when we witness children dying because of the water, it is because it is not good quality water. Providing water for large cities is also very difficult. The production itself is not that challenging but the first difficulty is to find financing. Then you need to operate and maintain the water plants which is not easy. I am not talking only about Veolia; the states also have a hard time maintaining the treatment plants. There is a lot of dwells that are being dug and do not operate after a few years.

The quality of the networks is another issue. In Africa we are facing a very fast urbanization and the cities are growing horizontally and it is very difficult to define what is the exact population of large cities. This growth is not accompanied by the development of the water and electricity networks. For electricity there are solutions like the solar panels or the wind turbines, for water it is more complicated.
Water contains a major geopolitical importance and it is common to talk about the “water war”, how do you define your activity at the heart of these issues?
Water is a common good and at Veolia we want to be a factor of peace and security in this matter, but it is a delicate one. Let us take the example of the Senegal river: it runs through Guinea, Mali and Senegal. If there are too many water plants in Guinea and Mali, it might be hard to have enough water for Dakar. Another example is Cape town in South Africa: we have been through a three years drought. And now what they call “day zero” is coming when there will not be any running water in the city. With these examples I want to point out that when hear of “water war” we think of wars between countries. But the truth is that it exists within the countries, between cities and regions.

As a multinational company, our role is to provide water to anyone anywhere. In a region where the population is growing, the lack of water would have catastrophic consequences. There would not be any jobs because without water you cannot have any industry, tourism or agriculture. The populations would have to move and there would be revolts. The climate change is a factor as well that just speeds up the process.
Are there differences of challenges between each country? Shortage, managing water reserves, water waste caused by obsolete networks?
I sometimes hear companies saying they want to be Burkinabe in Burkina Faso, Kenyan in Kenya etc., but I do not think this is the point. Yes, there are differences between countries and there are very large discrepancies between the networks for drinking water and waste water in Dakar and Mombasa for example. At Veolia we adapt to the local specificities, but we are French and a global company. We have solutions, technologies and capacities to understand the needs of anywhere we go. The answer must be local, so we study the situation and adapt. If there is a river nearby or if the coast is close, the network will be different. Even in the same country the situations can be quite different. Also, depending on the country, there may be grants or financing from a global organization and this has an impact on how we can do our job.
What are the other impacts that an efficient water management can have on the development of a country?
Air, water and food are the basic human needs. For air there is not a lot we can do except fight against pollution. As far as food is concerned, I personally have tried to come up with very simple concepts to develop local farming. It always comes down to the same issues: the infrastructures are poor, and you cannot keep fruits and vegetables in a cold storage because of the lack of electricity. The cost would be so high that it would be impossible to sell the products on the market. The idea is to use very simple techniques to grow fruits and vegetables all year long in a cool greenhouse. This way, with a very low investment, we can have an impact on a very large number of families. These cultivation poles allow the population to be fixed and not be forced to move. Water provides food and from there you have the beginning of an ecosystem that will enable more and more businesses to develop around it.

Water has an impact on the industrial sector as well. There is a lot of small to medium size industries that are developing in Africa and they need water to operate. These industries also need to treat their waste water and at Veolia we can help them do that. By doing so, and with the use of our technology, we take part of the water management in Africa. It is an environment requirement and it is always difficult for a government to develop the industry and to abide by these standards. But I truly believe this can be a win-win for the country if the constraints are the same for everyone, starting with the industrial sector.