Poor Maintenance, Not Infrastructure, The Key Water ProblemThu, 01/11/2018 - 10:23
It is often agreed that Mexico suffers a lack of water infrastructure but David Díez, Country Manager of Aqualia, says most of the country’s water problems are not rooted in an infrastructure shortage but in its poor maintenance. “We continue to see a deficit because the rhythm of infrastructure development is not aligned with the need for its maintenance or the country’s growth,” he says.
Aqualia reviews, designs, constructs, operates and finances water projects. “Our vocation is not to build and leave but build and stay for the long term,” he says. “Eighty percent of our business is maintenance and operation while only 20 percent is infrastructure construction.”
By 2050, 90 percent of Mexico’s population is expected to live in cities. The rapid growth of metropolises demands enhanced servicing and operation of water services to make them more efficient. “I think the problem is not building new water infrastructure as there is no scarcity but the operation and maintenance of existing features,” Díez says.
The lag in maintenance is also combined with an investment shortage in the sector, aggravating the situation. “Investment could be low if maintenance was optimum. But if investment is made without maintenance, a vicious cycle is triggered,” Díez says. To address both, he mentions PPPs as a success case in providing funds while ensuring optimum servicing. “With the private sector operating water infrastructure, there is a constant cash flow and a long-term sense of responsibility for projects.”
Privatization of water services is often mistaken for the privatization of water but this is far from the reality, Díez adds. “When granted a water contract, we do not own water. We are concessionaires and operators of a supply service for the time that it is entrusted to us. The municipality remains the owner of the water itself.”
As water matters are the jurisdiction of municipalities and municipal administrations only last three years, long-term planning is crucial. But Díez says there is an issue with short-term thinking as municipalities charge extremely low water fees. “The issue is not whether water is cheap or expensive. It is a matter of a low collection,” he says. As the monitoring, operation and maintenance of water infrastructure are often neglected, the service becomes irregular. Users do not want to pay for an erratic water supply and as the payment is low, the sector starts taking the back seat.
Aqualia’s Country Manager believes that the first step in breaking this vicious cycle is education. The company tries to add its grain of sand by promoting education campaigns. “Water companies are the only ones that promote lower consumption and savings of their product,” he says. “But this makes sense to us because we do not sell water. We sell the service of a high-quality and sustainable water supply.”
Díez says there in no city in Mexico with a sustainable water cycle. Cities either lack water or have treatment deficiencies. While society is not yet as committed as it should be to water matters, he believes the country is going down the right path. “Water scarcity and supply irregularity lead people to better appreciate this resource and its services,” he says.
Awareness opens up many areas of opportunity for companies such as Aqualia. “Around 40-50 percent of Mexico’s population lacks a 24/7 water service and only around 20 percent of the country’s wastewater is properly treated,” he says. “We believe that Mexico is a country full of opportunities and that with the right will anything can be accomplished.”