Until February 2011, Jean-Claude Seropian, a French hydraulic engineer, worked in Paris as director of operations of Suez Environnement, one of the world’s leading water and waste management companies. That month he moved to Haiti as head of a team of five technical, financial and management experts from Suez and two sister companies, Aguas de Barcelona and United Water. Their mission: to work with the staff of Port-au-Prince’s ailing water utility to arrest the decline of its services. Nine months into a three-year contract financed with grants from the Inter-American Development Bank and the Spanish Water Fund, Seropian discussed the scope of this challenge, the work they have done so far, and what lies ahead.
How would you describe the scale of the challenge the Suez/Agbar/United Water team faces in Port-au-Prince?
I have worked in more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Personally, I think the situation we face in Haiti is one of the most complex I have encountered, so consequently this is a huge challenge. For Suez Environnement is a new, important and extremely worthwhile experience.
Were the team members familiar with Haiti? Had they worked in other low income countries or in areas hit by major natural disasters?
The members of our team had never worked in Haiti until now, but they’ve had the opportunity to work in large cities where they dealt with the sort of issues you often find in low-income urban areas: Manila, Jakarta, Casablanca and Buenos Aires, to name a few. And the entire team has quickly adapted to conditions in Port-au-Prince.
Could you describe briefly the situation you found on the ground when you arrived earlier this year?
From a citywide standpoint, there’s the pressure due to the presence of earthquake victims camps, the absence of urban planning and zoning rules, the complexity of land ownership, and a very limited response to the population’s water needs. In terms of water supply systems, there’s been a lack of investment, networks aren’t functioning, and facilities and equipment haven’t been maintained in years. In terms of the utility’s staff, there’s an evident lack of motivation, weak management, and there's been no training for years. And on the financial side, the situation is a cause for concern.
Which were some of the short-term goals you set yourselves? Have you been able to achieve them?
The first objective was to gain acceptance and to integrate the service, which we achieved after a period of a few weeks. Then we had to set ourselves the goal of getting staff back to work and launching an action plan to boost revenues. We also had to support the fight against cholera by ensuring the disinfection of water supplied through the network. Today we can say that those goals have been met.
Which are some of the biggest technical challenges you face? Could you describe what is being done or will be done to address them?
The toughest challenge in Port-au-Princeis the multitude of major problems you face, making it difficult to rank them in order of importance. We’ve had to tackle them head on. We've had to protect water sources in places that are often invaded and littered. We’ve launched a project to fence their perimeters; the work is nearly finished. Another issue was the availability of water in the volumes required. Some sources are declining, so we’ve had to compensate by revising the rationing plan. We faced a lack of spare parts and equipment. We purchased available stock in the local market and placed orders abroad. The computer system was unprotected. We developed a plan to secure the system and we’re currently in a consultation phase for its implementation. Client and revenue management was deficient. We've put in place an urgent action plan, which has helped raise collections by 25 percent.
From the standpoint of a water and sanitation services provider, how are you dealing with the threat of cholera?
Cholera is a real and present threat. The solution lies in ensuring the water we distribute is disinfected. We set up a cholera crisis team, which is carrying out an action plan with several key goals: building a permanent stock of water disinfecting products; establishing a disinfection procedure at water sources and reservoirs; supervising a 15-person team that checks the quality of disinfection round-the-clock; monitoring bacteriological levels at communal water taps; and carrying out weekly reviews of these actions to make any necessary adjustments. In terms of sanitation, DINEPA has set up a fleet of trucks to collect excreta and deliver it to a waste treatment site.
Revenue collection can be a struggle for utilities with very poor clients. What is the situation in Port-au-Prince? How do you go about improving revenues?
This is one of the biggest problems with the water service in Port-au-Prince. The current fee structure is very complex and it lacks transparency. In addition, the level of service is far below what consumers expect. To round this off, the socio-economic situation does not allow for much flexibility. Our strategy starts with recovering customer confidence by proving that the water service exists, that despite the lack of means our teams are making efforts to provide the service. This is already happening, and the increase in revenues suggests that clients are getting the message. The next step is to analyze the fees to replace the current structure. This work is underway and should be done by February. Finally, given the socio-economic issues, we’re strengthening activities in poor neighborhoods. We’re also introducing payment schedules in the bills sent to customers. But boosting revenues will also depend on increasing the number of customers; in order to achieve this goal the level of service must improve significantly.
Which are some of the top goals you hope to have achieved by the time your work is completed?
There are a number of goals I’m sure we can achieve in the context of the actions we’re taking. There should be a marked improvement in the quality of service, which entails improving distribution by moving towards continuous service, gaining consumer confidence in the quality of the water supplied, making the operation of the system more reliable, and establishing a modern and efficient customer service. We should increase the utility’s financial strength, enabling it to gain financial autonomy and reduce its reliance on external support, secure financing for public works and increase transparency in the invoices. We should also leave behind a properly functioning organization, with a qualified and motivated management, exemplary in its performance. A transparent utility with all the necessary qualifications.
How long could it take Port-au-Prince to achieve the water and sanitation coverage of a city of a similar size, such as Santo Domingo? How much would it cost, in terms of investments in infrastructure?
The issue of water in Port-au-Prince is very complex. It requires renewing part of the existing network, expanding it to areas not served, strengthening water production and probably looking for new sources, protecting the existing resources, developing a client management system, training staff and building their skills, and opening the utility to civil society and involving consumers.
All of these actions will take a lot of time and money; it doesn’t look like this would be possible for another 10 years unless strategic decisions are taken now. In terms of costs, it would probably cost more than $200 million.
The outlook for sanitation is even more worrisome. There is no sewerage at present in Port-au-Prince. There are no rules in place. Bringing sanitation to an existing urban area requires a completely innovative and unconventional approach. The timelines for achieving a working sanitation system are certainly too long, and costs are hard to estimate when you haven’t settled on a specific solution. But building a sanitation system also raises the issue of funding to cover operating costs, on top of the present socio-economic constraints.