Prem Saddul – Associate Professor and Chairman of the CWA

International World Water Day

“I am not at ease at all with the idea of privatization or any form it might take, whether we call it strategic partnership or whatever”

“The per capita consumption of potable water in Mauritius (170 litres/head) is among the highest in the world. Is it because our water is too cheap…?”

“Singapore took some 60 years to reduce their Non Revenue Water to the present 5%”

“The CWA produces 1 meter cube of potable water of international norm at a cost of Rs 12.00 and sells it at a price of Rs 13.00 which means a profit margin of only Re1/cubic metre.

This is the lowest price in any country of Africa. By comparison, one litre of bottled water is being sold at Rs 18.50, which is around 3600 times more costly than the same amount one can obtain from a tap. This low profit margin is insufficient to allow for growth …” says Associate Professor Prem Saddul, who is presently the Chairman of the CWA. But being given that “water is a sensitive issue and it has to be affordable for all,” there is, moreover, a cost subsidization policy to protect the vulnerable groups, whereby around 100,000 of consumers (out of a total of 343,000) pay a minimum charge of Rs55 monthly for a consumption not exceeding 10 cubic metres. Is this policy sustainable? We spoke to Prem Saddul in the context of International World Water Day, the celebration of which on 22 March every year, is meant to focus attention on the importance of freshwater and to advocate in favour of the sustainable management of freshwater resources.

Mauritius Times: Scientists have been warning us for quite some time now to the changes that are occurring in climate conditions (perhaps irreversibly) at the global, continental, regional, and local levels and making predictability of established patterns of rainwater supply more risk-prone with time. Tell us what the Central Water Authority (CWA) is doing about it: are you working on putting in place the necessary water storage capacity to safeguard us from any future severe water shortage, of the kind we were heading for only a few years back?

Prem Saddul: Given the uncertainties associated with climate change, periods of meteorological extremes are bound to affect and disrupt rainfall patterns in Mauritius. This adds to the vulnerability of Mauritius as a Small Island Developing State. We have already witnessed a “spacial and temporal” shift in rainfall pattern with heavy rain falling far from our main catchment areas (spacial) and the usual summer rainfall having a tendency to shift from November-December to February-March (temporal). Rainfall is the primary source of water supply in Mauritius. However, between 1905 and 2007, a decrease of 8% in annual rainfall has been noted statistically.

Many would say that Mauritius may be classified as a water-stressed country. I still believe that with proper management of our resources, with determination and goodwill and with the close collaboration of the public in general, we can come out of that situation. We have the potential to balance the demand-supply formula in a sustainable manner. This is my challenge and commitment as Chairman of the Central Water Authority.

Fully aware of the possible impacts of climate change, Government and the CWA have made climate change adaptation and mitigation a priority and have already adopted a multipronged approach to address impacts and enhance resilience.

A Master Plan for “Development of Water Resources in Mauritius” was prepared in 2012 with the ultimate objective of meeting water demand in the different supply zones of the Island.

Improving our water storage capacity, identifying and mobilizing additional water resources, reviewing the existing legislative framework governing the water resources sector, assessing and rationalizing the existing water rights system are some of the actions which the Ministry of Energy and Public Utilities is currently taking.

Concrete actions taken so far and others which are in the pipeline include, among others, the interconnection of our water supply systems: (1) Mare Longue has been connected to La Marie Treatment Plant since October 2010 and some additional 10,000 cubic metres of raw water are being pumped from the reservoir; (2) Midlands Dam will soon be connected to Piton du Milieu Treatment Plant; (3) the Arnaud Dam which will be operational as from the next rainy season will inject an additional 20 million cubic metres of raw water from Rivière du Poste into Mare Aux Vacoas; (4) the Bagatelle Dam, with a storage capacity of 14 million cubic metres will be operational as from December 2016.

It should, however, be noted that huge investments are required for dam construction and the implementation period is relatively long, ranging from 3 to 5 years. As from the year 2010, we are also extracting river water which is being treated by mobile containerized Treatment Plants during drought periods. This is a fall back action. More ground water explorations and exploitations are being carried out to tap additional ground water sources. Concurrently, we are reducing water losses through pipe renewal.

* But it was mostly the generosity of Nature which helped ward off the serious water supply problem the country was running into during successive years due to prolonged droughts. And it does not seem that the implementation of sound projects in increase storage capacity in the sector in terms of reservoirs and dams has obtained the degree of priority it should have received in earlier years. This begs the question as to whether our water management authorities, namely the Central Water Authority (CWA) and the Water Resources Unit (WRU) of the Ministry of Energy and Public Utilities, should not have been merged with a view to creating the necessary synergies to produce the best outcomes in this vital sector? What is your personal view on this matter?

The Government has approved recommendations of the Singapore team for the setting up of a “One Water” strategy in the form of an Integrated Water Sector Management. This new Water Authority would integrate the Central Water Authority, the Water Resources Unit, the Irrigation Authority and the Waste Water Management Authority as one Unit so as to take a holistic approach to managing the water sector in Mauritius.

The process for putting in place these reform measures has already been initiated. I fully subscribe to this initiative as it would inject a new dynamism to the whole process and would improve to a large extent water network management and monitoring. I am confident Government will appoint persons with the right profile to lead the new Water Authority.

* The idea of a (foreign) strategic partner for the CWA to help bolster up its performance and capacity has been canvassed for a number of years. There have also been some debates about its eventual privatisation. It is for the policy makers to decide what they consider is the best way forward for the CWA, but would you say, based on your exposure to this sector during the time you have been in the Chair, that the CWA is in need of a strategic partner and that a private-sector profit-motivated supplier would do a better job?

I would like to be frank and straightforward in answering this question. I am not at ease at all with the idea of privatization or any form it might take, whether we call it strategic partnership or whatever. If it happens, the problem I foresee is that the foreigners, in case an overseas organisation is invited to take over, would use the soft language of partnership at the beginning and slowly and tactfully play the game of “the Arab and the Camel” with us. When we realize it, it would be just too late. No, I am against this idea.

I am given to understand that, in the past, the Central Water Board had cast aside that idea on several occasions. The problems of Mauritius should be tackled by Mauritians as we have the brain, the experience and the expertise to do it – in other words, we have a good enough quantity of quality people at home to shoulder that responsibility. What we need is goodwill, determination and commitment.

* Regarding the prevailing low water pricing – apparently at an average of Rs 5.00 per cubic meter, it is less than one cent per litre –, there may even be political reasons why water could not have been priced at the appropriate level to make the sector more efficient, and it is for the policy makers to decide what’s best for the CWA. But is this what’s hampering the CWA from generating sufficient surpluses to make for the required capital investments or for the future viability of projects undertaken in the water sector?

Water is a sensitive issue and it has to be affordable for all. The Pricing Policy regarding charges for water has, for practical purposes, been outside the full control of the CWA. There are different rates for different categories of consumers and the tariff increases according to consumption. There is, moreover, a cost subsidization policy to protect the vulnerable groups. This is why around 100,000 of consumers (out of a total of 343,000) pay a minimum charge of Rs55 monthly for a consumption not exceeding 10 cubic metres.

The total income generated by the CWA enables it to cover its current expenditure, but that does not enable it to generate sufficient funds for all capital investment.

It is good to note that the CWA produces 1 meter cube of potable water of international norm at a cost of Rs 12.00 and sells it at a price of Rs 13.00 which means a profit margin of only Re1/cubic metre. This is the lowest price in any country of Africa.

By comparison, one litre of bottled water is being sold at Rs 18.50 which is around 3600 times more costly than the same amount one can obtain from a tap.

This low profit margin is insufficient to allow for growth and is usually absorbed by interest repayment on Government loans and for PRB 2013 staff salary increase.

The per capita consumption of potable water in Mauritius (170 litres/head) is among the highest in the world. Is it because our water is too cheap, so much so that most of our countrymen use water in an irrational way according to their wants and not according to their needs?

To encourage efficient behaviour, as far as water consumption is concerned, I believe that water should be priced at a level that both encourages rational use and properly reflects its cost of treatment and distribution and especially… making users more responsible… We need to inculcate a responsible attitude in our consumers and this will be another element to balance the water demand-supply equation.

Over and above all, a new phenomenon has emerged in Mauritius, which I would call “Rurbanisation”: with rurbanisation (that is urbanisation of formerly rural areas on the fringes of towns or cities), industrialisation and rapid growth and development in other sectors, water demand and consumption is increasing by almost 6% every year.

* Another issue that has been canvassed in the media as well as in the CWA itself is the leakage of nearly half of the water pumped into our aged piping system which is said to be at the heart of our water problem. That would entail the replacement of the piping system where necessary – to the tune of around one billion rupees. The question that arises whether the aged piping system really at the heart of our water problem. How come we are getting water at the pressure level at which it comes to our taps?

The reduction of Non Revenue Water (NRW) has been at the top of the CWA agenda for years. NRW comprises three components:

– physical losses through leakage caused mainly by very old and poor quality of the pipes network, poor operations and maintenance, lack of leakage control;

– Commercial losses resulting from default water meters and unauthorized consumption; and

– theft of water in various forms and water provided for free to certain consumer groups.

NRW is a problem which is universal and it is more acute in developing countries where the NRW levels are in the range of 40 to 50 percent of the treated water produced being lost or unaccounted for.

The challenge of Government and that of the CWA is to reduce NRW to the minimum in all sectors of the island. As part of a government to government cooperation, a Singapore team has been recruited for the implementation of a reduction in NRW project focusing in the Upper Mare Aux Vacoas (MAV) regions which was most affected during the last drought episode.

The main funding of the NRW project is sourced by way of a loan from Government to CWA along with part funding from the European Investment Bank. The programme inclusive of project management services and the related works is presently estimated at a cost of Rs 1 billion.

The project would utilize the latest technological advances in terms of telemetry and network monitoring which would be the model for CWA to replicate subsequently in other parts of the island.

The main objective of the project is to ensure sustainable water for all on a 24 x 7 basis with good quality of services in the Upper MAV Zone which has an area of 220km2 and a population of 220,000 and a pipeline network of 676 km… with pipes ranging from 60 to 100 years old and where an estimated of 35% of treated water is lost through leaks.

The figure of nearly half of water lost through old pipes, which you quote in your question, is not the whole story. NRW is water lost through physical as well as commercial losses. Aged water pipes leading to physical losses are only part of the problem. Another part is old customer meters leading to the commercial losses. CWA is tackling the problem from both angles.

Work started in July 2013 and the target is to reduce NRW in the region of Upper Mare aux Vacoas by 10% by 2015 and so on until we reach a level of NRW which is of acceptable international standard. Let me point out that Singapore took some 60 years to reduce their NRW to the present 5%.

 


* Published in print edition on 21 March 2014

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