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Making a Splash

Interview with Xavier Joseph, Veolia's CEO of Gulf Countries

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Xavier Joseph, Veolia's CEO of Gulf Countries.
Xavier Joseph, Veolia's CEO of Gulf Countries.

When the price of oil began to slump a few months ago, a number of observers predicted bleak prospects for Oman. The Sultanate’s heavy dependence on oil revenues would make it the first country in the Middle to tighten its belt and rein in spending on infrastructure, it was said.

Budget constraints, combined with the lack of clarity over the health of Sultan Qaboos and uncertainty over his eventual succession, raised considerable question marks over Oman’s ability to follow through with ambitious plans to meet predicted demand in the utility sector, they added.

However the country appears to be confounding the doubters by forging ahead with projects. At least for now. Xavier Joseph, Veolia’s chief executive of Gulf Countries, is just back from a business trip to Muscat and says there is no sign of austerity measures kicking in just yet.

“Right now you have a lot of ongoing projects in Oman despite the fact that they should be one of the most impacted by the drop in the oil price,” he tells Utilities Middle East. “They’ve decided to carry on with investments in infrastructure, so we are very confident for the 2015 market in Oman.”

Joseph is not here to talk about Oman specifically, but about regional activity in wastewater treatment, a sector in which Veolia is an undisputed global leader. The France-based company is a developer and operator of large plants and its regional presence is focused heavily on the UAE, including facilities in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Ajman. It is also the operator of the Doha South wastewater treatment plant in Qatar.

“We don’t have similar businesses in Oman because we were advising the Public Authority of Water Services for six years and therefore we did not work on wastewater contracts,” he explains.

“We were consultants to them, so during this six-year period we did not bid for wastewater contracts. That was a strategic decision from our side. We don’t have any wastewater business in Oman so far, but we hope to get some in the future.”

Neither does Veolia directly operate wastewater treatment plants in Saudi Arabia. Instead, through a technical assistance contract with National Water Company (NWC), it helps operate and maintain big plants that serve the country’s capital city, Riyadh. Saudi is probably the country that recycles the highest proportion of its wastewater, such is the demand from agriculture.

Xavier’s 20-year career in the water industry has taken him from his home country to one of the most water scare regions of the planet. He insists that the Middle East is amongst the most dynamic regions in the world for wastewater treatment.

One of the main reasons for that is because potable water is produced by desalinating seawater, and that creates a climate in which it’s very important to preserve the quality of the source of that water.

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“Officially, 100% of all water is treated in this region,” he says. “If there is any wastewater that goes into the sea untreated, it’s done illegally. In the UAE there is no place where wastewater goes untreated. Overall this region is very impressive in terms of the level of treatment.

“There are no wastewater plants in the region that don’t have the four main steps of treatment. You have pre-treatment, then physical treatment followed by biological treatment. In 95% of projects in Europe you stop at that point, but in this region each plant has a fourth step - ultrafiltration and disinfection - in order to make the water reusable.”

Reusable does not necessarily mean the water is 100% reused. Sometimes there is a lack of infrastructure to distribute it, or a lack of customers. However, for the most part treated water is used for irrigation, agriculture, landscaping, golf courses, etc, though not for drinking.

“There are only two places in the world, in Japan and Singapore, where water is recycled to potable standard but this is done only on a very small scale as a pilot,” Joseph explains. “In Namibia, Veolia re-injects treated wastewater back into the ground, which eventually becomes potable through natural filtration.”

He adds: “But here the water is at a level of treatment that you can use it for irrigation but not drink it. It’s very close to being drinkable. You could add a fifth stage of treatment to make it safe to drink but then it becomes more expensive than desalination.”

Generally, technological developments have driven the cost of treatment down over time, but much of the focus has been on cutting costs by reducing the amount of land required for a plant, Joseph explains.

These days a plant needs between half and one third the amount of space compared to the 1970s. But with space much less of a constraint in the desert conditions of the Middle East, it makes little economic sense to spend more to deploy the latest technology here.

Fact box:
Veolia’s wastewater treatment portfolio in the Gulf Abu Dhabi, UAE
• ISTP2: Consists of Al Wathba 2 (300,000 m3/day) and Allahamah (130,000 m3/day) wastewater treatment plants
• (The owner of these plants is Al Wathba Veolia Besix Waste Water PJSC, a joint-venture between the government of Abu Dhabi, represented by ADWEA, Veolia and Besix) Ajman, UAE
• 25-year concession operation and maintenance (O&M) contract for a 50,000 m3/day plant Dubai Sports City
• 10-year concession for a 30,000 m3/day plant
• Both plants are operated by Moalajah, a joint-venture between Veolia and Besix Doha, Qatar
• 7-year O&M contract for Doha South treatment plant with 112,000 m3/day capacity Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
• O&M services for six wastewater treatment plants

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