Source: Centro Argentino de Ingenieros.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Securing safe and efficient water supply - interview with Pablo Bereciartua, Argentina’s Secretary of State for Water Resources

Water is essential to human life. According to the United Nations, access to safe and readily accessible drinking water is a fundamental human right. At Wavin, we know this firsthand. We are laser-focused on preventing contamination and water loss from leakages in aging infrastructures – and on increasing the quality and performance of water distribution networks. We’ve made it our mission to provide solutions and form alliances/exchange ideas with likeminded stakeholders to secure safe and efficient water supply. One such likeminded person is Pablo Bereciartua, Argentina’s former Secretary for Infrastructure and Water Policy, who created Argentina’s National Water Plan – connecting policy on water supply and sanitation, climate change, expanding the agricultural frontier, and major infrastructure – where all four key aspects relate to water as a central issue for their sustainable economic development. We learn by example.

Pablo Bereciartua – Water is key to sustainable economic development

For well over a decade, the former Secretary of Infrastructure and Water Policy (December 2015 – December 2019), has spearheaded hundreds of water and infrastructure projects throughout Argentina. In the public sector, engineer Pablo Bereciartua has also served as theDirector of Infrastructurefor theCity of Buenos Aires – where he faced both enormous challenges and opportunities to apply new technologies to the city and regional infrastructure. Additionally, Pablo is the founder and CEO of BerecoLabs a start-up company focused on innovation, technology and management. Bereco uses new technologies and approaches such as Big Data, the internet of things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence, to gain a better understanding of the world around us and, most especially, cities and infrastructure systems.

Sustainable water management – Argentina’s call to action

There are 44 million living in Argentina – 8.2 million of whom have no access to drinking water and another 20 million without sanitation. The country will need to invest upwards of 21 billion (U.S.) dollars to bridge the gap of the “haves” and “have-nots”. And there are other challenges: recent extreme weather events that have further exposed the problem of inadequate water resources management, and water utilities that can’t meet operational costs – thereby struggling to provide quality services. To mitigate these challenges, Pablo Bereciartua and his administration created the country’s first ever National Water Plan. The plan is based on four areas of development: (1) water (access to) and sanitation, (2) adaptation to climate change, (3) expansion of agriculture frontier (develop areas with not enough rainwater), and (4) large scale infrastructure (dams, aqueducts). The Plan also advances a new regulatory framework that will help water utilities improve their financial situation and will promote innovation and private sector participation that will help resolve these challenges. By creating incentives for more efficient water use, the circular economy model can contribute to achieving the Plan.

Despite progress, billions of people still lack safe water, sanitation and handwashing facilities... More efficient use and management of water are critical to addressing the growing demand for water, threats to water security and the increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods resulting from climate change... Most countries are unlikely to reach full implementation of integrated water resources management by 2030.
United Nations , Special edition: progress towards the Sustainalbe Development Goals

Axis of innovation – Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is the capital and largest city (an area measuring 100 x 50 km) of Argentina – with a population of approximately 14 million people – 4 million without any water supply connection and 6.5 million without any sanitation connection. The population multiplied tenfold in past 50 years. Despite this, there was no sewer investment and many use septic solutions which are the source of groundwater pollution. Any existing infrastructure needs a complete overhaul. Furthermore, there had previously been no planning for sewers in the biggest (but also the poorest) metropolitan area (shanty towns).

The National Water and Sanitation Utility, AySA (Agua y Saneamientos Argentinos) is the number one energy consumer in Buenos Aires. They have 25K pipes of which 50% have shown leakages. According to Pablo, the use of meters and digital technology “has the potential to support great improvements in efficiency for the utility, but also deliver a wider benefit in the country’s energy sector.” Therefore, a transformation of AySA’s water and sanitation infrastructure would also resolve the energy problem as well.

Pablo’s project proposal (in December 2015) was to boldly launch a large-scale project that would include all of the (poor) people in the Buenos Aires urban area within the AySA network. So, 4 million people would be added to the network (that’s 1.5 million new connections) – in progressive steps: 1 municipality every 45 days. “Large-scale” meant digging 60-meter-deep holes to install the network and a 12.5-kilometer-long tunnel with a dimension of 5 meters! Buenos Aires became the testing ground for innovation. But how and where would the funding for this ambitious project come from? A number of ways/sources: increased tariffs, more connected accounts, removing AySa from Argentina’s balance sheet (a historical decision), issue a bond on the London Stock Exchange (they asked for 500 million, but received 2.1 billion!).

According to Pablo, “The priority of a government has to be their own citizens.” And also, in a country like Argentina, it is important to be connected and open/transparent to the world – to exchange ideas, business models and innovative technological solutions and establish new private partnerships. For example, he sees that the AIWW (Amsterdam International Water Week) conference “offers an important opportunity for Argentina to contribute in the water arena.” “We see the Netherlands and Amsterdam as leaders in everything relating to infrastructure, sustainability, climate change and water,” he commented. “We very much appreciate the possibility of being part of the event and also using the event to share our ideas, to listen to others, and to explore the possibility of partnerships worldwide.”

We are in a fascinating moment in time. With possibilities of leap-frogging several big challenges. It's really a moment for people who are willing to innovate, and with very high social impact. This is what I value most.I also want to say that I really like what Orbia and Wavin are doing. I am in contact with Oriba/Wavin in Mexico an Colombia, exchanging ideas. We are talking infrastructure projects and I think Orbia/Wavin is unique in this sense: global capacities, strong involvement in LATAM, with important and bold ideas of innovation.
Pablo Bereciartua

The National Water Plan – What does the future look like?

For Pablo, the answer is clear: the priority is to close the gaps on infrastructure. This gap is greatest at the lower income level of society – in the shanty towns, which are growing exponentially. There must be real improvements in the rate of delivering and deploying solutions and for people to get the services. Most importantly, Pablo points out, “We need to improve our cities. Our cities are nowadays the response to globalization. This is where innovation happens and we might even use basic things like water & sanitation as the driving force for innovation – big data, algorithm, glass optic fiber – and to consider the sanitation system as a complement to the health policy of society, to use IoT to monitor public health.”

Water sustains life, but safe clean drinking water defines civilization.
United Nations , Sustainability Development Goal 6

What really matters

For the first time in 75 years the Argentinian government embarked on the gargantuan project of building this large water and sanitation project that was impacting at least 4 million people – one of the most significant of its kind… worldwide. It began in June 2016 and by December 2019, they accomplished 70% – according to plan. As the saying goes: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And the lives of 4 million people have been changed forever, because the water taps have now – finally – been opened!