The role of private operators in delivering water services

IWP welcomed Jean-Michel Herrewyn, founder and chairman of fWE and former CEO of Veolia Water, the world’s largest water company, to give a seminar on the successes and challenges of private water operators to mark World Water Day on 22nd March 2017.

He drew on his extensive experience in the industry and offered valuable reflections on when and how private operators can contribute to achieving the sustainable development goals of universal access to water and sanitation services while learning from their sometimes controversial track record.

Managing water operations requires a wide range of expertise, he explained; from technical operations of networks or treatment facilities to customer management and institutional relations management. The core offer of private operators is to bring this expertise to the utility to raise service standards and efficiency, making better use of limited public funds. If services are in dire need of reform, a private partner working to clear performance targets can drastically improve outcomes.

Herrewyn argued that private managers are not inherently better than public managers – there are many examples of public utilities which are both efficient and innovative – but managers from global companies bring a breadth of experience and ideas from different geographies and regulatory contexts and can challenge ingrained practices, generating benefits for both parties.

Looking forward, he identified three challenges for water utilities. Firstly, urbanisation at a pace and scale that developed countries never experienced. Secondly, the need for engineer-driven companies to get to grips with social and environmental issues. Thirdly, the digital agenda. Herrewyn sees great potential for utilities to employ digital technologies to optimise the performance of networks; introduce innovative tariff structures; and shift towards decentralised solutions for urban service delivery.