Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the capital of Gran Canaria, the largest and most densely populated island among the Canary Islands. This archipelago is located in the Atlantic Ocean and is part of Spain. Las Palmas is a tough nut to crack when it comes to water services. Several factors contribute to the complexity of the task. First, as the city and island are ocean-bound, there is no natural fresh water available, making the city entirely dependent on desalination for its water supplies. Second, it is situated in rugged volcanic terrain, where the 1,000-meter altitude difference between the coast and the city's highest point poses infrastructural and engineering challenges. And third, Las Palmas’ water services are co-owned by the city council.
Technical and political challenges
‘The challenges of desalination and distribution are technical ones, and we are continuously innovating in these areas’, says Rogerio Koehn, General Manager of Saur Spain. ‘The public-private partnership is key to managing water in big cities. In our view, in the future, many of the big water issues in large cities in the world will have to be faced with close public-private collaboration. With that in mind, we see the work we are doing in Las Palmas as a pointer toward the future.’
Since 1993, every stage of the water cycle for the 400,000 residents of the Canary Islands capital has been managed by Emalsa. The contract is a benchmark in the market for seawater desalination, relying on a technique called reverse osmosis and using facilities with a total production capacity of 85,000 m3 per day. Wastewater is treated and reused for irrigating the city’s public gardens - a rare feat of water reuse in today’s global urban landscape. An additional issue is the seasonal influx of tourists, causing huge fluctuations in water demand.
All decisions are unanimous
The political challenges of this project are quite as interesting as the technical ones, Rogerio Koehn emphasizes. ‘We have developed a unique form of collaboration with the city council. The board is 66% Saur, so formally, we call the shots; but we decided that all decisions must be unanimous. In fact, I have been here two years, and every decision has indeed been unanimous. This means that in addition to technical prowess, we all work on, and benefit from good, healthy relations with the city’s politicians, because they are inside the company. Together, we justify every decision, and together, we navigate all the questions involved. It works very well. And it is a good way, perhaps the only good way, to keep in step as private and public partners and to work side-by-side in serving the city’s citizens.'
A model for the future
Rogerio Koehn sees Saur’s collaboration with the Las Palmas city council as a model for other public-private collaborations in other major cities in the world. ‘There are many cities where water services are too complex to be privatized. Think of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Rome, Latin American cities. If we can offer the kind of balanced, futureproof, joint venture we have developed with Las Palmas - also working together to address the challenge of access to capital - we have a strong offer. And the mayor of Las Palmas is our best ambassador - along with the citizens, who give our water services very high ratings. Las Palmas is the perfect illustration of a very futureproof, long-term vision.’