An Interview with Dr. Adalberto Noyola on Latin America's Water Industry

Feb. 15, 2009
The engineering institute director from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, after two years as AIDIS president, discusses challenges in Latin American water markets and the association's work to help engineer solutions in austere times...

By Carlos David Mogollon, Water & Wastewater International

Past AIDIS president discusses challenges in Latin American water markets and the association's work to help engineer solutions in austere times

Dr. Adalberto Noyola Robles granted us an opportunity to chat about his previous two years as president of AIDIS, the society of sanitary and environmental engineers for the Americas, at the organization's biennial Interamerican Congress, which was held in October 2008 in Santiago, Chile.

The head of the Instituto de Ingeniería at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City, Noyola discusses the organization's work with the Water Operator Partnerships (WOPS) and Waster Safety Plans (WSPs). The first involves the International Water Association (IWA), UN Habitat and Interamerican Development Bank (IDB). And the second involves the World Health Organization's Pan-American unit (PAHO), U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Environmental Protection Association (USEPA).

He also discusses the first Foro Interamericano sobre Servicios de Agua y Saneamiento, which was co-located with the Santiago congress, and future plans for the association under the leadership of new president Carlos Alberto Rosito, of Brazil's Saint-Gobain Canalização Ltda.

This interview corresponds with an "Executive Watch" column that appeared in the February/March 2009 issue of Water & Wastewater International that can be accessed by clicking here.

Read on for the full interview with Dr. Noyola:

WWi: We're here in Santiago, Chile, with Adalberto Noyola, the outgoing president of the Asociación Interamericana de Ingeniería Sanitaria y Ambiental (AIDIS) -- or, in English, Inter-American Association of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering, which has 23 national chapters in the Americas, as well as one for the Caribbean region. Some of the largest are Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Canada and the USA. Dr. Noyola is also a professor of environmental engineering at the Instituto de Ingeniería for UNAM, or the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Give us, if you could, an overview on what we've seen accomplished here in Santiago at the XXXI Congreso Interamericano de AIDIS.

Noyola: I think it's early to give a closing point. There's still another day left.

WWi: What I mean is what's been accomplished so far. The session last night with the International Water Association, for instance...

Noyola: You mean regarding the Water Safety Plans (WSPs)?

WWi: Exactly. How important was that to AIDIS and its plans?

Noyola: In this Congress, we have three highlights besides the normal technical program. One was this forum -- the first Foro Interamericano sobre Servicios de Agua y Saneamiento, or Interamerican Forum on Water and Sanitation Services, highlighting water utilities -- two days with leaders, managers, regulators. You follow more or less the program. I think it was at a very high level, a good opportunity to discuss in Latin America the experience with water utilities and the type of management structures. The other two were the Water Operator Partnerships (WOPS), that tomorrow we have a workshop on, and the Water Safety Plans, for which we had a workshop last night covering. AIDIS has joined this initiative.

WWi: One with the International Water Association, the other with... ?

Noyola: The Water Safety Plan program is with the leadership in the region of PAHO, CDC and the USEPA. [For details on WSPs from the World Health Organization, click here; from the CDC, click here, and from the USEPA, click here.]

WWi: Tell me about the WSPs?

Noyola: Well, this also includes the International Water Association where Coca-Cola is financing part of it with a low-profile position...

WWi: ...or as low profile as Coca-Cola can manage?

Noyola: Yes. And they are supporting this by helping translate the manual to Spanish and also providing funds in order that IWA has a manager for this program -- a Spanish speaking manager.

WWi: In Latin America?

Noyola: In Latin America, yes. So, IWA will hire a Spanish-speaking manager that will be based in Peru to push these Water Safety Plans in the whole region.

WWi: I'm imagining that would be coordinated through the offices of CEPIS -- the Centro Panamericano de Ingeniería Sanitaria y Ciencias del Ambiente -- of PAHO in Lima?

Noyola: That's it. He will be based in the CEPIS offices. And we have a lot to do on that as AIDIS. I think through our network of national chapters we can help a lot all these partners in order to accomplish the goals. You saw that we have only nine experiences in the region to draw upon, so we have to multiply that many times over the next years. So, this is one of the highlights. The other is the Water Operator Partnerships, which AIDIS helped to launch in the region since last year when we started to work with the United Nations and UN Habitat as the owner of the program globally. In our region, the Inter-American Development Bank was very much interested. They loan to water utilities and so they are very much interested in this cooperation.

WWi: There was a big funding commitment to that as well. What was that?

Noyola: I don't have the figure but, yes, it's a new way to collaborate. It's a partnering or twinning program, but without... ay, how do you say in English finas de lucra... not for making business but not-for-profit -- at least on the first part of the cooperation.

WWi: It's not for commercial gain but as a cooperative exchange where each partner teaches something to the other.

Noyola: That's it -- just paying the expenses of traveling, but not earning money for that. That eventually could come in the second part of the cooperation. This could be a very effective way of improving water utilities in many parts of the region. We have very strong water utilities.

WWi: Some are also very big, such as SABESP -- which is one of the largest in this hemisphere.

Noyola: Yes, we also have COPASA and Aguas Andinas, in a different way. It's private. The others are public. In some countries you can find water utilities with a lot of experience that are efficient and effective. They can help other smaller utilities quickly improve their services. And this is supported by the Inter-American Development Bank, UN Habitat which opened or led the base to BID, as it's known for its acronym in Spanish. And the IWA is also participating because this association pioneered the WOPs program in East Asia and Africa [PDF]. [for more from the IWA on this program, see:]. So, they will bring also their experiences in those regions. But the Water Operator Partnerships are advancing much more rapidly here than there, even though we just started. You listen to Corinne Cathala, the representative of the Inter-American Development Bank, and they have already five or six partnerships going. And the guy from COPASA mentioned other ones even with countries outside the region, for instance, in Africa with Angola and Mozambique. The opportunities are enormous. And AIDIS also, by providing linkages and the space for the proper approach, will take the lead with signing statements. We think these two initiatives -- the Water Security Plans and Water Operator Partnerships -- will help make it happen. With these two also, the water utilities may have a methodology or some means to improve their services without necessarily investing a lot of money.

WWi: Talking about money, yesterday we were chatting about the financial crisis and what impact that may have on some of these goals, not only the UN Millennium Development Goals and how they tie into water and sanitation but as well on the goals of AIDIS and its members throughout the region. Admittedly, there are a lot of concerns. I'd mentioned to you earlier today the commitment by BID to put $35 million a year into grants and loans for the Latin American region in particular to kick start water and sanitation projects. In the few weeks since that's passed, we've had the financial crisis emerge on a global scale over credit availability. And today, it was announced that IDB would work with the Andean Development Corporation and a couple of other regional development authorities and banks, including the IFC, etc., to make themselves $6 billion available for immediate credit liquidity in the region. This isn't strictly related to water and wastewater, but it's to create a more fluid basis in letting banks lend to each other and keep that credit situation open. They also committed to a $12 billion investment over the next year, in 2009 in particular. So, that's going to -- one would hope -- loosen things up a bit. What's your reaction to it?

Noyola: Of course, the sector is receiving a lot of investment since say two or three years, in some countries, historic investments, you may say. And I think that this should continue...

WWi: Prior to yesterday, did it have you worried?

Noyola: The signs were there. But also, the problem of the financial crisis, at the moment, and I'm not a financial expert at all...

WWi: Neither am I...

Noyola: But I think this is kind of a bubble that exploded and it will settle in a few weeks. The problem of the exchange rates could eventually hinder some decisions in the countries. But I think that this sanitation and "water-for-all" concept is now much more rooted in the society and the people, so I don't think that this crisis eventually would make all of these decisions going forward to meet the Millennium Development Goals be pushed to a beyond a third priority, fortunately. Maybe it's not in the first priority, but it's in the second and it will move back. Maybe the pace will be reduced, but the political decision is there, even in spite of the financial problems which will eventually settle and we will be back to normal times with all the commitment of the banks and the governments to continue to increase their investments in this sector that for so many years was forgotten.

WWi: One might also say that Latin America has been organized within each of the different parties and different countries for so long now that they haven't necessarily relied on a lot of cash coming from outside to push some of these initiatives forward. Thus, it's as if they don't have the means to move some of these issues forward on a more informal level. Or, as you were saying, with some of the Water Operator Partnership programs that have been going on informally, they don't require a lot of money regardless to share experiences and knowledge and methods to improve things. Those exchanges can still go forward while everything settles out.

Noyola: Exactly. If we can go forward waiting for the financial community to find its head again, be more reasonable, not so much speculation and it will maybe take some weeks or even months. Meanwhile, we can continue preparing projects, making decisions and political agreements in order to be ready for the times when it all settles and the flow of investment may continue.

WWi: What's the next few events after this forum is done where we're going to have some key things happening?

Noyola: Considering the forum of water utilities for water services the next important step is in November at the Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil, meeting of the American Regional Consortium (ARC) [which hosted the Water Forum of the Americas on Nov. 24-25, 2008 -- click here for minutes of the AIDIS Congress meeting on the ARC event (in Spanish) and click here for details of the Water Forum of the Americas itself] that will discuss the position of the continent, the whole continent, towards the World Water Forum in Istanbul. This is next month. AIDIS tends to go with the position that our experience in the modes of water utility management gives us a lot to offer the world. I think we have to offer as a region, with several successful models as well as notable failures...

WWi: You learn from both...

Noyola: Yes, that's true. And we plan to represent those to the broader audience internationally in order that Africa or Southeast Asia or other areas can learn from us. Then, after that, we have in Istanbul the Fifth World Water Forum, which is organized by the World Water Council, on March 16-22, 2009. And AIDIS, in its way, will continue with it's normal program of regional congresses, thematic conferences, seminars and workshops -- and, in two years, I don't know if we are going to organize at the same time a second forum like this. Maybe not, because it was quite demanding for the audience, as well as for us. Maybe we will have the Inter-American Congress in the Républica Dominicana in Punta Cana. It's already settled. And maybe we will take the Forum to Brazil or Mexico in a different date.

WWi: Now, Mexico hosted the last World Water Forum. And is it next year that it's hosting the World Environment Day, which is a UN Environment Programme sponsored event on June 5 of each year?

Noyola: I don't know. I'm not aware of that, but it could be. In Mexico, an important event for us in the water industry is the 22nd ANEAS annual meeting, which is for the National Association of Water and Sanitation Utilities, or ANEAS in Spanish. Roberto Olivares is the ANEAS director. That's next month. It's a very important event and the only congress in Mexico where the AIDIS president goes. We will be there -- as AIDIS -- discussing the Water Safety Plans and Water Operator Partnership program. And later in 2009, Mexico will host the 1st International Water Association Development Congress in Mexico City in September. There may be some others, but those are the ones that come to mind at the moment.

WWi: Okay, well, I want to thank you for your time. I'm sure our readers will find all of this very interesting.

Noyola: Thank you.


To read more on AIDIS' Plan of Work for 2008-10, click here for a PDF document in Spanish.

The next biennial congress, the XXXII Congresso Interamericana de AIDIS, will be held Nov. 7-11, 2010, in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. For more information, click here.

For hyperlinks to a photo gallery, presentations, posters and forum archives from the XXXI Congreso Interamericano de AIDIS in Santiago, Chile, click here.


Dr. Adalberto Noyola Robles
Instituto de Ingeniería
Coordinación de Bioprocesos Ambientales
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Edificio 5, Segundo Piso,
Ciudad Universitaria
04510 México, D.F. - MEXICO
Tel: +52 (55) 5623-3600 x3662
Fax: +52 (55) 5616-2798
Email: [email protected]