Creating a sustainable future for water in Ajman

Meeting the needs and expectations of a growing population in a part of the world with limited water resources requires innovation and foresight, according to ASPCL, a wastewater management company in the emirate of Ajman, part of the United Arab Emirates.

The Middle East is one of the world’s most arid regions and faces numerous water-related challenges, including increasing demand resulting from growing use and expanding populations, desertification, the high cost of desalination and dwindling groundwater reserves. Governments in the region have always been aware of the precarious nature of water resources but over the past decade there has been a new impetus in addressing these challenges highlighted by the creation of a Unified Water Sector Strategy for Gulf Cooperation Council of Arab Member States.

ASPCL decided to expand plant capacity by 50%, enabling the treatment of an additional 40 million litres of wastewater per day. ING acted as joint mandated lead arranger on the USD 25 million capex facility to finance the increase in capacity of the wastewater treatment infrastructure.

“Historically, most of the water in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the wider region has come from groundwater reserves,” explains Christophe Ledur, general manager at Ajman Sewerage (Private) Company (ASPCL). “However, these reserves are now diminishing locally because of high levels of extraction as the population increases. While groundwater remains an important resource for agriculture, desalination has become the primary water source and water conservation has become ever more important.” 

A crucial part of any water strategy is effective wastewater management. The United Arab Emirates with the largest populations, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, have long-established and well-run wastewater systems. In early 2000, the smaller emirate of Ajman made the decision to procure a wastewater system to reduce its reliance on septic tanks and disposal practices that were unsustainable and potentially harmful to the environment, and selected a public-private partnership as the most appropriate vehicle for this. After some initial delays, the project was restructured in 2006 as a public-private partnership between the government of Ajman, global multi-services construction group BESIX and international leader in environmental services Veolia, with ASPCL as the holder of the government concession for sewerage services in the emirate.

“ASPCL’s goal was straightforward: to transform the collection and treatment of wastewater in Ajman by creating a state-of-the-art wastewater system for the emirate, comprising an extensive sewerage network and a centralised wastewater treatment plant,” says Ledur. “In terms of efficiency it now matches the best in the region.” Instead of raw wastewater being disposed of by septage tankers to inland municipal lagoons, it is now collected and treated biologically to high standards by the wastewater system. Presently 50% of the treated water by-product produced is re-cycled for irrigation and other purposes, with the surplus treated water released to wetlands adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant or to the sea. As well as the obvious benefit of avoiding pollution, the use of septic tanks and septage tankers within the network area is no longer required, improving convenience and amenity for customers. While septic tanks are still a feature in the remaining un-serviced areas in the emirate, the septage from these is now transported by septage tankers to the wastewater treatment plant.

Meeting Ajman’s growing needs

As part of its 25-year build-own-operate-transfer concession, ASPCL is committed to expanding the coverage of its sewerage network to accommodate Ajman’s growing population and rapidly expanding urban area. “From the commencement of the wastewater treatment and disposal services concession period in 2009 we always knew that additional investment would be necessary,” says Ledur. “These projects take time to come to fruition given the need to obtain consents, put financing facilities in place and get construction underway. So while ASPCL was comfortably meeting its requirements in the medium term, we knew 2015 would be a critical year to get ahead of the curve in terms of capacity requirements.”

To accommodate future demand – theoretically until the end of its concession in 2034 – ASPCL decided to expand plant capacity by 50%, enabling the treatment of an additional 40 million litres of wastewater per day. “To do that, and implement other upgrades and network expansions we had planned, we needed USD 25 million in financing, in addition to the earlier USD 100 million 20-year loan provided by ING to construct the initial wastewater system,” says Ledur. “Naturally we turned to ING as our first option to procure the financing, and increasing the amount of the existing capex facility with ING quickly became our preferred approach,” says Ledur.

“We’ve formed a close, trusting relationship and they (the ING team) have supported us to the greatest extent possible and understand our business and the water sector well.” - Christophe Ledur, ASPCL

Ledur says that ASPCL did not hesitate in approaching ING about expanding the capex facility because its working relationship with the bank has always been excellent. “Some of the people on the ING team have been there since the early days of the project,” he says. “We’ve formed a close, trusting relationship and they have supported us to the greatest extent possible and understand our business and the water sector well.” ING acted as joint mandated lead arranger on the USD 25 million capex facility to finance the increase in capacity of the wastewater treatment infrastructure, which was completed in a relatively short timeframe given the bank’s familiarity with the asset and all the parties involved. 

A commitment to sustainability

As a utilities and environmental services company, sustainability is at the heart of ASPCL’s approach to business. “Sustainability is part of our operational remit and is written into our concession agreement with the government. We are committed to delivering a state-of-the-art wastewater system that meets Ajman’s needs, both in terms of capacity and environmental protection,” says Ledur. “However, sustainability is also a core value for us because of the wider benefits it brings to society. We believe that sustainability is important to all businesses – not just those active in environmental services,” says Ledur.

As well as enshrining sustainability within its corporate culture, ASPCL actively promotes sustainability both internally and externally. The company educates its employees about its sustainability objectives and environmental responsibilities. ASPCL is also involved in campaigns – run both by the company and jointly with the municipal authorities – to promote conservation of water resources and the wider environment. “ASPCL takes its responsibilities very seriously, and considers the education of young people vital to conservation,” says Ledur. “To promote this we hold open days for school, college and university groups at our plant on a regular basis so they can understand what we do and why it is important for Ajman.”