Water privatisation: Senegal at the crossroads

Published on Pambazuka News, by Olivier Petitjean and Elimane Diouf, June 6, 2011.

While the Senegalese government wishes to ‘disengage financially from the water sector’, it is precisely the previous public management of water that has begun to improve infrastructure and people’s access to the resource.

The water service in the Senegalese cities has been partially privatised since 1996 under the form of a lease contract between the state and the Sénégalaise des eaux (SDE). 51 per cent of the capital of the latter is held by SAUR, renamed FINAGETION in 2005. It is a subsidiary of the Bouygues group, the fourth-largest group in the global water sector. Water management in Senegal is often presented as a ‘model’ public–private partnership (PPP), particularly by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions, all of who have been trying to promote various forms of water privatisation for decades. 

According to them, the lease contract with SAUR has significantly improved access to water for urban populations, explaining that the country is one of the only ones in the African continent to be in a good way to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in regard to access to water, at least in urban areas (as they often forget to specify).

In an international context marked by the spectacular and repeated failures of water transnational corporations that have sought since the 1990s to take root in the cities of the global South, Senegal has therefore an emblematic character for the proponents of PPPs.

Recently the Senegalese government has however announced unilaterally that the contract that bound it to SAUR would not be renewed, and that in April 2011 there would be a tender for the total concession of water service, which would take place in 2012–13.


The current water management system in Senegal stems from a series of reforms which were implemented in the early 1990s at the instigation of the World Bank in particular, and were part and still fit within a wider context of withdrawal from essential services by the Senegalese state. The reform of 1996 led to the establishment of three structures that replaced the SONEES (Société nationale d’exploitation des eaux du Sénégal):

- SONES, an investment company responsible for promoting investment in infrastructure and equipment
- The SDE, a private company that includes shares held by a strategic foreign partner (SAUR, who hold 51 per cent of the share capital), and the Senegalese state (5 per cent). The SDE is responsible for the technical and commercial running of supply system of drinking water. It operates with a 10-year concession with the Senegalese state and a contract that specifies the technical and commercial performance. This contract came up for renewal in 2006, and was extended until 2011.
- ONAS (Office national de l’assainissement du Sénégal), a state-owned company responsible for industrial and commercial affairs (EPIC). It is responsible for the development and running of infrastructure and equipment of collective independent sanitation of waste water and excreta as well as drains for rain water.

The law on public service management of drinking water and collective sanitation (LPSEPA) that was introduced in 2008 defined the legal framework for the supplying of clean drinking water and sanitation, and laid down the state policy in matters of public services. The state has powers to delegate public water services in the framework of this law. It carries the ultimate responsibility for management, maintenance and development of provision of water as well as all activities pertaining to their proper function, generally speaking. The sector water operators are: (i) the Société nationale des eaux du Sénégal (SONES); (ii) the Sénégalaise des eaux (SDE); and (iii) local authorities and consumer associations that have direct authority over the quality of public services and that are closely associated with the implementation of social programmes. An inter-ministerial coordination committee is designated by decree and responsible for the contractual regulation of the urban water and sanitation sector (monitoring, follow-up of contracts, arbitration) … //

So is there no alternative to this move towards a complete privatisation? The current system could certainly be improved by increasing transparency, regulation and renegotiating the fees repaid by the SDE to SONES.

But above all, without denying the past and present problems of the water public service in Senegal, only a solution based on public management seems likely to extend the progress already achieved and to address the structural problems identified above.

There are, however, two conditions. The first is a genuine democratic reform of the water service, with real transparency, accountability and genuine participation of citizens and civil society. Various public services from the global South, in Brazil and India in particular, have carried out such reforms to great success.

The second is the ability to access financial, technical and organisational support. If international financial institutions and major donors continue to focus on public–private partnerships as the only solution to all the problems of the water sector and as a condition to access their loans, there is an emerging trend in favour of public solutions. The European Union has recently set up a small fund to support public–public partnerships in the field of water for the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP). In public–public partnerships, it is not a private company but another public utility that helps a water utility to reform and improve its performance and the quality of its management, for reasons of solidarity rather than profit. Public–public partnerships started more than 20 years ago when the water company of Yokohama, Japan, began to sign contract for assistance with other water utilities in Asia. Today, 70 countries are concerned by public–public partnerships. Public water utilities that are ready to engage in such partnerships often are in industrialised countries (such as the water utility of Paris who assisted Vietnam and Morocco, and the one of Amsterdam, active in Egypt and Suriname) but there are also South–South public–public partnerships, for example between Morocco and Mauritania. (full long text).

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