The Business Year

Alan Thomson

UAE, ABU DHABI - Real Estate & Construction

Treat Like No Other

Managing Director, Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company


Alan Thomson joined Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company (ADSSC) as Managing Director in 2005, a few months after the company was established. His previous experience includes senior roles at Thames Water, West of Scotland Water, Mouchel Parkman, and RPS covering the whole water cycle. He has a degree in Civil Engineering and an MBA from Strathclyde Business School. His professional interests include organizational strategy and operational management.

"We want to promote ourselves as an environmentally friendly, sustainable business."

Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company (ADSSC) increased from a 12% Emiratization rate in 2006 to 72% in 2012. How do you manage to attract and keep Emiratis on your staff?

We work closely with other stakeholders in terms of Emiratization. We have a large number of graduates coming into the business, and we try and provide them with the best training possible. Some of them go on to work closely with contractors, meaning that they learn about how the private sector operates as well as how a government business works. We are able to retain them because they enjoy the work, the atmosphere, and the positive aspect of learning and contributing to Abu Dhabi’s society. We have been successful in this regard.

What ongoing projects do you have to prepare for the upcoming population increase?

ADSSC has recently completed four large treatment plants for Abu Dhabi and Al Ain to cater for the increased volumes there. We also have a sewer tunnel project, the Strategic Tunnel Enhancement Program (STEP), which will treble the current capacity of wastewater flows and prepare Abu Dhabi for the next few decades. We are putting in a system that will replace 35 pumping stations with one. It will use gravity to move the wastewater from the city out to our treatment plants, which are located on the mainland. We are constantly looking at providing for the future. To build sewage infrastructure takes several years. You have to plan it well in advance, because as more people come into the area, you have to think about how you plan downstream. New development impacts on the downstream development, meaning you have to allow for downstream flows when you examine upstream development.

“We want to promote ourselves as an environmentally friendly, sustainable business.”

What are the main achievements that you have accomplished in the STEP?

STEP has been extremely successful, and has brought attention to what we do. We use it as a stepping-stone to promote good environmental practice and broaden what we do in Abu Dhabi in terms of keeping the country running, helping to make a clean environment, and making sure people are healthy. The STEP visitor center has been a fantastic central focus, because not only do we cover what is happening in STEP, but we cover some of the broader environmental aspects of our work as well. We have had visitors from Japanese and German schools and universities, as well as many local dignitaries.

What is the current status of your project to rehabilitate the pipeline network?

The rehabilitation process is addressing the structural condition of the network. Some of our pipes were laid in the 1970s, and the material used back then was thin and weak. Quality control in the past was not as good as it is now. The rehabilitation process effectively puts in a new pipe without having to dig the ground up as much as you otherwise would. Therefore, we clean the pipe, and depending on its condition, we will either replace it or reline it. This brings back the full capacity to the pipe, which could have been compromised due to the ingress of water or the settling of solids. The ongoing rehabilitation program is addressing all of these issues in the older part of the city where the pipes are older, and as such not performing as well as they should.

What are the keys aspects that will allow you to accomplish your vision of becoming the world leader in the provision of sewerage services by 2020?

Investment in our infrastructure will deliver excellent sewage treatment and collection facilities. Equally, we treat the water to a degree that it can be used for irrigation. We recycle the water and it can be used to irrigate the parks, golf courses, and other green areas in the city. By doing that, we hope to be the first city of this size with 100% of our water re-used. On top of that, we want to give excellent customer service and value for money. The investment in infrastructure will allow us to run at high efficiency and also deliver a service that Abu Dhabi and its visitors will enjoy.

How do you ensure that wastewater from hospitals, industry, and commercial activities does not harm your treatment facilities or those who carry out maintenance?

If we get harmful chemicals coming into our system, it can affect our treatment process, which is biological, meaning it is a very natural process. We use bacteria that are naturally found in the environment and the water to effectively treat the wastewater. By doing that, we end up with high-quality water. Hence, when we are finished, the water that comes out is very clean. In order to stop the discharge of harmful chemicals or detergents that would impact on the biological reaction process, we have a regulation called trade effluent control, which effectively gives us the power to consent discharges into the sewer. If a factory was discharging harmful substances into the sewer, we have the right under the regulations to ask the factory to pre-treat its water before it comes into the wastewater system. We have effective controls that were introduced into the region in 2010 that enable us to talk with industry and ensure there are no harmful chemicals are coming into the system. We have inspectors who will knock on doors and discuss the issues with factories. We are fortunate that industries with harmful byproducts are rare in Abu Dhabi. Most of our wastewater is of domestic origin, as opposed to industrial. Nevertheless, we don’t want any risk to the treatment process.

What kind of partnerships are you looking for?

We are looking for partnerships where we are all working together as opposed to against each other. We obviously entered into contracts with consultants and contractors to deliver services. We expect high-quality service, but we also look for long-term relationships where we work in harmony with these contractors and consultants. As time goes on, they understand our business better so they can produce a better service for us. A good example is our four operating contracts. When we awarded these contracts, they were awarded for seven-year periods. STEP represents another good example of how we run a long-term project. Our program managers are from US consultancy CH2M Hill, and we have been working in partnership with them since 2008 when we first embarked on STEP—and they will be here until 2016, when we finish. Our working relationship is such that they are in this office, working with our people. This goes back to retaining Emiratis. By working closely with the private sector, we can get people trained to the highest of standards, which helps retain the staff as well.

How do you want to promote yourself within the community?

We want to promote ourselves as an environmentally friendly, sustainable business. In order to achieve our goal of being a world-class provider of services, we need to have that recognition. Only through branding and interaction with our government and citizens will we gain that recognition. Typically, a utility business (power, water, or sewage) is not recognized by people until something goes wrong. When it goes wrong, it is a big problem. Fortunately, it doesn’t go wrong very often. To a certain degree, we enjoy being anonymous because we can just get on with our work; however, we do want people to understand what this service is about, and that it does cost money. If you didn’t have water and sanitation, everyone’s health would suffer. Therefore, it is an important service, and one that people should not take for granted. People should recognize that it is expensive to run a sewage or water business, especially in the desert. People should value and respect it, not waste it.

© The Business Year – June 2014



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