French West Indies, Hurricane Irma : Drinking water, an absolute emergency

On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma devastated two French islands in the Caribbean: Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy. It was a race against the clock for Veolia’s teams. Their priority was to ensure a drinking water supply to the impacted populations.
The essential
Restart drinking water production and distribution as quickly as possible in Saint Martin, after the serious damage left in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
Implement emergency solutions to supply populations with drinking water until Veolia’s desalination units in Saint Martin are up and running again, along with the water and wastewater systems.
Veolia's response
Mobilize a team of experts and volunteers from the Veolia foundation, along with Group staff members based in Guadeloupe. - Transport a mobile seawater desalination unit to Saint Martin from Spain and emergency equipment from France.




Friday, September 8: Veolia organizes, along with the government services, the transfer by plane of a mobile seawater desalination unit to meet the populations’ urgent need for drinking water.
Friday, September 8 and Saturday, September 9: Veolia transfers several staff members based in Guadeloupe to Saint Martin to strengthen the local teams. Their mission is to assess the state of the drinking water distribution facilities, an essential prerequisite to getting them up and running again.
Tuesday, September 12: a first team of experts from the Foundation arrives on the ground. They take reception of over ten metric tons of storage, distribution and water quality analysis equipment, transported by airplane thanks to the French Red Cross.
The next day, they are joined by two Veoliaforce volunteers who specialize in desalination techniques to put the emergency mobile unit into operation.
Friday, September 15: the mobile desalination unit is transported from Madrid by an Antonov, a huge military cargo plane, which touches down at Pôle Caraïbes airport in Guadeloupe. The final part of the journey is made by barge, from Pointe-à-Pitre to Saint Martin. This operation is a real challenge for the Foundation’s teams charged with the transshipment, unloading, assembly and startup of essential equipment to restore part of the island’s drinking water.
Wednesday, September 20: a new team from the Foundation arrives to assist the team present in Saint Martin with water distribution and network issues. With the French Red Cross, they install twelve emergency water stations (reservoirs connected to the network and distribution manifolds) and, day after day, search for leaks and repair the pipelines. At the same time, repair equipment and vehicles are sent by sea for the teams working to get the pre-existing facilities up and running again.
Sunday, September 24: the mobile desalination unit begins to function with a maximum production volume of 600 m3/day (its start-up was delayed due to Hurricane Maria passing through).
Thursday, September 28: 65% of the island’s inhabitants have access to drinking water once more and the production of all of the desalination units (including the mobile desalination unit) exceeds 3.5 million liters per day.

The day after Irma – a category-5 storm, the highest on the hurricane intensity scale – hit, Saint Martin (40,000 inhabitants in the French part) and Saint Barthélemy (almost 9,500 inhabitants) presented a desolate landscape: boats and cars embedded in buildings, and heaps of debris with a jumble of fragments of roofs, windows and walls. The airports were out of use for several days, while electrical facilities and seawater desalination plants were damaged. The human toll was compounded by considerable material destruction.

Concentrating efforts on Saint Martin

As they do not have any natural freshwater reserves such as rivers or water tables to which they can turn in an emergency, the two islands depend on three seawater desalination plants managed by Veolia. However, these were heavily damaged and the Group geared into action to supply drinking water to the populations.

“The damage to the water production and distribution infrastructure was severe and it will take several months to return to normal service,” highlights Thierry Vandevelde, Executive Officer of the Veolia foundation, on his return from the field. “The facilities are obviously located on the coast and were therefore partly submerged when the hurricane swept through.”

The teams’ efforts were concentrated in Saint Martin, where the desalination units and networks were most affected.

Restarting water production and distribution

On September 22, drinking water production and distribution slowly but surely started up again in Saint Martin. Ahead of the set targets, the desalination facilities were already delivering 1.5 million liters/day, i.e. 30% of the plant’s pre-disaster production. The Veolia teams worked tirelessly on the network and individual connections to gradually restore them to working order. In early October, production exceeded three million liters per day and over 65% of households were being supplied once more. An achievement down to everyone’s involvement, including members of staff from the local area, Guadeloupe and France, experts in emergency situations, desalination, drinking water distribution, wastewater and network rehabilitation. They all worked in close collaboration with government services, the local authority and other local operators such as EDF.

Long-term emergency management

The volunteers from the Veolia foundation began by focusing on getting the Veolia mobile desalination unit from Madrid up and running. In the meantime, the water reserves gathered in anticipation of the hurricane provided a supply to the hospital in Marigot, the large town to the west of Saint Martin, in the first days after Irma hit. As a provisional emergency solution, twelve district water stations were set up in parallel by the French Red Cross with the support of the Foundation’s teams. The “sanitary” quality water distributed met hygiene needs but did not initially replace bottled water for drinking. “We are still in a state of emergency,” Nicolas de Saint-Martin, Director in charge of monitoring overseas territories for the General Counsel of Veolia Water in France (see interview), reiterated in early October. “The Veolia crisis unit is continuing its daily briefings with local personnel — information sharing, joint decisions, feedback of needs, etc. — nights and weekends included!”


In response to the request from many Veolia staff members keen to show their support for affected populations, the Veolia foundation has opened a special “Irma Emergency” account. For each euro donated by a member of staff, the Foundation donates an additional euro. Beyond the emergency period, the seriousness of the situation will require ongoing interventions for many months.
“All of the donations will be usedto fund emergency and relief programs, followed by reconstruction efforts, which will be supported and assisted by the Veolia foundation,” concludes Thierry Vandevelde.

With the gradual resumption of production, life on the island is slowly getting back on track. Veolia must now begin the long process of gradually reconnecting all the districts over several months. At the same time, the Group is working relentlessly to restore wastewater services. The priority is cleaning the sewers to prevent an accumulation of wastewater and the inherent sanitation risks. After the time trial, a marathon is now beginning…

Key figures Saint Martin

100 % of water production has been restored compared with the pre-hurricane period (early November 2017)
81 % of households are supplied with drinking water (early November 2017)


En savoir plus :

> Significant progress made in restoring water services in Saint-Martin
> Fondation Veolia website
>Desalination, promoting access to drinking water for hundreds of millions of people