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The European sector of water supply and sanitation in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic

About the blog

Mariano Blanco
Industrial Engineer by the University of Seville, Master in Structural Calculation by the École Centrale de Paris, MBA by the San Telmo International Institute, PHD by the University of Cadiz, Higher Programme in Financial Management by the EOI.

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  • The European sector of water supply and sanitation in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic

I am writing 40 days after the lock-down started due to the Covid-19 pandemic which allows me to analyse to some extent what has been done and how the European water supply and sanitation sector has reacted, and it also allows me to put forward a few lines for the immediate future of the sector.

I begin the dissertation with quite a pertinent quotation from the prestigious historian John Elliott when he mentions the need to have a perspective of the past in order to form sound judgments: “And even so, because the facts are complex, because human beings do not always act rationally, and because chance is part of every historical event, there are always aspects of the past that will continue to elude us.” In this way, the current case will be a historical fact that will be analysed in the future and, when there is sufficient perspective, it will probably be said that there has been a great deal of complexity, irrationality and things left to chance when explaining what has happened.

In Europe, the water sector represented by EurEau reacted in the first few days of the lock-down and organized a crisis committee

In Europe, the water sector represented by EurEau reacted quickly in the first days of the lock-down. In just hours, it organized a Covid-19 crisis committee with representation from each country, which in our case was through AEAS (the Spanish water national association). With this in mind, the idea that arose was to trace a path that would make simple what is complex, that would try to bring rationality to the actions, and that would not depend on chance, all with the greatest possible consensus.

As I have highlighted on other occasions, the 3 basic parameters of our management, public or private, are Quality, Continuity and Affordability, as water supply is an essential necessity for the entire population. The first aspect we made clear was the need to guarantee the safety of all employees and, at the same time, the obligation to ensure the provision of the service, maintaining our traditional and well-known vocation for service to society.

A dialogue was established with the corresponding European institutions, to convey that there are no health problems related to the supply of drinking water, nor to the sanitation of wastewater as current disinfection systems ensure an adequate level of protection against SARS-CoV-2. There is no risk either from the consumption of water or from its necessary activities (sampling in tanks and network, access to facilities, repairs, etc.). This coronavirus is very sensitive to disinfection processes, such as ozone, chlorine, UV radiation, alcoholic solutions and even ordinary soap; there are many efficient treatments to inactivate it.

Once the contacts between the various national associations began, several lines of action, as minimum measures to guarantee the service, were put together and transferred:

  • Implement contingency plans for a secure supply.
  • Create permanent crisis committees in each operator.
  • Promote recognition as operators of essential services (also including water laboratories, biosecurity and environmental health services, supply of goods, spare parts, equipment and technology, sludge and waste disposal services and, in general, all activities in the supply chain).
  • Ensure that employees can work as a team with the necessary isolation rules; for technical and occupational risk prevention reasons, certain activities require the presence of more than one employee in the same workplace.
  • Establish human back-up teams that remain isolated in their homes, in anticipation of infection cases among operating personnel.
  • Protect the personnel of call centres, laboratories, information systems, telematics control of infrastructure, etc. that allows efficient management without incidents.
  • Protect vulnerable consumers with low capacity of payment; this measure was already implemented long before the beginning of the crisis, making sure the water supply is not interrupted to those people who cannot pay for these services, although logically new cases will appear.
  • Guarantee the supply of chemical and sanitary reagents to successfully carry out the purification and treatment of wastewater; not only for purification (flocculants, coagulants and disinfectants), but also for hydro-alcoholic gels, bactericides, disinfectant liquids, as well as protective equipment (masks, suits, disposable gloves, etc.).
  • Preventively strengthen the level of disinfection of drinking water, following the recommendations of health authorities and international organizations.
  • Resize the check points to guarantee the continuity of the services.
  • Suspend scheduled supply interruptions (maintenance or repair work).

In these and other measures that have been carried out, care for people (providers, employees and consumers), and the maintenance of the essential service for citizens prevails.

At the same time, singular measures have also been carried out according to the state of alarm:

  • Implementation of teleworking for office staff, not directly assigned to maintenance, repair, breakdowns, etc.
  • Closing of commercial service offices.
  • Reduction of personnel in call centres, to maintain security measures.
  • Suspension of extraordinary maintenance activities.
  • Creation of contingency control points to guarantee the continuity of services.
  • Creation of shift work for the use of common infrastructure and to avoid crowds.
  • Implementation of hygiene and disinfection measures in facilities, means and materials, all in accordance with the recommendations of the health authorities.

One aspect that I would like to highlight has been the permanent collaboration between the experts of each country; EurEau created a dashboard, regularly updated, to review the situation of the 500 million inhabitants who use our services, in order to find out the possible operational impacts and if these affect our clients. All this was done in a transparent, immediate way and with the intention of helping each other in the common strategy of guaranteeing effective and efficient management. The help that a federation such as EurEau provides to crisis situations is remarkable, where benchmarking of best practices has been carried out effectively and without associated costs.

As I have said on other occasions, the parameters of our management, public or private, are Quality, Continuity and Affordability

And now, what are the immediate measures in a post Covid-19 scenario? We have detected a series of major lines of improvement:

  • European water operators currently invest €45 billion annually. We support a response through a strong economic recovery Plan at an EU level, including our sector in that Plan.
  • The effects of the pandemic must be measured in terms of the ability to maintain current operating plans and committed investments, due to possible falls in income.
  • Financial support must be used in accordance with the key elements of the recently approved Green Deal.
  • The principle of Cost Recovery and adequate contribution of the user, and the Polluter Pays principle, must be kept in force, according to articles 7 and 9 of the DMA, as well as preventing harmful substances from reaching the treatment plants through the Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.

In these situations, the tremendous effort that has already been made in the sector to advance in the sustainability of our infrastructure, in their resilience and in the constant search for efficiency is evident. In the current situation, there has been a lot of work and effort in over-adaptation, but the guarantee and security of our services have been maintained.

The unpredictable and sudden change of life habits in cities, due to the coronavirus, has meant a great challenge for the daily operations and for the management of water companies’ infrastructure. Fortunately, somehow, we were prepared to respond quickly to the crisis, and we have been able to guarantee the continuity of services despite the circumstances.

I conclude by stressing that we should be proud of what we are achieving, and we hope that a future analysis does not detect, in allusion to what I said at the beginning, either complexity or irrationality or anything left to chance in our responses.

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