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Tomas Michel: "Digital Water will cause a disruptive change in water management"

  • Tomas Michel: "Digital Water will cause disruptive change in water management"

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CAF Development Bank of Latin America
CAF is a development bank committed to improving the quality of life for Latin Americans. We promote sustainable development and regional integration.

The 4th Water Dialogues, held in Madrid last October, are annual meeting fora held to discuss different topics, in order to promote the exchange of knowledge and experiences on issues of interest for the water sector between Latin America and Spain.

On this occasion, we interviewed Tomas Michel, President of the Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform of the European Union.

Question: What is the role of innovation in efficient water management in Europe?

Answer: Innovation plays an absolutely key role in efficient water management. The water sector has traditionally been and continues to be very conservative, not very inclined to introduce significant changes in technology or infrastructure, and maybe even less in management, where innovation, in my view, can add a greater value.

In WssTP's Vision 2030 document, we propose four core innovation areas: (1) recognise the true value of water (and act accordingly), (2) recognise the potential and accept the need to use different waters for different uses and by different users, (3) empower the authorities, managers and society with 'Digital Water', and (4) include nature (green infrastructure) in our grey infrastructure designs, in order to propose more sustainable infrastructure solutions.

Maybe we should advocate for a more 'circular' society, where the general interest — more collaborative and inclusive — prevails over the individual needs and rights of different users.

Q: Why do you think the debate on innovation in the urban water cycle and its relation to the circular economy is important?

A: We have to shift towards a new water use, and a new social contract concerning this resource. The key words are sustainability, efficiency and governance. Innovation will enable understanding better what are the available stocks of different waters, inform about their quantity and quality, and do all of it in real time, in particular consumption at the point of use. It seems logical that by having this information, which currently we do not always have, resource use will be more efficient, not only in the urban water cycle, but in general. In addition, the availability of this information to authorities, managers and users — and this will be the game-changer — will enable and lead to new forms of governance.

The circular economy is a concept proposal that entails new water use governance, moving away from a linear flow (withdrawal, consumption, treatment and discharge into the environment) to a circular system where we reuse water, waste and energy. Maybe we should advocate for a more 'circular' society, where the general interest — more collaborative and inclusive — prevails over the individual needs and rights of different users.

Q: What innovation trends do you believe are more important in the urban water sector?

A: There are several, but two stand out because of their disruptive potential. On one hand, I think that innovations related to new materials and nanotechnology will provide new solutions (new membrane properties, new sensors), as well as new problems that we will have to address (e.g. the problem of microplastics).

But there is a clear trend, with high impact and high potential, and it concerns 'new technologies' (sensors, big data and the cloud, internet of things, blockchain, or increasingly fast and efficient technologies and protocols for data transfer and communications). At WssTP we cluster all of those in the term Digital Water. Digital water will lead to a disruptive change, very significant — qualitatively and quantitatively — for water management, improving sustainability, efficiency and governance.

Q: What tools or policies does the EU have to boost innovation in the urban water cycle?

A: The main EU Research and Innovation programme is HORIZON 2020. This programme is still in full swing, and will remain in force for a total of 7 years (2014-2020). Horizon 2020 has a budgetary allocation of € 77 billion.

In the last decade this has resulted in € 190 million used for cooperation with Latin American countries through participation in about 1,500 European projects.

Q: Concerning this programme, what is the investment planned?

A: Nearly € 30 billion in funding will be available for 2018, 2019 and 2020. It is difficult to say exactly what portion corresponds to water within the programme, given the prevalence and relevance of water outside its own sector, for example in sectors as different as energy, food, entertainment, etc.

The last three years of Horizon 2020 incorporate the feedback from the conclusions and results of the programme up to 2017. According to the current priorities of the European Commission, in its last three years the programme includes a set of measures to promote innovation that reaches the market, such as the European Innovation Council (EIC), with € 2.7 billion in funding, and simplified procedures, in order to streamline and encourage participation.

In addition, for 2018-2020, the programme focuses its efforts on four areas of interest that support the Paris climate agreement and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (€ 3.3 billion), the circular economy (€ 941 million), digitisation of industry and services (€ 1.7 billion) and security (€ 1 billion), as well as migratory issues (€ 200 million). Water has a significant role in the first three areas, and also, although tangentially, it is key for the underlying causes of migratory issues.

Q: How does the EU encourage innovation transfer to Latin America?

A: The relations between the EU, Latin America and the Caribbean countries are nurtured through the EU-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) relations. The CELAC is the EU's official counterpart for region-to-region summits and everything related to strategic partnerships.

The Joint Initiative for Research and Development was established in 2010, with the following priority areas: bioeconomy to ensure food security, renewable energies, biodiversity and climate change, information and communication technologies, and health.

The EUROCLIMA+ programme is another example strongly linked to water: it promotes sustainable development and climate resilience in 18 Latin American countries

In the period from 2014 to 2020, the EU will have allocated € 925 million to regional cooperation with Latin America.

€ 805 million will be allocated to regional initiatives, focused on priority areas such as sustainable and inclusive human development, environmental sustainability and climate change, or higher education (ERASMUS+ programme).

An additional € 120 million will support other development initiatives at the sub-regional level in Central America, addressing priorities that include climate change and natural disaster management.

Both HORIZON 2020 — even though Latin American countries are not 'associated countries' — and the ERASMUS+ programme are accessible to research centres, individual researchers and scientists from Latin America.

In the last decade this has resulted in € 190 million used for cooperation with Latin American countries through participation in about 1,500 European projects.. Brazil, Mexico and Argentina are among the top 15 international research partners.

About one third of the Latin American students that decide to attend university abroad choose Europe as their destination. ERASMUS+ provides funding support to more than 1,400 Latin American and Caribbean students every year.

Finally, the  EUROCLIMA+ programme is another example strongly linked to water. It promotes sustainable development and climate resilience in 18 Latin American countries. It was launched in 2010, underwent a review in 2017, and will continue until 2022 with a global budget of € 88 million.

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