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The great European water family

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  • The great European water family
  • With the start of the new decade, the European water 'family' faces new challenges, not forgetting the road travelled so far. Five knowledgeable voices share their views on this issue.

The European Union has meant good news (and sometimes not so good news) for Spain, practically since its inception. In general, the water sector has also benefited from this management approach. However, it has also been the scenario of inequalities: geographical disparities and, particularly, climate disparities, that have meant Spain had to do additional efforts to be at the same level as our European neighbours.

In part, that pressure from EU institutions has made Spanish water companies global leaders. Nevertheless, there are still challenges to solve in all areas: for instance, recently the European Commission warned Spain (again) about the lack of water treatment in 145 agglomerations.

With this in mind, we spoke in our usual venue, the Roca Madrid Gallery, with five experts that provide their view of what water management is like in Europe, what it should be like, and what it will be like in the future. They are Mariano Blanco, Director of International Studies at Aqualia and member of EurEau's Executive Committee; Jorge Malfeito, Director of Research, Development and Innovation at ACCIONA and member of the Executive Committee of Water Europe and the Executive Committee of the European Desalination Society; Elena Maneiro Franco, in charge of Growth Financing and Business Development at Triple Helix, Wireless Innovative MMIC (WIMMIC) and bound4blue, and external advisor to the European Commission; Beatriz Mayor, senior researcher at iCatalist; and Guido Schmidt, Senior Policy Expert at Fresh-Thoughts Consulting GmbH.

With the start of the new decade, the European water 'family' faces new challenges, not forgetting the road travelled so far. Five knowledgeable voices share their views on this issue

The Water Framework Directive: the umbrella directive


Beatriz Mayor, senior researcher at iCatalist

We started talking about the most important regulation: the Water Framework Directive. 'It is one of the great European success stories', stated Guido Schmidt. 'It is an important step towards a society that is more resilient to climate change. However' — he continued — 'its implementation has been fraught with more setbacks than achievements'. 'I agree' said Mariano Blanco; 'there are two issues that have not worked regarding its implementation. Firstly, due to the amount of participating stakeholders, there have been conflicts of interest, and it has not been managed as fast as it should have been. Secondly, there is the well-known Article 9 about the recovery of costs, where the directive was not categorical enough'. Even so, he believes progress has been made in this regard: 'there are methodologies, like the OECD's 3Ts (taxes, tariffs and transfers) that help interpret that article'. And he reminded us that 'starting in 2025 we have to emphasise a solution to cost recovery'. 'Yes', continued Guido Schmidt, 'because nobody has dared to touch this issue, and without it we will not achieve appropriate long term water management in Europe'.

Another pending issue, thinks Beatriz Mayor, are 'ecological flows. There is no clear methodology to calculate them. Each river basin authority has its own method to do it'. 'We are missing a debate on what do we want to do about it as a society and as a country or as Europe', affirmed Guido Schmidt. 'A long term vision. In Germany and The Netherlands they have a more open and strategic debate about ecological flows. It does not have to be the same for everything'.

In addition, 'each country has different climate conditions, and therefore it is impossible to harmonise the criteria', believes Mariano Blanco. ‘To that we have to add the “principle of subsidiarity”, according to which each country has the right to decide. That exacerbates the differences'. Guido Schmidt considers it a positive thing; otherwise, implementation 'would be unapproachable; more than half of the applications would be lacking. That principle enables trying different things'. To that we add that 'the differences are smaller due to climate change', affirmed Beatriz Mayor. She supports 'the exchange of knowledge and techniques, not only infrastructure, to address those situations'.

Nature-based solutions are not being used in situations where they could be applied at a lower cost - Guido Schmidt, Senior Policy Expert at Fresh-Thoughts Consulting GmbH

Not everything is criticism for the main European water directive: 'The WFD entailed a change of paradigm for water management in Spain', went on Mariano Blanco. 'One of the most important things is the environmental approach to resource management. It is no longer a policy of supply and demand, but a policy that ensures environmental protection and sustainability'. 'It also introduces the concept of basin management', added Jorge Malfeito, 'which, from the point of view of Spain, is relatively clear. In Europe, water management using the basin as the management unit, together with resource management and minimum flows, were the biggest developments and challenges in the Directive'. Furthermore, according to Elena Maneiro Franco, 'the European Commission encourages further collaboration among those countries that share basins'.

Waste water treatment: the rebel son


Guido Schmidt, Senior Policy Expert at Fresh-Thoughts Consulting GmbH

We continued with the directives. In terms of waste water treatment, we are quite behind. 'Unfortunately, the solution needs investment, and that implies higher cost recovery, and that is partly the source of the problem', stated Mariano Blanco. 'That is the basic reason', confirmed Guido Schmidt. 'The other reason is that European fines arrive by the time the next administration takes over, and so time lapses and no action is taken', he suggested, without mentioning the case of Spain in particular.

Elena Maneiro Franco reminded us of the figures: 'there are slightly more than 500 municipalities with a population equivalent of more than 2,000 that do not treat adequately their waste water'. And she mentioned that we would need 'more simple and easier to implement solutions'. And that is where 'the innovations that recently created companies (startups), which are ground-breaking' come into play. Beatriz Mayor was also positive: 'The Duero River Basin Authority has developed a water treatment programme for small municipalities with quite basic infrastructure, inexpensive, that includes artificial wetlands'. She indicated that 'there can be ways to do things, as long as there are not too many restrictions. It is necessary to disseminate those experiences'. 'It would be important for project specifications to be open to those solutions', suggested Guido Schmidt. 'You are right', agreed Jorge Malfeito. 'In Spain, and in general in the water treatment industry, new solutions are held back because they are not contemplated. We need pilots and project references to be able to introduce, even if as an alternative, new technologies'. And he explained: 'Public authorities are comfortable with proven technologies, which they know will not cause any problems'. Fortunately, 'some public authorities in Spain tend to be a little bit more innovative and incorporate new technologies'. Elena Maneiro Franco replied to that: 'maybe it is a communications issue: it is not so much that they are against innovation, but that they are not familiar with it. The sector has a pending task which is closer communications, and conveying to public authorities the new developments as an opportunity'. And, of course, they have to 'be open not to prioritise the economic side so much'. Unfortunately, 'going against the specifications is very difficult', concluded Guido Schmidt.

The European waste water regulation has meant a step ahead to promote water reuse policies' - Jorge Malfeito, Director of Research, Development and Innovation at ACCIONA

Drinking water: the good daughter


Jorge Malfeito, Director of Research, Development and Innovation at ACCIONA and member of the Executive Committee of Water Europe and the Executive Committee of the European Desalination Society

After this somewhat disheartening scenario, we turned to talk about a third directive: the drinking water directive. 'The compliance rates are very high', started Mariano Blanco. 'In Europe, compared with other places around the world, we have very good resource quality. Current progress is related to the management of what are known as microcontaminants. The debate deals with whether we should be stricter with these parameters, or just leave them as they are'. 'What will happen with pharmaceutical companies and microplastics?', wondered Guido Schmidt. 'They will be a huge challenge'. 'In fact' , Jorge Malfeito replied, 'in the new programme that will replace Horizon 2020, emerging pollutants and microplastics will be front and centre. Not only from the point of view of detecting them, but concerning basin monitoring and the content of those pollutants in water from different sources'.

Another promising line of work in this area is 'the concept of protecting the sources', pointed out Beatriz Mayor. 'There are cases where water companies themselves have invested in measures to protect sources in upper basins, through reforestation or incentives for farmers to reduce the inputs used in their fields. That is because they have been crunching numbers and the costs of treating water to render it potable are very much reduced that way'. 'And since the polluter pays principle does not work' added Guido Schmidt, 'we have to explore this path'. 

Mariano Blanco shared the view of his association:: 'At EurEau we believe control of pollution at the source is an important strategy, and from there, those who pollute should pay for it, but without losing sight of the source. We have to analyse the design of processes, which are the real cause of pollution, and where acting should be a priority'.

Encouraging innovative public procurement would be a way to transform research results into services for citizens - Elena Maneiro Franco, in charge of Growth Financing and Business Development at Triple Helix, Wireless Innovative MMIC (WIMMIC) and bound4blue

Innovation: the quiet sibling


Elena Maneiro Franco, in charge of Growth Financing and Business Development at Triple Helix, Wireless Innovative MMIC (WIMMIC) and bound4blue, and external advisor to the European Commission

At that point, innovation came up in the conversation, always important, but often secondary. What is the focus of innovation in Europe? 'The list in long, always with the goal of achieving greater efficiency at the least cost and with the least impact on nature', stated Mariano Blanco. 'It is not easy at all', added Guido Schmidt. Elena Maneiro Franco noted that 'for years, it has focused on the water-energy nexus and the elimination of emerging contaminants'. Another important issue, according to Jorge Malfeito, would be 'everything related to the circular economy: retaining resources that are in the water and that can be of value. And digitalisation: smart city, sensors, big data, etc. All of that can lead to important savings in water management, on one hand, and on the other, it can help us obtain very useful information to further develop and optimise management'. And he went back to 'microplastics, not only from the point of view of pollution, but also of prevention and quantification in water bodies'.

Beatriz Mayor added 'nature based solutions: making use of ecosystems that provide a service equivalent to that of a technology for certain things'. Guido Schmidt claimed that 'a report from the European Court of Auditors said that those solutions were not being used in situations where they could have been applied at a lower cost for the public purse'. 'Yes', continued Beatriz Mayor, 'there are efforts to move towards implementation. The EU and some international organisations such as The Nature Conservancy are working to disseminate successful cases so they can be a reference'.

Guido Schmidt pointed out a different aspect to conclude: 'we also need innovation regarding governance. It is difficult, because if we already have an established system with its stakeholders, why should we invest in configuring and polishing a new system?'.

In eastern Europe they are more vulnerable because the institutions are not so robust and the investment capacity is lower - Beatriz Mayor, senior researcher at iCatalist

Remunicipalisation: the sceptical sibling


Mariano Blanco, Director of International Studies at Aqualia and member of EurEau's Executive Committee

Talking about governance, inevitably the conversation turned to the issue of remunicipalisation initiatives, which a few years back were at their peak with the Right2Water initiative. Mariano Blanco posed two questions: 'what has been their impact on European policy? And what has been the impact on the day-to-day of water services?'. Well, 'the impact has been lower than expected. There have been some cases, such as those of Berlin, Paris, some in Spain...but in this ideological and political battle, the concept of efficiency has won'. And he noted that 'at the macro political level, the debate has served to consolidate certain ideas about the human right to water and the minimum affordable amount of water per person, which, incidentally, was already in place in Spain through a volumetric block tariff, in use for decades'. Another positive point has been 'laying on the table that water is a public good and a basic need, and that we need to ensure access and affordability'.

People tried to show with the Right2Water movement a correlation between private management and price increase: it is not true  - Mariano Blanco, Director of International Studies at Aqualia and member of EurEau's Executive Committee

'I agree', said Jorge Malfeito. 'These movements have put the focus on the right of access to quality water, which is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 6'. And he concurred with his colleague: 'concerning management, we start from the basis that all assets are public. The fact that the management may be public or private should not have an impact on that right'. Mariano Blanco agreed: 'some people have manipulated the message. People tried to show with the Right2Water movement a correlation between private management and price increase: it is not true. Neither is it true that the quality of the resource is better or worse depending on the type of management. Fortunately, it is only an intended offshoot from the movement, which will not get any further; we have to take home the positive message'.

Climate change, a distant relative...

Although we did not talk about it specifically, the climate crisis is here to change everything. Water management is very much affected by it. How is it affecting the continent? 'It will impact everybody', reflected Jorge Malfeito. In Europe, 'both precipitation and drought periods are becoming longer, in the south as well as in the north. Although maybe in the south we are better prepared to deal with water scarcity because water reuse and desalination are widely used’. On the other hand, he noted that 'we are having periods of torrential rains in the south that we had not seen for a long time. That means management has to change, and, in that regard, there is a lot to be done'.

'This will be like the fable about the ant and the grasshopper' warned Guido Schmidt. 'There will be places that will adopt a preventive approach, with changes in the supply systems, diversifying sources, improving infiltration of torrential rains, and there will be places where nothing will be done, and then whenever things happen like in the Mar Menor saltwater lagoon in Murcia (Spain) they will say it was caused by nature forces and unpredictable'.

Beatriz Mayor commented: 'there are regions that have approached problems in different ways. Droughts in the Mediterranean area, and floods in the northern area'. The important thing for her is to 'use the knowledge generated to apply it elsewhere'. And she mentioned a region often ignored: 'In eastern Europe they are more vulnerable because the institutions are not so robust and the investment capacity is lower'.

There are regions that have approached problems in different ways. Droughts in the Mediterranean area, and floods in the northern area - Beatriz Mayor, senior researcher at iCatalist

Mariano Blanco quoted a study of potential future impacts analysed by EurEau: 'The temperature increase in itself accelerates processes in water bodies. Water sources are changing'. On the other hand, 'the increase in both air and soil temperature contribute to a higher temperature of the water distributed. We are distributing water with a slightly higher temperature, and that favours the proliferation of pathogens in the water'. He clarified that this effect 'still needs to be substantiated'. Concerning sanitation, 'high temperatures favour biological treatment, but also increase the aeration demand of processes. Therefore, there is an effect on the energy balance. Regarding sewerage, it can lead to an increase in the generation of hydrogen sulphide'.

To close, we talked about the sea. Jorge Malfeito pointed out that 'climate change will cause an important impact on coastal cities, both due to the increase in sea temperature and due to sea level rise'. And Guido Schmidt warned: 'I am concerned about urban water systems designed for current water levels, and the costs of adaptation'.

...that is becoming closer

Faced with this reality, the following issue is whether Europe is prepared. 'We are on our way', started off again Guido Schmidt. 'I hope that Timmermans (Vice President of the European Commission) is able to do it, but we need a lot of coordination: agricultural policy, water policy and environmental policy have not walked hand in hand up to now. I hope the New Green Deal is a strong strategy'. Otherwise, 'what is the point of joining responsibilities, unless you consider different policies in an integrated manner?', he asked himself.

Moreover, Beatriz Mayor corroborated that 'Europe is putting a lot of effort into researching solutions and case studies. Traditionally, we focused more on mitigation, changes in the energy model, reducing emissions, etc. But adaptation is increasingly more emphasised'. And she criticised that 'what we are missing — because science is always ahead, but often fails when it comes to communications — is to reach out to policies'.

Mariano Blanco focused on energy: 'everything related to the new energy model is now on the forefront.  In our sector, the circular economy is promoted, for example, to generate biogas, to introduce photovoltaic energy...everything related to reducing emissions'. And he indicated that 'for example, almost the entire research, development and innovation (RDI) project portfolio of Aqualia is helping to change the energy model'.

The temperature increase in itself accelerates processes in water bodies. Water sources are changing - Mariano Blanco, Director of International Studies at Aqualia and member of EurEau's Executive Committee

'Related to this', continued Jorge Malfeito, 'is the search of new water sources, particularly reuse and desalination. The European waste water regulation has meant a step ahead to promote water reuse policies. Although the regulation does not deal with agricultural water use, it is a development towards having an alternate source that can mitigate climate change'. In Spain, the situation 'is a little more advanced' in this regard. There has been a clear policy for many years now'. And Mariano Blanco confirmed that: 'Spain should be proud of its high rate of water reuse, compared to that of Europe'.

Guido Schmidt went back to the general approach to fight global warming and adapt to it: 'It is an issue where we need to put a lot more effort'. 'And with a holistic approach: we need to consider it from many points of view', observed Mariano Blanco. 'We are not prepared for this in real practice', replied Guido Schmidt. 'There have been enough experiences recently that show we are not prepared'. 'Not currently, but there is increasing awareness about climate change, and society demands solutions more and more', asserted Beatriz Mayor optimistically. 'This is making the EU turn their attention to the issue'. For her, what is interesting is 'municipal initiatives, more agile and swift: the "Covenant of Mayors" is an agreement among mayors of different cities in Europe and across the world to take direct action'.

Our wish list: What changes do we want?

With a broad picture of the situation in the continent, it was time to let the imagination go and ask for things. Which changes would benefit the management of our water resources? Mariano Blanco was clear about it: 'governance, encouraging public-private collaboration'. And he justified his answer: 'one of the weak points of the sector is the need to make important investments. Public-private collaboration is one of the solutions'. According to data from the sector, 'in Europe we will need investments worth more than 300 billion euros in the next 10 years. If public budgets have no capacity to make that investment, one of the measures that can be implemented, from their point of view, is public-private collaboration'.

Another option, said Elena Maneiro Franco, is to 'foster innovative public procurement and pre-commercial public procurement. It would be a way to transform research results into services for citizens'. Jorge Malfeito saw a hurdle: 'public authorities find it difficult to use that type of mechanisms. There are barriers. Maybe it is lack of communications, of regulation, or of knowledge, but it has prevented it from happening'.

Another request, by Mariano Blanco, is to 'remove the service management models from the political debate. We cannot mix politics and water. Water is a necessary good for citizens, industry and agriculture. The service should be provided with excellence and the cost should be affordable. That is the common objective. That is the approach for Europe in this 2020-2030 decade'. Another important vector is, in the words of Beatriz Mayor, 'transparency: communication with users, involving them in good practices for water use'. Guido Schmidt proposed, in that regard: 'we lack awareness, which is essential if we want to change how we view the role of water in our society and economy. And also more transparency about costs: who pays for water and why...if good practices are reflected in the bill, it is easier to motivate people'. Mariano Blanco added 'I have been insisting on this for years, and I see little progress. The citizen has to see in their bill the total cost of water: the part that corresponds to investments, the part that corresponds to maintenance, to taxes, to European transfers, etc. Complete transparency. In Europe, so far we lack any experiences using the 3Ts (taxes, tariffs and transfers) methodology, mentioned above, explicitly in the water bill’.

The challenges. A family picture for the future

After portraying the water scenario in Europe, we moved on to analysing the greatest water management challenges in Europe in the near future. And our participants had a lot to say. 'The issue of drainage management, including preventing or reducing the effects of floods', started Elena Maneiro Franco. Beatriz Mayor had a more general perspective: 'the sector has to "open its mind". Letting other type of solutions in, which involve greater uncertainty, involves rejuvenation. They will slowly be introduced as the new generation takes over, but it is difficult'. Another challenge would be 'high flows, heat waves...cities have to reinvent themselves'.

Mariano Blanco added 'long term asset management. We cannot leave infrastructure without appropriate maintenance that ensures high efficiency rates'. And also, the inclusion of new technologies: '5G technology and the Internet of Things will let us control drinking water and waste water treatment processes almost hourly, to manage assets effectively'.

Related to that, Elena Maneiro Franco called attention to 'the security challenge, because with new communications technologies we are more exposed to outside intrusions'. And she carried on: 'there is another important point: generational issues. It is very important to bring in new blood, but without forgetting prior knowledge. It is a long term path'. Beatriz Mayor, who is also part of the Young Water Professionals Spanish network, noted: 'the key is for that change not to be too sudden. We have to foster the transition'. Jorge Malfeito shared ACCIONA's view on this topic: 'we have a new talent policy, since we are convinced that people are the most important thing, the ones that add value to the company. We also collaborate with universities, startups and SMEs'.

In the new programme that will replace Horizon 2020, emerging pollutants and microplastics will be front and centre - Jorge Malfeito, Director of Research, Development and Innovation at ACCIONA

We continued identifying challenges: 'capacity building and education so that part of the agents involved are not left behind', pointed out Beatriz Mayor. 'Stopping ecosystem deterioration', added Guido Schmidt. 'Regulatory harmonisation' is also a concern, thinks Mariano Blanco.

Finally, Guido Schmidt concluded the list of 'requirements': 'surely we have 100 challenges more. That is another problem with the water sector: it is so broad and we have so many challenges that we never pinpoint and close things'.

What are the challenges ahead for water management in Europe?

Mariano Blanco, Director of International Studies at Aqualia and member of EurEau's Executive Committee

  • 'Long term asset management. We cannot leave infrastructure without a maintenance that ensures efficiency'

Jorge Malfeito, Director of Research, Development and Innovation at ACCIONA and member of the Executive Committee of Water Europe and the Executive Committee of the European Desalination Society

  • 'Digitalisation: it can lead to important savings and help us obtain information to further develop and optimise management'

Elena Maneiro Franco, in charge of Growth Financing and Business Development at Triple Helix, Wireless Innovative MMIC (WIMMIC) and bound4blue, and external advisor to the European Commission

  • 'One of the challenges is security, because with new communications technologies we are more exposed to outside intrusions'

Beatriz Mayor, senior researcher at iCatalist

  • 'Transparency is a challenge: communication with users, and involving them in good practices for water use'

Guido Schmidt, Senior Policy Expert at Fresh-Thoughts Consulting GmbH

  • 'I am concerned about urban water systems designed for current water levels, and the costs of adaptation to sea level rise'

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