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10 big challenges for the water sector in the next 10 years

1. Protecting water as a vulnerable resource

Safe drinking water at the tap and appropriate waste water treatment are a prerequisite for human health and a healthy water ecosystem. The quality of surface and ground water is of great importance to us. We are committed to delivering drinking water which is safe, wholesome and clean, and returning treated waste water to the environment so as to protect public health against disease and preserve nature. To do this, our capacity to address current and future challenges must be strengthened.

It is hard to think of any economic activity or daily consumer behaviours that do not somehow affect either the quantity or the quality of water resources. These must be protected and managed. Water protection measures should be integrated and implemented in relevant European policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), energy policy and chemicals legislation (REACH, rules governing the authorisation of pesticides, biocides and pharmaceutical products) as well as tourism and recreational activities policies and also the use of waterways for transportation (maritime and inland). A lot remains to be done to ensure that European water resources are effectively protected now and in the future. Fully implementing existing rules, policy coordination, appropriate funding and good governance are key success factors. Existing legislation needs to be assessed to determine whether it is fit for purpose and adapted if necessary.

2. Building an effective strategy to minimise the presence of micropollutants in the environment

Micropollutants originating from the use of substances such as pharmaceutical products, veterinary drugs, personal hygiene products or household chemicals, microplastics (from textiles, car tires etc.), nano-particles and pesticides may represent a risk for water resources. Although observed concentrations in water resources are currently very low for most of them, these products can have a negative impact on aquatic ecosystems. At current concentration levels, there is no definite scientific evidence of adverse effects on human health yet, but, as their use increases, micropollutants might represent a challenge for water resources and for water services once they enter the water cycle. In line with the precautionary principle and the EU Treaties, pollution should be prevented and controlled as much as possible at the source. Extended producer responsibility must apply and end-of-pipe solutions should be considered as a last resort.

3. Increasing the public understanding of the water sector

We continue to engage with our customers and other stakeholders to ensure there is a greater understanding of the many ways water matters. This engagement is fundamental to achieving an understanding of mutual priorities and needs. This implies working closely with the agricultural sector and cities.

4. Responding to the growing impact of climate change on water

Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. Severe floods and droughts are regular occurrences in Europe.

Climate change remains a serious challenge for the water sector. We have to minimise its impact and enact mitigation and adaptation measures, while controlling costs and complying with legislation. It is therefore essential that water service providers develop longterm plans. We must coordinate our efforts, wherever possible, with other sectors’ mitigation and adaptation measures with the support of EU, national and local policies.

5. Giving water its value in the circular economy

Waste water (and its by-product, sludge) contains valuable resources such as energy, phosphorus, nitrogen, other nutrients and cellulose that can be recovered and reused in a circular economy to save scarce or depleted resources (and the associated negative impacts) and to foster economic growth and job creation. Treated waste water can be reused under certain conditions. European legislation should be a driver for innovation and allow for the development of good practices to recover these resources. Incentives to channel recovered resources into the market, in a sustainable manner, should be put in place. The sector should link with the needs of agriculture.

At the same time, control at source measures must be reinforced to avoid that toxic substances end up in waste water and threaten the potential recovery of resources.

6. Increasing the resource efficiency in the water sector

Responsible use, appropriate allocation and efficient delivery of water are fundamental to ensuring the efficient use of a valuable resource. We make significant efforts to be more energy efficient, generate green energy and use chemical substances wisely in water treatment processes in order to be as sustainable as possible in our operations.

7. Fostering sustainable economic growth and creating jobs

We contribute a lot to the European economy through added value and employment. The total turnover of the water sector (collection, treatment, supply, sewerage) reached €82 billion – i.e. 0.5% of the total EU28 GDP - in 2016.

In the past ten years, employment levels in the water sector have remained fairly stable. This is a major strength of the sector and highlights its stabilising role in periods of economic recession. Our sector directly employs 476,000 people in the EU28.

Improved competitiveness will mean more job creation and growth, as water services also promote technological and organisational innovation that can be exported.

We always need the skills of professionals such as engineers and researchers, and we actively promote opportunities for young professionals through apprenticeships, traineeships and training programmes.

8. Setting the right price for water services

The price consumers pay for water services must strike the right balance between the affordability of the services and the need to recover the cost for these services and ensure the necessary investments to build, maintain and renew infrastructure.

We support greater transparency of water bills so that customers can understand the real costs of supplying drinking water and treating waste water.

In fact, the affordability of water services is crucial to realising the human right to water and sanitation and both water operators and public authorities should pay full attention to this principle. However, if the price for water services is kept artificially below costs, the costs of maintaining the infrastructure will have to be covered through taxes or transfers or further postponed. This leads to substantial impacts on the sustainability of the water sector as determined by the post-2015 UN agenda.

9. Managing long term assets in a fast changing environment

Traditionally water services look at the long term when planning and constructing our water works, distribution networks, collection systems and treatment plants. Some parts of the water infrastructure last for 50 years or more. We have to balance a long term approach with an appropriate level of flexibility, allowing infrastructure to be responsive and adapt to a fast changing environment and innovative solutions. That is why it is crucial for our sector to have efficient long term planning. It is also important to complement investment needs on the basis of the 3Ts, which include tariffs, taxes and transfers from other sources or budgets such as funds for regional development or international aid.

10. Reinforcing the resilience of water services to security risks

The security situation in Europe is changing and the risk of malicious acts is present across the continent. Water infrastructure is considered as critical in almost all countries. We must strive to analyse any security-related vulnerabilities and take effective measures to mitigate them. Consideration must be given to cyber-security and interdependencies with other sectors (power, telecommunication etc.).

Mitigating security-related risks should build on synergies with managing other risks, i.e. natural disasters and climate change-related.

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