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

We have identified eight major challenges for the next ten years:

1. Delivering safe and reliable water services 24/7

Safe drinking water at the tap and appropriate waste water treatment are a prerequisite for human health and a healthy water ecosystem. European water operators are committed to delivering SDG 6 by:

  • supplying drinking water that is safe, wholesome and clean and returning treated waste water to the environment that protects public health against diseases and preserves nature, and
  • connecting all households to adequate water and sanitation services to the extent that this is economically justifiable.

In order to deliver on this key goal, the capacity of both the drinking water and the waste water sectors to address current and future challenges must be strengthened.

2. Protecting water as a vulnerable resource

It is hard to think of any economic activity and daily consumer behaviours that do not somehow affect either the quantity or the quality of water resources. The EU’s zero pollution ambition should ensure the protection of water resources. Every day, the water sector treats tens of millions of cubic meters of waste water, hence, contributing to the protection of European water resources.

Micropollutants originating from the use of substances such as pharmaceutical products, personal hygiene products or household chemicals, microplastics (from textiles, car tyres etc.), nano-particles, nutrients and pesticides may represent a risk for water resources. Although observed concentrations in water resources are currently very low for most of them, adverse impacts on the aquatic ecosystems have been observed. 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.

To achieve this, the protection and management of water resources in terms of both quality and quantity, need to be mainstreamed into other sectoral 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, recreational activities policies and also the use of waterways for transportation (maritime and inland).

Existing legislation needs to be assessed in order to determine whether it is fit for purpose and adapted to the integrated approach on water.

Despite encouraging success stories, a lot remains to be done in order to ensure the full implementation of Europe’s water legislation. Effective policy coordination with other areas, appropriate funding and good governance are key success factors.

3. Promoting the value of water services to ensure long-term sustainable financing

The water sector must continue to engage effectively with its customers and other stakeholders to ensure there is a greater understanding of the many ways ‘water matters’. The sector must promote the intangible values of water services in terms of protecting public health, the quality of life, safety and the well-being of people and the environment. Customer and stakeholder engagement are fundamental in achieving an understanding of mutual priorities and needs.

Against this scenario, the water sector supports greater transparency of water bills so that customers can understand the real costs of supplying drinking water and treating waste water.

Public understanding of the value of water services is a prerequisite for achieving long-term sustainable financing. The price consumers pay for water services must strike the right balance between the affordability of the services on one hand, and the need to recover the cost for water services and ensure the necessary investments to build, maintain and renew the infrastructure of water services on the other.

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. The latter will lead to substantial impacts on the sustainability of the water sector.

4. Promoting water in the circular economy

The water sector forms a part of the circular economy and is committed to strengthening its involvement.

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 with the aim to save scarce or depleted nature-mined resources (and the associated negative impacts) and foster economic growth and job creation. Treated waste water can be re-used under certain conditions.

Likewise, residues from drinking water treatment are also considered as a source of secondary raw materials. For example, calcite is produced by drinking water softening and reused in construction, agriculture and the mineral-resources industry.

European legislation must 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, needs to be put in place. Our needs should work together with those of the agricultural sector.

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.

5. Moving towards resource-efficient and climate-neutral water service

Responsible use, appropriate allocation and efficient delivery of water are fundamental to ensure efficient use of a valuable resource. The European water sector is committed to achieving climate neutrality in line with the EU’s Green Deal goals, and despite increasing water and waste water treatment needs. This will require further sustained efforts to be more energy-efficient, generate renewable energy and wisely use chemical substances in water treatment processes. Water operators will undertake measures to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions be they carbon dioxide or others. With a view to including indirect emissions, i.e. those embodied in the products and materials purchased for the provision of water services, water operators will need detailed life cycle data from their suppliers.

6. Enabling innovation and inspiring professionals to meet current and future challenges

Water services provide 475,000 direct stable local jobs requiring various levels of qualification.

Technological progress, including digitalisation, the data economy and even artificial intelligence, offer new opportunities to water operators to deliver their services more efficiently and more sustainably. Access to innovative solutions must be facilitated and future-safe investments secured. Public authorities should support this process by including the water sector in European and national research and innovation programmes.

Furthermore, water services have to accompany the development of appropriate skills and opportunities for young professionals through apprenticeships, traineeships and training programmes.

7. Managing long-term assets in a fast-changing environment

Traditionally water services look at the long term when planning and constructing their water works, distribution networks, collection systems and treatment plants. Some parts of the water infrastructure last for 50 years or more. The water sector has to balance its long term approach with an appropriate level of flexibility, allowing infrastructure to be responsive and adapt to a fast changing environment and innovative solutions in terms of treatment efficiency, resource use, climate change adaptation and mitigation etc. Likewise, policy makers must take these inherent inflexibilities into account when designing new regulations.

It is crucial for the water sector to have efficient long-term planning matched to investment needs on the basis of the 3Ts, (tariffs, taxes and transfers) from other sources or budgets such as funds for regional development or international aid while maintaining affordability.

8. Reinforcing the resilience of water services

Maintaining safe and secure water services is essential services for the functioning of our societies even in crisis situations. With this in mind, drinking water supply should be given priority over competing water uses.

Resilience includes two main areas:

  • Natural disasters and climate change: 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 impacts and enact mitigation and adaptation measures while controlling costs and complying with legislation. It is therefore essential that water service providers develop long-term plans and that the water sector’s efforts are coordinated, wherever possible, with other sectors’ mitigation and adaptation measures with the support of EU, national and local policies.

  • Man-induced security risks: The security situation in Europe has deteriorated and the risk of malicious acts is present across the continent. The sector 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.).

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