‘Without water, there is no environment;
Without water, there is no economy;
Without water, there is no life.’
Janez Potočnik, European Environment Commissioner
The focus of this year’s Green Week (May 22-25) was water. Highly topical, as Europe is experiencing increased water consumption and competing uses, not to mention water shortages from Belgium to Portugal. The conference covered water in agriculture, industry, the public water supply, the marine environment, and water efficiency to name but a few. Below are some insights picked-up from a busy Green Week 2012.
The week was held against the backdrop of a Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Waters consultation, focusing on the relevance, coherence, efficiency and effectiveness of the Water Framework Directive. The concern is that there is a serious lack of co-ordination between EU policies. Although average water consumption data is available for EU countries, detailed data on how water is used is limited. Understanding water consumption patterns is key to planning water conservation policies and consumer advice.
Kicking off, the water-energy nexus was explored in Water and energy: exploring the links between essential resources, but unfortunately not in any great detail. Instead, the focus was on modelling systems that illustrated ways in which water and energy relate to changes in land use. In Mauritius and Burkina Faso, for example, modelling was being conducted on the impacts and hydrological changes of land use conversion, owing to recent biofuel production.
It is important to note that this interaction goes both ways, water is required to create energy and energy is needed to treat and dispose of wastewater. Bo Jacobsen, of the European Environment Agency (EEA), highlighted this link and stressed the ways in which energy efficiency can be improved in water utilities. Such are the savings, Dr. Jacobsen suggested, that large wastewater treatment plants have the potential to become both energy self-sufficient and CO2-neutral. “Numerous solutions exist to improve both our energy and water efficiency,” he said, recommending a co-ordinated plan of targets, incentives and multi-stakeholder involvement.
Another important theme that came up time and again was the use of water in agriculture and water quality. Water quality plays a vital role in maintaining our ecosystems, and research was presented which highlighted the incredibly positive effect of advanced Urban Wastewater Treatment Plans on limiting pollution. One area in which less progress has been made is microemissions and new pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals. The Pharmaceutical Input and Elimination at Local Sources (PILLS) presentation given by Issa Nafo highlighted the quantity of pharmaceutical drugs found in waste water, with some surprising results. Not only are these often difficult to remove through traditional water purification methods, but the hormones have been shown to have dramatic effects on all ecosystem users, humans and animals alike.
The governance of water was also a key theme throughout Green Week. As Beate Werner (also of the EEA) stated, “we have a water governance crisis, rather than a water crisis.” “We must know how much water there is, and where it is,” she said, “in order to be able to govern it effectively. Only then can we apply the right tools to its management.”
One step towards achieving this is the River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs), which is part of the EU Commissions Water Framework Directive, established in 2007. But Members States need to implement the RBMPs for it to be effective, as river basins and water ecosystems do not recognise national borders. However, to date, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Greece have yet to do so.
Finally, the low hanging fruit – the quick, easy wins – within the water industry was emphasised. For example, between 20 and 40 per cent of all freshwater abstracted in the EU is thought to be lost through leaking pipes. Malta has had huge success in correcting this and has reduced the water lost through leakage by 50 per cent between 2005 and 2012. Having said that: the solutions for Malta cannot be the same as those for Finland. There is a need for localised approaches across Europe. In order to enable the exchange of best practices, the European Commission, in association with the European Environment Agency has set up Climate Adapt, a website where best practises can be shared across Europe.
For me, an area conveniently missing from Green Week was water as a human right. Although officially recognised by the United Nations in 2010, the European Union does not recognise clean water as a right, but merely as a need, placing it at the will of market forces.
To sum up, Green Week succeeded in highlighting water as an important resource, covering a wide range of issues affected by water availability, and offering potential solutions to these. Ultimately, the message was clear: we must start with proper water governance.