Europe’s water ambitions face reality check
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A lack of uniformity in the presentation of river basin management plans could hamper efforts to realise the goals of the Water Framework Directive. Nadia Weekes reports from Brussels.
This year will be a tough year for the water sector in Europe. Ongoing efforts towards the goal of reaching “good ecological status” for European freshwater environments by 2015 – as enshrined in the 10-year-old Water Framework Directive (WFD) – will have to step up a notch.
By 22 March, all 27 EU member countries should, at least in theory, have submitted river basin management plans for the continent’s 110 river basin districts, outlining in some detail their plans for achieving the goals of the WFD.
In particular, EU member states need to create the conditions for one of the WFD’s key planks – the principle that the cost of sourcing, treating and supplying drinking water at one end of the cycle and collecting, treating and discharging wastewater at the other end should be reflected in tariffs – to become reality.
The European Commission is not commenting on the details, but the latest update of its dedicated website confirms that a dozen plans have been submitted, while another handful are nearly ready. The remaining countries are still consulting at best, and in the case of Portugal, Greece and Cyprus have not yet embarked on consultations.
Will the management plans help?
The issue of whether the plans already filed – and those yet to come – will in fact equip member states to advance their water management is controversial.
The EU Commission will not review them until 2012, and any individual attempts to delve into the plans are thwarted not only by the inevitable language barriers but also, more worryingly, by a significant lack of uniformity in the way the information is presented.
There are EU guidelines dictating what the plans should cover, but in practice, the differences are significant. The first requirement is that the plans must describe the current condition of the water environment.
So-called ‘gap analysis’ should be used to identify any discrepancy between the basin’s present status and that required under the directive.
It is on the basis of the gap analysis that a programme of measures can be developed, setting out the actions to be taken during the plan period. Measures can be wide-ranging, from changing the approach to abstraction and discharges, to refining pricing and other economic tools which are needed to reach the directive’s objectives.
One of the laggards, Ireland, has been accused by environmental campaigners of having drafted plans that are “wholly inadequate” and “disgraceful”, and the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) is calling on Irish environment minister John Gormley not to sign off the plans until they are up to scratch.
While the Irish government is ultimately responsible for delivering the plans, industry observers claim the system’s fragmentation and chronic inefficiency make it difficult to identify a swift way forward.
In Ireland, 34 water authorities are in charge of water and wastewater infrastructure, delivery and treatment. To make matters worse, they tend to operate without much mutual cooperation.
Even in countries with a more mature water sector, where adequate pricing structures have been in place for years, things are not easy. In late March, environmental groups WWF and the Angling Trust announced that they had launched a legal challenge against the UK government for not setting sufficiently ambitious targets on river quality in the river basin management plans for England and Wales.
Fewer than one third of rivers in England and Wales currently enjoy “good” status, and under the plans, there would only be a 5% improvement by 2015. The green groups want the English courts to order a judicial review of the plans, with a view to forcing the government and the Environment Agency to deliver a more ambitious response to the directive’s requirements.
Crossing policy boundaries
The beauty of the WFD directive, water experts agree, is that for the first time water resources have been approached in an integrated manner, looking at the whole picture and trying to take into account all the factors that contribute to achieving the right environmental objectives in the context of social, economic and political considerations. This is also the biggest problem it faces.
For example, river water quality management under the directive uses a combined approach that is based both on environmental quality standards for the water bodies, and emission limit values for any discharges that reach them. This means that the WFD relies heavily on another crucial piece of EU legislation – the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) – in order to achieve its goals.
Europe has greatly improved its performance in treating effluent discharges in recent decades, although the latest implementation report by the European Commission, which was published last year but is based on 2005 data, laments “big discrepancies” in how the law has been applied in the EU’s member states.
Most of the EU-15 had adequate treatment in place, the report states, although some countries such as Portugal have lagged behind. In addition, the document found that while some EU-12 countries were “advancing well” towards secondary treatment requirements, more work was needed in many cases.
At a wastewater roundtable in Sofia in March, host country Bulgaria and its neighbour Romania pondered the “looming impossibility” of achieving their obligations under the UWWTD and, consequently, under the WFD. Both countries are looking for low-cost solutions that will allow them to reach the targets prescribed by EU law.
The technologies exist, but bringing them to fruition in the thousands of small communities that need them is a major challenge.
The role of EU funding in this context is also increasingly controversial. Using considerable amounts of EU funding to finance water and wastewater infrastructure in Europe – especially in the EU-12 – has been of great environmental benefit. But it has also distorted the perceived value of this infrastructure, and created a false belief that it is not something that consumers need to pay for.
The argument goes that it is inherently confusing for a regulatory framework to suggest, on the one hand, that full cost recovery should be applied, and on the other to imply that this cannot work without substantial subsidies to achieve adequate water quality standards. By the same token, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy encouraged high water use by traditionally offering subsidies linked to production volumes. Sector experts agree that much greater consistency is needed between different EU policies.
The European Commission has promised a thorough review of the issue of water protection by 2012, based in part on an analysis of the river basin management plans. The review will include a recast of the WFD, a strategy for water scarcity and droughts, and an assessment of how climate change will affect environmental resources such as water and soil.
Additionally, a new directive setting water efficiency standards for buildings is included in the EU Commission’s priorities for 2010.
The problem of subsidiarity
The WFD requests that neighbouring countries get together and devise a coherent plan on how to properly manage a river basin that runs across multiple jurisdictions.
While it is relatively easy for water experts from any European country to agree on the science of water courses or the technical measures required to improve a river’s ecological status, discussions on who should pay for what, and at what pace the policies ought to be implemented, can become difficult.
What can the EU do to push for homogenous progress across the Union, while respecting the rights of each country to act independently – the highly sensitive concept that the Brussels community refers to as “subsidiarity”?
Speaking at Aquawareness, a high-level seminar in Brussels bringing together water experts, policymakers and industrial users from across Europe on 22 March, the director general of DG Environment, Karl Falkenberg, reiterated the importance of the EU’s role in setting “the overall direction” for its members.
“We need to be aware that working together is necessary,” he said, but added that “proper subsidiarity” should be applied so that the EU’s overall direction “can be translated into appropriate actions for the local environment.”
Strong feelings emerged at the event on the disparity that currently afflicts users when it comes to shouldering the financial burden of water consumption. While all users agreed that more efficient use and adequate pricing are important, a senior figure from a large industrial user in northern Europe expressed concern that local authorities would use the WFD “as a financing model, rather than because pricing water makes sense from a sustainability perspective.”
The issue of water pricing can be difficult to the point of intractability. According to the Cyprus Mail, for example, water prices would have to rise by up to 165% in the republic to comply with the WFD’s cost recovery principle. The paper reports that the Cyprus Water Development Department is considering full cost recovery on the domestic side, but that it would continue to subsidise use in the agricultural sector.
At the moment, water charges in Cyprus differ from district to district. This is under review, WDD director Sofoclis Aletraris told the Cyprus Mail, and it is quite possible that a flat rate will be applied across the island.
For a household using 146 cubic metres per year, charges would be €206.90 in 2010, rising to €241.80 in 2013 and €270.32 in 2015. These prices would include a tariff of €1.42 per cubic metre, plus a €63 annual standing charge in 2015, up from €1.15/m3 plus €39 in 2010.
If the water department chooses to adopt this scenario, households in the capital city, Nicosia, would see their bills rise by 25% in 2010, Larnaca residents would see them double, and Limassol residents would pay 165% more.
Aletraris said a decision on what level of price increases to apply would only be made after a public consultation exercise involving both domestic and commercial users. The agriculture ministry has final responsibility for tabling a proposal to Cyprus’s Council of Ministers.
Delegates at Aquawareness agreed that water pricing in Europe is heavily distorted: the agricultural sector continues to enjoy near-free access to water, despite being a major user that could make a huge contribution to more efficient use, especially in southern Europe.
Domestic tariffs also vary enormously from country to country, and even from area to area within the same country. Perhaps most bafflingly, tariffs hardly ever bear a direct relationship to local water abundance, or to how easy and cheap it may be to clean water to the required standards.
The way forward
Whatever the perspective, it is hard to argue with the numbers. As a report by the European Environment Agency this time last year pointed out, water use in many parts of Europe is unsustainable. A new approach is needed, and this is exactly where the WFD comes into play.
By setting appropriate environmental goals, requesting a thorough assessment of the current situation and demanding future measures based on common principles, the WFD offers a solid starting point for implementing the sort of action that the European Environment Agency’s executive director, Jacqueline McGlade, says is needed: “We have to cut demand, minimise the amount of water we are extracting, and increase the efficiency of its use.”
Aquawareness delegates agreed that the kind of breadth and vision the WFD strives to achieve is just what the water sector needs. Trying to address issues in isolation will not work. They did question, however, whether the goals stated in the directive are adequately supported in the EU’s other policies and measures.
The general consensus across Europe seems to be that the WFD will not make much difference to industry in the more developed nations, where water is already priced on the basis of cost recovery. Industrial plants have already been subjected to stringent regulations on their discharges for more than a decade under the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive.
They are also at the forefront of demand management and reuse, given the vast amounts of water they use.
“We have a long history of water management,” Volker Laabs of chemical giant BASF told GWI. “We are frontrunners, so the WFD is not really going to change things much for us in Germany. But in other countries where we operate, things are a little different.”
The European Water Partnership, which organised Aquawareness, launched its ‘Water Vision for Europe 2030’ at the event. The document calls for better cooperation, more transparent communication and adequate incentives to achieve improved water management across Europe. But before this can happen, the debate needs to progress much further.
In practice, one lesson the consultation phase of the WFD’s river basin management plans has taught everyone in the water sector is that people don’t know how to speak to each other, or how to listen. Yet, because water use is so universally crucial and affected by a myriad of logistical, political and economic constraints, no effective and lasting solution can be found without having listened to and catered for the needs of the various actors involved.
Looking ahead, there is no escaping the issue of water pricing. Research confirms that domestic water consumption is affected by pricing signals, which means that meters must be installed swiftly and tariffs reviewed to reflect the cost of delivering water services. Logical and straightforward as this may sound, there are several countries in Europe where the very idea that water should have a cost is being challenged. Water metering is non-existent in Ireland, for example, while in Italy, a strong anti-privatisation movement is slowing down the pace of reform in the sector. As an economist at the Aquawareness event pointed out, water pricing is very far from transparent, because the whole economic model of the water sector is weakly developed in the EU.
“There is not even widespread acceptance that it should be an ‘economic’ sector. Are profits acceptable? And if so, at what level should they be set?” the academic asked. These are some of the crucial questions that society at large needs to find an answer for.
As for agriculture, which uses one quarter of the EU’s public water supply – and up to 80% in some southern European areas – better resource management and more adequate crop selection lie at the heart of the solution. Any attempts to fully price water in this sector, however, are doomed unless the issue of illegal abstraction is addressed with some urgency.
How to involve the general public remains another largely unanswered question. Despite some progress in the field of water footprinting, few would agree that sticking yet another label on the food people buy is the best way of increasing awareness and reducing waste. Increased use of appropriate technology to boost reuse in all sectors, coupled with more action to reduce network leakage, has the potential to deliver the greatest improvements.
Ten years on from its introduction, the WFD has lost none of its visionary power, and still provides inspiration for those who support a wide-ranging, all-encompassing approach to water issues.
And yet, despite the progress that has undoubtedly been made in many areas, its goal of achieving sustainable water use in an ecologically safe environment remains as elusive as it ever was.