The need to lower water consumption is being made more urgent by climate change
, which is already affecting water resources. Periods of warmer weather are boosting demand for water for agricultural and public use, while, at the same time, damaging inland water quality. The rainfall pattern is changing, too: overall rainfall is increasing in northern Europe, but it is falling in the south, especially during the summer months when rain is most needed.
The quality of inland and coastal waters is affected both by what is discharged by domestic, industrial and agricultural users and by how the discharged water is treated. Apart from the need to comply with EU standards, high quality beaches
and rivers have an increasingly important recreational value. Table 6 below summarises inland water quality in terms of the biochemical loading in the water (the lower the loading, the cleaner the water).
Table 6: Inland water quality, selected countries
While progress is being made, initial estimates across Europe show that 93% of rivers, 84% of lakes, 99% of coastal waters and 75% of groundwater are at risk of failing to achieve the standards needed to meet the Water Framework Directive and at the same time, the need to maintain river water quality means that new resources will have to be mobilised to provide water for other uses.
Europe’s progress to date has not come cheap. Meeting the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive has cost western European countries over €152 billion (1.53 trillion Chinese yuan) and a further €50-150 billion (500 billion to 1 trillion yuan) will be needed to meet the Water Framework Directive, while central Europe will need to spend €30-50 billion (300-500 billion yuan) to meet EU standards.
Europe’s progress towards sustaining the integrity of its water supplies provides many useful lessons. The most important are:
Cost-recovery: all water users must pay for their water usage in a manner which reflects the true impact of their activities, so that they have a real incentive to minimise the amount of water they use and the pollution they discharge.
Integrated River Basin Management: rivers do not respect regional or national boundaries they need to be managed at the river basin level.
Metering and demand management: metering can be more than a tool to produce a bill. Properly and comprehensively used, metering can help to identify water losses, to enforce cost-recovery and encourage the consumer to practice water conservation. Managing demand is the other side to managing supplies – both are needed.
Water monitoring and manipulation: real time monitoring of water flow and quality both in rivers and in distribution systems to warn about shortages, leaks and contamination.
Affordability and public support: tariffs need to be structured to ensure that the less well off have access to water and sanitation. This is essential to ensure support for increased spending. Likewise tariff rises need to be met by measurable improvements in service quality so that people appreciate what they are paying for.
Private versus public operation: Innovative practices developed by private sector operators have seen the cost of capital works fall by 30-45% in England, Wales and Germany. 60% of Western Europe is served by the private sector. It is not a universal solution, but it certainly is part of the solution.
Output based management: Regulation needs to encourage efficient management of water resources and technological and operational innovation. Ways of delivering the desired treatment levels and so on for less must be rewarded.
Dr David Lloyd Owen is a member of the Advisory Board, Integrated Water Resources International.
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