A vision for water28/11/17Environment
WssTP director, Durk Krol, speaks to PEN about some of the challenges facing the water sector in Europe today.
The Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform (WssTP) was initiated by the European Commission in 2004 for research and technology development in the water industry and was transformed into an independent legal entity under Belgian Law in 2007. WssTP was reconfirmed as one of the best performing European Technology Platforms (ETPs) in line with the new ETP2020 strategy.
The platform’s mission is to foster collaborative, innovative and integrated European research and technologies development; ensure European growth and competitiveness of the water sector; provide global answers to global challenges for the next generations; and address the challenges of an integrated and sustainable management of water resources.
Speaking to Pan European Networks, the WssTP’s director, Durk Krol, discusses the importance of addressing the fragmentation of the sector, as well as other areas, such as policy and research funding.
What are the most significant water and sanitation challenges in Europe?
These challenges centre around issues dealing with water scarcity, emerging pollutants and, of course, the financial viability of our infrastructures and adapting them to climate change. Additional challenges – and these vary depending on location – include the implementation of European water legislation, especially the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, which is very costly to implement and is therefore a significant issue in eastern Europe.
Indeed, many of the water-related challenges experienced across Europe are very different. When it comes to water leakage, for example, this is much less of an issue in the Netherlands and Denmark (where leakage percentages are 5-8% compared to the European average of about 20%). However, the Netherlands sees some 17 million people living on approximately 40,000km2 and on quite simple geography. As such, the return on investment on one metre of pipe is much better than in France or Hungary, for example. This diversity needs to be taken into account with regard to the implementation of legislation.
In that sense, it is also good to see that the Water Framework Directive is a ‘framework’ directive: it provides objectives, but it does not provide the means through which to achieve them.
Is that a good thing? Or should it be more proscriptive?
While it is not specifically within the remit of WssTP to opine on the implementation of legislation – we are more concerned with driving innovation and research in the water sector – legislation is nevertheless an important issue, and is one of the major drivers to innovation in water (the other being transparency of cost). It is regulation that will drive innovation in the water sector, and Europe is leading here – we have a legislative framework in place for water which is very highly regarded by other global regions. That can also serve to put us in the driver’s seat for providing solutions for the water challenges of the future.
Water nevertheless remains a very fragmented sector and a very transversal topic, and a one-size-fits-all solution will thus be the wrong approach to take.
What are the biggest technological challenges and barriers to innovation in the European water sector today?
The transversal nature of water can often mean that water isn’t visible. That is, it can sometimes be quite difficult to get people from some sectors – such as energy, for instance – to understand what water has to do with them. This is a particular issue when it comes to politicians, because while they may come to initially see the value of water, it almost always falls back down the agenda – to return to the energy example once more, energy stays high on the agenda whilst water does not (although, of course, this also has to do with the fact that there is a big industrial energy sector, etc.). This forms the basis of a lot of the work we do at the WssTP – we work to make politicians and policy makers aware of the value of water for our society and for our economy.
In our ‘The Value of Water’ document we drew the analysis that in 2013, 90% of the global economy was dependent on the adequate availability of good quality water, and the UN demonstrated in its ‘Water and Jobs’ report from 2016 that globally three out of four jobs depend on good access to the right quality of water.
What is the biggest issue when it comes to financing innovation?
If you purely look at Horizon 2020, for the work programme 2014-16 there was a dedicated water call, which shows that water was very well represented there. However, in 2016-17, water was brought back to a transversal topic. While that is not ideal, at least attention is being paid to water.
This again is an example of how water is dealt with in a transversal way; there is no single person appointed to be responsible for water, and so the topic becomes diluted. This is a very telling case for what happened with water in H2020 in the work package for 2016-17, but is also very valid for water as a topic in policy in general.
When you speak about water, people tend to think about environmental policy, but water is also very important to agricultural policy, as well as industrial policy. We are therefore looking for a way for water to be more visible as a standalone topic, because otherwise the attention just fades.
How challenging is it to bring together diverse areas to provide a more holistic approach to water? Is the water sector being adequately represented when it comes to things like research funding?
Those working within the water sector are very active, and there is a lot of attention now being placed on water in industry, as well as on water in a domestic context, an environmental context – in an agricultural context it is always a bit more of a challenge.
Yet, for many politicians and policymakers, water remains a rather intangible topic, which makes it very difficult. Indeed, in the European Commission, the DG responsible for water is DG Environment, where there is a clean water unit and an industrial water unit. But, of course, they only look at water from an environmental perspective – and not from the perspective that water is a major enabler for industrial production, or from the perspective that the technology we produce in Europe – as a result of our good water legislation and the challenges that we have here – provide a tremendous export opportunity. European policy should therefore contain a much more central positioning of water, and while some people have posited a DG Water, that may not be the best solution. Instead, a commissioner in a more strategic central position who is responsible for the integration of water to the different policy areas might be a better alternative.
Is there a sense that water is gaining attention across silos at the European Commission?
Absolutely; different commissioners have certainly started paying more attention to water. For instance, Jyrki Katainen – Commissioner for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness – spoke at our water innovation Europe event in June, and the science commissioner, Carlos Moedas, also demonstrated an interest in water when he spoke at our event two years ago. Similarly, Phil Hogan – Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development – is very interested in water, and Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella is also paying attention.
However, the intangible nature of water nevertheless means that sometimes they still struggle with developing an holistic approach and, as such, the fragmentation of the sector remains. Water is fragmented around policies, and it is fragmented at the different levels of authority – the European level, the national level, and the regional level – which makes it very complicated.
How challenging is it to bring together these diverse areas to provide a more holistic approach to water, and what can the WssTP do here?
Firstly, we try as much as possible to represent the whole value chain of the water sector in Europe, and we have done that by segmenting our membership into five different ‘colleges’. College A consists of the multinational corporations which have water at the heart of their business model; College B contains the universities and research and technology organisations (RTOs); College C contains the utilities – private and public utilities, as well as drinking water and waste water; College D contains the technology supply chain and SMEs; and College E contains the large, mostly industrial, water users. As such, it is possible to view these colleges thus: College A are the system integrators; Colleges B and D (the researchers and technology suppliers) are the solution providers; and Colleges C and E (the utilities and large water users) are the problem owners.
Via our activities we are working to bring representatives of all elements of the value chain together around specific themes and challenges. We are also looking at how we can better involve public authorities such as cities and regions in our activities. This is important because they are also major stakeholders in this debate. We already have a great track record of working with a number of regions which have regional representation here in Brussels, where we are based. That is much less the case for cities, however, and we are working to improve that.
Given these issues and challenges, what are your hopes for the future? Do you expect your priorities to evolve in the short and/or long term?
I remain optimistic for the future. We have seen how water is rising on the agenda of many people and many sectors, and many have now recognised that the main challenge is to tackle the fragmentation. But I am very positive that we are moving in the right direction.
Our water vision, entitled The value of water, was developed in the first half of 2016 to establish the course of action for tackling the key societal challenges related to water, which is one of the key resources underpinning our lives and economies. This document defines our vision for a ‘Water-Smart Society’, and it has also helped us to explore how the fragmentation of the sector can be overcome.
To put this vision together we consulted with the normal actors, as well as with many others, including cities which are not connected to WssTP. We also connected with the European Commission, as well as with a lot of other Brussels-based organisations active with water; eight of them, including the European Innovation Partnership on Water, have endorsed our water vision.
We are currently working to use the water vision to convince both European decision makers and national and regional decision makers about how we believe the water sector will develop and what the solutions to the challenges we are dealing with could look like. We are also translating the vision into the 24 official European languages in order to ensure it reaches the largest possible audience.
The feedback we have received on our water vision thus far has been very positive, as has that which we have received for the innovation and research agenda we have written to highlight the R&I we believe is necessary to realise that vision.
The WssTP vision aims to set out the pathways towards better use, valorisation and stewardship of water sources by society and businesses while developing resilient and sustainable solutions for our key global water challenges. It describes how these challenges can be turned into opportunities for Europe to develop new technologies, solutions, business and governance models for the water-smart society of the future.
This vision is of a future where water scarcity and pollution of ground and surface water in Europe are avoided; water, energy and resource loops are largely closed to foster a circular economy; the water system is resilient against climate change events; and European business dependent on water thrives as a result of forward-looking research and innovation.
As such, it frames the context for developing a renewed Strategic Innovation and Research Agenda (SIRA) that defines the most important research, development and innovation actions to be promoted by WssTP and its collaboration partners for the upcoming decades.
The WssTP Vision focuses on European water challenges, trends and required developments, but it also indicates how these are connected to Europe’s role in solving global water challenges, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, while confirming and strengthening Europe’s position in the global water-related economy valued at €62.9 trillion.
WssTP promotes a future-proof European model for a water-smart society that entails a paradigm shift in the way our future society will be organised and managed with regard to water. It requires bold and courageous decisions, investments, changes and new types of collaboration for stakeholders at all levels of society, involving citizens, public authorities at all levels, industries and farmers, as well as representatives of our natural environment.
Its advantage comes from dramatically higher levels of manageability enabled by the emerging cyber-physical society, ‘digital water’ technologies and increased availability of ‘multiple waters’ to complement freshwater sources, as well as much deeper levels of awareness, integration and collaboration between organisations and citizens. These important changes will offer a boost for European industry, which requires significant investment in redesigned and adapted infrastructure as well as innovative technologies. It also provides complex challenges that require a longer term programme to foster stable migration towards the new water-smart society.
Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform (WssTP)
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Science & Technology issue 25, which will be published in December, 2017.