Drinking water – challenges for the industry

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Providing water, including drinking water, is one of the key services of the modern world. We don’t usually pay much attention to it, but it is a sector where a lot is happening. I talk about the challenges and changes in the provision of water and wastewater collection with Ms. Klara Ramm, a member of EurEau’s board of directors and representative of the Polish Waterworks Chamber of Commerce.

Marta Saracyn: We live in a world that is changing a lot. We are facing more and more frequent droughts. The regulatory environment is also dynamic. What are the biggest challenges facing the water delivery sector? What is it about the near future that keeps experts up at night?

Klara Ramm: Indeed, there is a lot going on. Such a curse of living in interesting times. First, issues that we have less direct influence on, namely climate change. Second, these are political topics that are closely related to economic ones. But the real challenge for the water sector today is finance. The problem stems from the fact that we cannot update, due to the regulator’s disagreement, the tariffs. In any case, not to the extent needed for water fees to keep up with inflation, energy price increases and so on. This is a serious problem that unfortunately mainly hits investments. For this reason, the water supply sector is currently living a more day-to-day life, without looking to the future, which is very dangerous for all of us consumers.

A significant challenge is related to climate change and the whole environment associated with it in general. EU legislation has been changing a lot in recent times. There is a new directive on the quality of water intended for consumption, but there is also a sewage directive already in the pipeline, a new Taxonomy, which is an ordering of sustainable investments, hinting at where to spend public money. The Critical Infrastructure Directive is another part of the law changes. So is a new topic, namely cyber security. There are really a lot of things going on that in the past were completely unrelated to waterworks. If someone had told me a few years ago that the water supply sector would be involved in cyber security, I would have been surprised. It seemed so far away, and now we are actually in the middle of the process of building a resilient infrastructure. Many, many novelties.

MS: In what directions do you think the water supply sector will develop? We are talking about digitization. In the Taxonomy, one of the activities associated with the goals for water conservation is the issue of creating IT systems that would help reduce water losses in water supplies. Is digitization the direction the water sector will go? Does a very different future await us in this area?

KR: Digitization is inevitable, as it is in every industry. We have such volumes of data that we need to organize it in some way to make use of it. We are most helped by artificial intelligence, which can process information faster than humans. All this means that in the context of looking for losses, analyzing the quality of the network, we will use IT systems. In the proposed wastewater directive, there is a very strong emphasis on digitization, on building hydrological and hydraulic models. Precisely in order to manage the sewage network in the most efficient, optimal way. Certainly, digitization is a huge challenge for the water and sewer sector. It connects to cyber security, because you also have to protect the data you collect, make sure no one hacks into the system. This is regulated by the NIS-2 directive, which is very difficult for our industry. These regulations are written in computer language, so understanding and writing into them is a challenge.

I think climate change will also be on the agenda all the time. Looking at EU legislation, we are actually seeing the Union managing the climate crisis. All the issues revolve around the Green Deal, around a closed-loop economy. In fact, all of the European Union’s activity has focused on saving the climate and our well-being here in Europe. It will be a challenge. I am glad that this awareness is growing.

MS: You are also a member of the board of EurEau, which is a union of national associations of water suppliers and wastewater collection services. How do we look, as a country, compared to Europe? Are we moving into a leadership position? Are we any laggards?

KR: EurEau is a federation that brings together national organizations. The Polish Waterworks Chamber of Commerce is a member. Each country has its own organization, which is affiliated with EurEau. At the European level, we discuss a lot about what’s going on in each country. I must admit that technologically we have made such a leap that we are ahead of many countries. I am particularly thinking here of water treatment and wastewater treatment technologies. As for wastewater management, we have very modern facilities. Not everywhere, of course, because unfortunately here, too, you can see the disconnect between the big cities and what happens in small towns and in the countryside. This gap is unfortunately widening, but we can also see a huge change in the operations and management of companies that have used EU funds.

We used to travel to see different technologies used in Scandinavia, Germany or Italy. Now such tours are coming to Poland to see what we have built. The direction is the opposite, and this is very gratifying. That’s why financial issues are so important – to keep this modern infrastructure in good condition. She needs to be continuously funded and well managed.

I think that in terms of technology we are in the vanguard, but we also have our weaknesses, of course. We haven’t implemented the Wastewater Directive all the time, but this is due to really a lot of factors, both internal and external. It is a whole combination of very many circumstances accumulated over the years. I believe we can handle it. We also have weaknesses related to wastewater management outside agglomerations. That’s the problem with so-called zero-drainage tanks, which are usually not zero-drainage at all and thus poison our environment. I’m also thinking of domestic treatment plants, for which there has been a big boom. Poorly operated they become leaky septic tanks after years. Indeed, there is much to be done. This is a direction that we should work on very dynamically, because we can already see quality problems at rural water intakes. The big challenge for us is agriculture, that is, improving cooperation with this sector. At EurEau, we are trying to make sure that the Common Agricultural Policy is implemented correctly, because it also helps our industry.

MS: We’ve been talking a lot about quality, so let’s look at it from the other side now. Are quantity issues also a major concern for the water delivery sector?

KR: This is where agriculture comes to mind again, because I think water can really be managed sensibly so that it is supplied to everyone in the right quantity and quality. In the near future, there will be competition for resources. She already has a bit of a place, especially during the summer season. Agriculture takes in so much water that it is beginning to run out of tap water. It is necessary to solve this problem somehow. Of course, agriculture has its rights, but does it really need to use groundwater? However, shouldn’t priority be given to providing drinking water? There are regions that sign memoranda on this issue. Admittedly, the law does not stipulate that water utilities should take precedence over every other industry when water is in short supply. This, too, is a controversial issue, and farmers would probably have a different opinion, but such memoranda are appearing in the Rhine Valley, for example. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of cooperation, good retention, but mainly in ordering agricultural water intakes. This is necessary to ensure a safe water supply. Currently, we don’t even know how much water agriculture draws, because some of these abstractions are not recorded. No one controls it. With knowledge, agricultural water management could be organized and access to water could be managed.

An interesting trend is the recovery of water from wastewater. I am taking part in the ReNutriWater project, which is led by the Polish Waterworks Chamber of Commerce under the Interreg Baltic Sea program. In our region, it’s still a novel topic that’s not very popular yet, but it’s also a good way forward, in line with the closed-loop economy. Safe recovery of water from wastewater is possible. Knowing that 99.9% of wastewater is water, its recovery seems like a great idea. This is a very good direction, which will probably be developed in Poland as well, as for example in Murcia, Spain. There, well over half of the water from wastewater is recovered. This trend will come to our part of Europe as well. As the water deficit increases.

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