Media reports of the liquidation of Polish Waters did not materialize. A new head of the institution has just been appointed. It should be borne in mind that a change in the authority of the authority requires first of all an amendment to the Water Law. What recommendations does the Senate Climate and Environment Committee have for the government in this regard? What will be important for water management in the near future? Are we facing revolution or evolution? I asked Senator Stanislaw Gawlowski, chairman of the Senate KiŚ Committee, about this.
Agnieszka Hobot: Senator, how many years has it been since you have been involved in water management?
Stanislaw Gawlowski: I don’t know where to start counting, but I’ll try from my first public job, which was in local government. It was the mid-1990s of the previous century. Of course, at different levels and from a very different perspective, because water management issues are looked at a little differently from the level of local government, where the main problems are related to water and wastewater management, for which municipalities are responsible, and differently from the level of state administration.
Plumbing topics are, of course, only a part of the big issue of water that I have been dealing with. Other measures are taken on occasion, as it were, such as countering local flooding, not to mention floods. Or the problem of rainwater. Cities are developing, more and more land is concreted and there is no ground retention, so you have to build systems to drain this water, which is never easy.
In the 1990s or even in the early 2000s, we had a different perspective on this issue in local government than we do now. It is completely different today. We are aware of the occurrence of short, very heavy rainfalls, for example, and we know that they can cause gigantic problems in Polish cities. Nevertheless, not all local governments are prepared to deal with them.
After that, my job is parliament. Since 2005. I was an MP and now a senator. I worked for 8 years as Secretary of State at the Ministry of Environment, responsible for water, among other things. It seems that I have been in the industry for a very, very long time, and during that time I have had the opportunity to change my approach to things that involve water. I regret to say that water management returns to the wallpaper only during floods, and only then does it arouse any interest. Drought, for example, which has much more far-reaching effects, does not evoke such emotions. All other water-related topics do not even provoke much discussion.
Resource balancing, water storage, retention is something that is not talked about in Poland. The terms that various experts use in principle should be natural. People wonder what river basin management is, or don’t understand why not everyone can get permission to take water from the river when so much of it flows through it. Well, but this is such an afterthought, the result of thirty-some years of work in the water industry. Until today, I hadn’t thought about how long I’ve been dealing with this topic.
A.H.: In reference to what you just said, I have the impression that all the time water management is marginalized, if only in social or political debates. Why, in your opinion, is this happening? Where should one look for the cause?
S.G.: This is a topic that somehow doesn’t make it into current conversations. In Poland, in my opinion, public debate about important goals and objectives does not exist at all. She appears, as I have already mentioned, on the occasion of the crisis. In addition, it is very superficial. It boils down to slogans, huffing and sometimes insulting each other without going deeper into the problem. This, by the way, then translates into many different decisions, which are often made with the involvement of the public administration. Let’s not kid ourselves, sometimes their level of factual knowledge is not only inadequate, but downright lousy. It happens that entrepreneurs who want to invest in the water industry also show a lack of qualifications.
But back to the question – water can’t get through. People on a daily basis reduce the topic to whether or not water comes from the tap. They only delve into analyzing why it has changed color or coliform contamination has appeared when it has. Poland is a rather unique country in this regard, because the water supplied to homes must be drinkable. This is the law, but it is not obvious in other parts of the world. In most countries, people either don’t have water on tap or it is undrinkable because no standards regulate it.
A.H.: What changes do you think have taken place in water management in Poland over the past few years? What was the most important thing?
S.G.: The establishment of Polish Waters about seven years ago began an era. Before that, many positive things were happening, admittedly with some delay compared to other European countries, but nevertheless in favor. I have the impression that after the establishment of this institution we have regressed on very many levels. From the moment we became a member of the European Union, without being fully aware of the consequences, we took on a whole series of obligations. An example of this is the Wastewater Directive. Politicians, local government officials, water experts knew that it was necessary to build collective wastewater treatment facilities in agglomerations above 10,000. RLM.
But this was really just the tip of the iceberg. Not everyone was aware that it was still necessary to go back to the basic document on the subject, which was and is in force in the European Union – the Water Framework Directive. It is the one that imposes a whole series of obligations: the need to take care of proper quality in water bodies, management in river basins, all the issues that arise from proper restoration of water quality, concern for access and that none of our actions should deteriorate the resources.
At that time, we managed to do a few things: the first river basin management plans, the first flood risk management plans, accompanying documents, such as ISOK (Information System for National Defense against Flood Risk) or preparation for a major reform related to water management. Sometimes all stakeholders cooperated in unison, and sometimes their interests were mutually exclusive, because the economy has different needs, while energy, agriculture, environmental organizations or the public have different needs.
So far I have basically mentioned two directives, and there are many more water-related ones. For example, the Nitrate Directive, which is less well known in Poland, or agricultural pressure on water. It is of great importance and has been implemented in Polish law to some extent, but does it work in practice? I’m not sure. Incidentally, the Flood Directive, which has been implemented in large part, also bows here. Of course, there is no such system that is 100 percent. protects against flooding, but many things have been done.
On the other hand, coming back to the Water Framework Directive itself and these challenges that arise from it, I have the impression that after the establishment of the Polish Waters, we started to go very much backwards. A huge administration was built, tasks were centralized, and a whole range of powers were taken away from local governments, including tariffs. All other issues have come to a standstill, the pace of investment in water and wastewater management has slowed. Rather, the problem is getting worse, even though we have spent a great deal of money over the years. The goal called success is moving away in time.
The area concerning various types of water permits and decisions issued by local governments was centralized, and there was no need to change this. It also got rid of the partnership of provincial governments, that is, sharing responsibility for the entire system of drainage, flood control facilities and installations or embankments. Local governments contributed from their own budgets. No coherent financing system has been built. Water users should pay fees.
Slogan good, but it does not translate into the resources needed to maintain and clean up water management. What comes in from the state budget is also insufficient. Wód Polski’s financial plan for 2023 (for this one I don’t know yet) projected a loss of nearly PLN 1 billion. Such a large deficit will be covered by depreciation, so assets are being decapitalized. We are at a very critical juncture in the functioning of Polish water management.
A.H.: Given this situation, what are the priorities of the Senate Climate and Environment Committee for this year?
S.G.: This year will be a pivotal year and will involve a number of very groundbreaking decisions. For the most part, they should come down to restoring relations with local government and unlocking EU money. Prior to the official talk, we discussed a bit about Polish mistakes regarding reporting to the European Commission, and I must admit that I took the information with concern. I will be closely following what is happening in the area concerning water and the Water Framework Directive and the adaptation of national law to it. It’s too late to correct the proposals. It will be necessary to sit down with the European Commission and negotiate, otherwise the hope of getting the money will become vain.
Our activities are not based only on EU funds. There are things we are able to do internally. On the initiative of the Climate Commission of the previous term, we adopted a statutory solution that brings the tariffing of water and sewage management back to the municipality. If we want to relaunch all the great investment potential in water and wastewater management, it will not be possible without proper tariffs. And I really wouldn’t be afraid of self-government. I myself worked for years as a mayor or mayor, so I know that municipalities are capable of handling this. There is a real urgency to unlock investment in building additional wastewater facilities and upgrading treatment plants. This is not only a necessary step, but also one that is fairly easy to implement, as tariffization will allow decisions to be made at the local level.
The next step is to return to the provincial governments. They should return to the position of partners in decisions and actions, but this is more the competence of the government. I will wait for ideas coming from the Ministry of Infrastructure, because so far it is responsible for water management. Unfortunately, there is no doubt in my mind that Wody Polskie is failing in its tasks, in the whole area that concerns its competence.
A.H.: Asking about the next thing, I would like to take into account the concerns of the employees of Polish Water. With the changes you mentioned, should they be worried about job losses?
S.G.: I think I can reassure those directly involved with Polish Water. We absolutely cannot afford another revolution. The water administration may not survive this. In this case, evolution is needed, not revolution. I was talking about such stages, which are possible to implement quite efficiently, but it is a calm and gradual action. That’s for one thing. Secondly, I know the Water Framework Directive like few others in Poland, and I am aware of such responsibilities as river basin management. What does it mean?
Roughly speaking, there is no local government in Poland that can independently manage any large river basin. At most, small sections, fragments of local or regional importance, but not those associated with Poland’s primary rivers. This must continue to be a government task, as must all actions concerning various types of hazards, such as floods. No local government can handle it. Finally, as part of climate change adaptation, there is a whole big package on, among other things. protection against drought, and that drought has much more negative effects than flooding.
In summary, there is plenty of work to do, and the competence of those involved with water is essential to improve the quality of its management in Poland.
A.H.: Thank you for the interview and good luck with your plans for the water industry.