The EU water challenge: Every Drop Counts, A review of the EU’s largest environmental conference

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Every year as the summer approaches, EU policy makers, public authorities, NGOs, industry and private citizens gather at Green Week, the main environmental event of the European Commission. This year, from May 22-25, the 12th edition of Green Week consisted of a series of conferences on water issues and challenges.

As water resources suffer increasing strains in the region, the European Union is looking to review its water legislation. According to the results of an early 2012 consultation, the EU should specifically improve its water policies in the fields of water recycling and re-use, the use of sewage sludge, pollution control at the source, urban waste water collection systems, water scarcity and droughts. These issues were all raised during Green Week, particularly when one session argued that the EU is facing a water governance crisis instead of a water crisis.

Even though water shortages occur in the EU and worldwide, water resources should be sufficient. More sustainable management of available water is needed and changes in mindsets on water uses are necessary.

Green Week gave a forum for public and private stakeholders to discuss ongoing challenges related to water. From water value to water contamination, the Green Week sessions went beyond general water issues by discussing more expansive implications – including the interactions between water and climate change and international trade. This article underlines a few ideas panelists brought forward at several Green Week conferences.

The value of water

Two concepts frequently emerged throughout Green Week: decoupling economic growth from resource use and environmental degradation as well as the value of water.

According to the Green week panelists, decoupling should not necessarily result in water use restrictions for industry, but should consist of raising awareness about water challenges among stakeholders: where the water comes from, how to maintain water quality and how water is treated.

With regard to the value of water, it was highlighted that water value is not the same as the price or the cost of water. However, water use can be excessive because it is a “free” good in many countries. According to a United Nations Industrial Development Organisation sector, industry should pay a price for the water it uses, contrary to water used in households. Understanding the value of water is key when drafting and implementing new policies as well as improving existing ones, such as productivity or health issues.

Water quality and emerging pollutants

EU water policies and regulations, including the Water Framework Directive, REACH and the PRTR address water contamination – but the monitoring of water quality is only performed on well-known substances. According to another Green Week session, closer attention should be given to emerging pollutants, that is, pollutants resulting from human activities. These pollutants include pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

In order to develop knowledge on emerging pollutants, the European Environmental Agency (EEA) has recently launched a few European wide campaigns to monitor these substances in groundwater and wastewater treatment plants. However, the screening methods used to monitor these substances are fairly complicated as the number of substances to be identified is large and some are unknown.

The EUREAU – a European umbrella federation of national water and wastewater associations – has concluded that emerging pollutants mainly exist in wastewater treatment plants and in shallow groundwater as a result of wastewater discharges. The EUREAU’s approach to dealing with the emerging pollutants problem is reduction at the source. The EUREAU has published a position paper which states the need for risk assessment and risk mitigation of emerging pollutants to improve the knowledge base on these substances. It also details particular actions needed to be taken by the pharmaceutical industry such as classification, take-back, separate treatment and proper disposal.

Although existing research shows that concentrations of emerging pollutants in water are very low and no severe effects have been found, consumer expectations require the water supply to be free of any pollutants. Therefore, more effort must be given to gathering the required information on these substances.

Water and climate change

The water challenge should not be addressed without a serious look at energy and climate change issues. Energy production is intertwined with the quality and quantity of water resources. Failure to consider both resources in the decision making process for production and consumption may only solve an immediate problem while creating many others. Thus, decisions in the water sector must consider interactions with energy use. For instance, the EU is currently researching the impact on fresh water due to the use of shale gas – results are expected in the fall of 2012. Similarly, speakers pointed out the importance of energy-efficient water use among consumers.

The EU also intends to take the lead and provide a framework for dealing with adaptation to climate change. Adaptation is considered to be necessary response to climate change, as a result of the rise in sea levels and temperatures and extreme weather events. National and local authorities will ultimately make the final call in adapting to climate change as needed, for instance through prevention planning for floods and droughts. The EU will run a consultation until end of August on the preparation of the EU climate change adaptation strategy.

Nevertheless, this change should not come only from the public sector but also from proactive industry stakeholders, through water use and reduction assessment, according to a speaker from the drinking water purification sector.

Water and international trade

Water issues in international trade revolve around understanding our water footprint. The water footprint looks at human appropriation of fresh water resources, including water consumed and contaminated at a certain places and points in time.

The EU is currently assessing the benefits of water footprinting, and more generally the environmental footprint of products. One challenge is that footprinting – even when conducted with strict and reliable metrics – can vary in methodology and thus in outcome. Through its Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan, the EU aims to establish a harmonized methodology for the calculation of such footprints.

Another challenge during product waterfootprinting is that the location of water use and contamination matter, compared to carbon footprinting, which is occurs on a global scale. Accurately informing consumers through labeling requires more assessment techniques, complex criteria and thorough information from the supply chain. The Alliance for Water Stewardship is working on a water footprint labeling scheme.

Water footprinting is still of use for companies who wish to identify and assess water hotspots and influence supply chain choices and water innovation, according to an industry speaker. As importantly, the water footprint could be a tool for public authorities to set their policy goals for their water basins. However, it was also underlined that 92% of the world’s water footprint is in the agricultural sector.

Green Week conferences highlighted challenges and potential policy responses for water management. Increased water pollution control, efficiency in water use, water pricing and increased knowledge on water resources should be on the EU agenda in the coming future.

Enhesa continues to monitor issues that may affect the regulation of EU member countries, and provides its clients with the most current regulatory information available in these countries through its Monitoring Service. For more information on Enhesa’s Monitoring Service, please contact us at info@enhesa.com.

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