MEP: Water ‘must be integrated into all policies’

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“Everything has to rethought in terms of the water problem,” Austrian centre-right MEP Richard Seeber told EURACTIV in an interview, commenting on the unanimous adoption of his report on water scarcity and drought by Parliament’s environment committee yesterday (9 September).

Austrian centre-right MEP Richard Seeber is the author of a Parliament report on water scarcity and drought.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

You are one of the people behind Europe’s water vision for the 21st century. Can you briefly explain the main principles behind this? 

First, water should be one of the main issues on the political agenda and integrated into all policies. This is the most important idea of the initiative because if you look at the policies, whether at national or regional level – there is a lot of talk about climate change of course – water issues will be the most pressing in the very near future. Everything has to be rethought in terms of the water problem. 

Secondly, businesses and citizens have to take into account that we shall face water scarcity in large parts of Europe that will hinder successful economic development. 

Is water scarcity a problem in all parts of Europe, not only in the south? 

Yes. If you look at the forecasts made by many institutes, [water scarcity] will not only be around the Mediterranean area – that will be severely hit of course – but also the Central European part. 

Some parts of Europe will have more water, like Scandinavia or the British Isles. But nevertheless, it must be considered that water will be a pressing factor which is detrimental to economic development. Also I think that citizens need to be made aware of one thing: the water they consume is present in all products on the market and this has to be brought to their minds. 

Thirdly, we have the Water Framework Directive, which has to be properly implemented. I’m always fighting for subsidiarity. I think there is enough room for the different member states to fulfil all the requirements of the directive, but still, they have to do something – I have the impression that some member states are quite reluctant to fulfil their obligations. There are different time frames within which they have to accomplish the requirements but we need to take a look at what they are doing and how they will implement it. For example, the pricing issue will be a quite pressing one in both directions, so we shall see what the outcomes are. 

You say some member states are reluctant. Can you specify? On which aspects? Can groups of countries be identified? 

You have to look at each member country because there are very different traditions, especially regarding the pricing issue, because some member states like Ireland and Great Britain have a totally different system than in Central Europe, for example. There, households pay the same amount even if they consume double or three times as much water as other households. 

To take another example, in Spain, agriculture – which is very water intensive – pays two to three percent of the amount that households are charged. In Germany, there is a metering system and after the former German Democratic Republic joined the Union, we have seen how demand for water sharply declined there because of the new metering system. 

So, each member has its own system and there is room in the Water Framework Directive for them to keep it but respecting the principle that if you use water, you have to pay for it. 

Are you saying that there should be less room for manoeuvre left to member states? 

No. It is important that they have a system which reflects the fact that water is a scarce commodity. If you use more water, then you get charged more, this is the principle. But how you do it is up to the member countries to decide in their own way. 

The metering system currently applied in Germany is not obligatory under of the Water Framework Directive, but the Commission seems to favour their generalisation. Do you think the EU should make them compulsory, perhaps at a later stage? 

To be honest, I don’t think there will be consensus among the member states that we can really impose a metering system. You are right, the Commission is pushing for this case but I do not think they will find consensus in the Council. 

In Article 9 of the Water Framework Directive, there is an obligation for member states to impose a pricing system but I think this is the most we can manage at the moment. We should wait until the time is right and see what the member states are doing. So if we learn that some member states are not fulfilling their obligations, we have to react and then maybe a compulsory metering system will appear necessary. 

Which countries are the most reluctant? 

Especially those in the south, where they use a lot of water and especially of course the various sectors of the economy which are using very different amounts of water. We all know that agriculture in the southern member states is consuming a lot, so if you put a price tag on water, of course it has a direct impact on the cost of the product they produce, so I think we can expect a lot of reluctance in these member countries. In some other countries there are abundant water reserves so they do not have this problem of course. So out of this fact, it’s quite easy to see where the problems will come from. 

In the UK they are considering introducing water efficiency targets. Do you think think this is a good idea that should be generalised? 

Yes, I think it’s a very good idea. The UK has very old infrastructures, so with these efficiency targets, it provides them with an incentive to invest in new infrastructure. If you get money out of the commodity you sell – water – I think it becomes easier to invest in that. Great Britain has to do a lot to bring their old pipes up to standard. 

So yes, efficiency targets are a very good option to encourage better use of water. But again, you need to look closely at the member states, because for example in Germany and Austria, there is the problem that infrastructures are too large for the water which used at the moment. 

The water stays for too long in the pipes. The problem is that the pipes were built for cities of 100,000 inhabitants, now they are 60,000 so they have to be redesigned, rebuilt, to a size which is adequate for the amount of water that is used. So efficiency targets? Yes, in the UK, but you have to look at whether this is feasible in Germany. You cannot impose a one-size-fits-all approach at EU level. 

Updating infrastructure has huge costs, which introduces the whole financing issue. What’s the current state of the debate now between the private schemes and public-funded schemes? Is one more efficient than the other? 

At the moment there is no regulation or directive at EU level saying how infrastructures are to be financed. It is up to the member states to choose whether they wish to have public or private money. As long as you follow EU competition rules, it is up to the member states to construct these infrastructures, be it on a regional or local level. 

Which ones have proved to be the most successful in your view? 

We have a very successful example in Austria, where infrastructure is run at local or regional level and it is usually the state and the local communities financing them. Again, we should give member states the opportunity to decide upon the most appropriate way of financing infrastructure. 

The only thing is that there should be a level playing field for companies that want to invest. Private companies should have the same possibilities as public companies – they have to fulfil public procurement rules. But on ownership, this is not something to decide at European level. 

Although there are no EU rules on ownership, there is however an obligation to introduce pricing policies under the Water Framework Directive. For the consumer, the impact will be visible… 

Of course, if you put a price tag on a commodity, you have to pay for it. And especially the industry and agriculture will have to pay for it. It is not so much a problem for the consumer to be honest. It has an indirect effect on consumers, on the products they buy. 

But almost all member states already have pricing in place for households. The problem is indirect pricing via agriculture and industry. I don’t know how much this will affect consumers but I think the impact is going to be much lower than feared, because there is a lot of room for these sectors to improve their water efficiency. 

Take irrigation in Spain, for example. It is not efficient at all to irrigate fields directly because 80% of the water evaporates. If you look at a country like Israel, it has put in place innovative irrigation technologies, which brings the water directly to the roots. This means that they would end up paying the same despite the increase in price thanks to the savings made. Of course they would have to invest in this irrigation technology. But nevertheless, in Europe, we have a European funding system. And if they modernise the irrigation infrastructure using this fund, it is not going to be reflected so much in consumer prices. 

One big element is the political context, which is very different now with high inflation and rising food prices. Do you think this can have an impact on the pricing policies which member states have to introduce next year? 

You’re right. There is a lot of pressure now on consumers and the farmers with high inflation and high prices on raw materials. And it will be very difficult politically to impose this pricing policy. Looking to the future, I think the Commission will try to get the member states to implement it. 

Nevertheless, there will be considerable pressure on member states and the Commission to postpone these measures, especially in those member states where the agricultural sector is significant, and those where pricing policies currently do not exist. 

I think this problem will be more acute in the south. These countries have to rethink their agricultural policies if they want to address the climate change issue and they have to rethink their irrigation technologies and how they invest in this sector. For households too: you know that Barcelona has to import water by ships during the summer because there is no water available. 

So, there will be a lot of pressure from these sides and the European Commission will have to ensure that the measures that were agreed politically with the member states are properly enforced. 

Do you think some delays could be granted? 

There could be. But what I understand is that the Commission tries to be very firm on this issue. Supplying more water will not resolve the scarcity problem in general, so member states should really rethink the way they consume water. 

All member states agreed to the Water Framework Directive, this needs to be stressed. It is not just the Commission imposing this, we all did. It was the Council’s decision and the European Parliament’s decision. It was unanimous. 

US scientists recently pointed out that there could be a peak water situation like that of oil due to ever-increasing demand from industry, farming, households, etc. How serious is this threat? 

I don’t think we really have the knowledge to put a ‘peak’ on water, and in any case, unlike oil, water is renewable, one must not forget that. Of all the water we have on the earth’s surface, 3% is sweet water. 

However, you can recycle water as often as you want. So if you have proper installations, there will never be peak water. If you use photovoltaics to run water desalination plants, for example, then there will never be a peak water situation. 

So it depends on how you organise this sector, and how much you want to invest in it. And I think that at the moment that there are such huge possibilities to make it more efficient that you won’t necessarily need to invest in recycling. 

You mentioned technologies such as desalination. Do you think they should be used on a wide scale to prevent scarcity? Or are there more gains to be made from efficiency measures? 

The focus at the moment, both in the paper of the Commission and in my report, is on efficiency and demand-side measures. Because we think that the supply side measures are not at the moment the most feasible ones. Especially in regions where we have water stress, I think it’s much better to rethink water use and not to immediately provide more water. 

But nevertheless, there are solutions that are already technically feasible and the prices have dropped heavily. A cubic metre of water treated in a desalination plant would have cost you two euros fifteen years ago, now you would pay forty cents, so this is a sharp decline. 

But when talking about such technologies you really have to look at their overall efficiency, especially where comes the energy which is used given the context of the CO2 emissions and climate change. 

And this is only for the coastline, so what would you do in the mainland? Either you drill or make these long pipelines which I am absolutely not fond of. So you really have to look at the area where the water is used. 

This is one major point I wanted to stress in my report, that we have to rethink our investment policy. It doesn’t make sense to give money to build plants or to fund agriculture where you know that in a couple of years, you have a water problem. This is the reason why I stress in my report that water policies should be mainstreamed in all policies so that we guarantee long term security of water supplies. 

What about recycling and re-use? 

That’s a possibility, absolutely. But nevertheless first of all comes efficiency, then as a second step, recycling and re-use. It’s not that I am against it but it must be clear that the largest gains are to be made with efficiency measures and how water is used in certain areas, infrastructure policy and how regions are developed more generally. 

Secondly, if it is necessary to produce more water, building re-use facilities or dissemination plants, it has to be done according to the new context of climate change and avoiding use of fossil fuels. 

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