Seeber MEP: Improve water efficiency without price spikes

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This article is part of our special report Delivering water in the 21st century.

Austrian MEP Richard Seeber (European Peoples Party) says differences in regional needs and infrastructure make it difficult to have a one-size-fits-all approach to water efficiency.

Richard Seeber serves on the European Parliament’s environment and regional development committees. He was interviewed at a 10 May workshop on water efficiency organised by Fondation EURACTIV.

[Editor's note: The following transcript was modified on 24 May to correct inaccuracies. We apologise to Mr Seeber for the inconvenience caused.]

What do you see as the main challenge in the area of water efficiency?

Water efficiency is first a technical problem we have because with technical measures, I think we can raise quite easily the water efficiency in different sectors of water use.

We have to first target the big users like the energy sector -the whole cooling water issue- agriculture and industry.

From a political point of view, of course we have to create a proper framework, especially in the sense that we have a proper pricing system in place. Then I think the different sectors will act automatically and they will then choose the solution which fits them best.

I think It is not feasible from a European point of view that we give them the technical solutions – they have to decide what they want. The industry has to provide that and a proper pricing framework could help them make the proper decisions.

If there was one policy you could choose to ensure water efficiency, what would that be?

I think we have to look at the different sectors. In the energy sector, of course I think there are technical solutions like the closed-cycle cooling system [and] in agriculture we have drip irrigation which is very efficient.

In industry there are various technical solutions for the different sectors. In the household sector I think efficiency is more focused on the pipe distribution system. There are huge differences between member states. If you look at Bulgaria, they have a leakage rate of around 50%, in comparison to Germany that has under 10%. So I think there as well we have to look at the different situations in the member states and help them improve their systems.

What is the role of infrastructure in this debate? What are the developments that need to be made?

I think infrastructure at the moment on a European level is mainly a financing problem. There are lot of member states, even the rich member states, where finding a proper water distribution system and a proper sewage system is a challenge.

We have Article 9 of the Water Framework Directive saying that we have this full cost recovery principle and the user-pays principle. But nevertheless if we implement that properly – having in mind that the Commission can come forward with an economic model on how we can do it – even if that model would be implemented, I would say water prices would rise dramatically.

And this is a political problem, a social problem, and I think there we have to find a solution. Maybe in the long run it could be possible, but at the moment I don’t see a way to do it properly.

Do you believe member states should set a specific water savings target? Do you think that’s a good idea, maybe at 'river basin' level?

I think we should first of all have proper data. Because at the moment, we don’t know how much water is available in different river basins. So when we have the data, we can start the discussion about whether we should set targets.

I come from a country where we use only 2% of our water supplies, so I’m not sure if it is wise to set water efficiency targets. If you look at Malta, which has a water-stress situation, the situation is absolutely different. So I think we have to take a regional approach, and first of all collect the data, then have a proper discussion where we can come forward with ideas.

Should specific sectors – you mentioned energy and agriculture – adopt such targets? Is that desirable in your view?

I think we have to bear in mind that nobody hinders them from having these target on their own. I think it’s a wise management decision if you improve your efficiency overall. And if you are a big water user, then increase your overall water-efficiency target as well. So it's a management decision.

The question is if we should from a European level impose such efficiency standards, having in mind that the situation regionally speaking and as well in the different sectors, is really totally different. I’m not sure if there’s a one-size-fits-all efficiency target for a member state, for a region, or an industry. So the red tape in connection with that is so huge that at the moment I do not see really a proper solution for that.

You mentioned the specific problems of households and social issues. Should that be treated differently, and should the Commission rethink its approach on pricing, for example?

You know we have this general approach in Article 9 of the Water Framework Directive. As we have no proper model in place at the moment, I think the Commission is not starting infringement procedures concerning the implementation of Article 9 in the member states. Which means that it’s up to the member states how they make their pricing policy.

And as you know, in the UN charter water is a human right, a fundamental right. We need water like we need air to breathe. And all ideas going in the direction that we raise water prices for drinking water is going in the wrong direction. I think we need to help households to pay for their water bills, to have proper access to drinking water and wastewater treatment. And in this sense of course economic models can play a role.

But nevertheless the social factor is overarching and here I would really advocate that we help people to save water and not waste so much in the sewage system. I think with these measures we have the same effect as if we tried to raise the water prices, which is wrong.

By economic models, what do you mean?

I mean, for example, a model where you calculate how much costs the whole grid for a proper drinking water system, that you calculate how much energy you use, you calculate the resource itself, the sewage system, and then you divide it by the households and there’s a figure. But I’m pretty sure that this figure is so high that it is politically impossible to impose it on households.

So it should be funded by public funding?

It is already funded by public funding! And it’s a challenge especially for the new member countries where a very low percentage is connected to the sewage system. How can we fund that? I think this is a question that we all have to answer.

There is some European money on the table, but nevertheless we have to think here about models like private-public partnerships. Is there enough money available? I think this is one of the huge challenges of the future.

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