Veolia calls for shift to ‘low-water economy’

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This article is part of our special report Resource efficiency: towards a circular economy.

To face the challenge of water scarcity, the world needs to 'de-hydrate' the economy, fight against waste and make better use of alternative resources like waste water, argued Antoine Frérot, chief executive officer of Veolia Water, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Antoine Frérot is the chief executive officer of Veolia Water, a global private water services operator. He spoke to EURACTIV on the fringes of a Friends of Europe debate on water issues. 

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

The theme of tonight's debate was whether Europe has a global vision on tackling water scarcities. What is your view/message on this subject?

I have three main messages. The first one is about the scarcity of water. We need to keep in mind that the first reason for scarcity is linked to urban growth and the withdrawal of water from nature. So, the first way will be to 'de-hydrate' our economy and our way of life by fighting against the wastage of water and by mobilising alternative resources, like waste water.

My second message is to ask whether we need to consume less or to withdraw less water from nature, and to suggest that we need to change the economic equation of water management. Remember that better health was the first goal of our modern water management system, and so it was normal to link the financing of the system with the volume of water consumed by people. 

If we now need, on the one hand, to maintain or increase consumption for health reasons, and on the other hand, to reduce consumption because of environmental reasons and protection, we must find a way to make these two objectives – the old one and the new one – compatible technically and economically.

Do you have a solution to make these two objectives match?

I don't have a complete solution, but some first steps of the solution. The first one is to apply completely the European framework directive, which says that all the beneficiaries of good water policy need to contribute to its financing proportionally to f its benefits. 

There are a lot of benefits of a good water policy: When we have to reduce consumption, some people benefit, so they could also contribute to the financing of the water system. This means that a consumer of potable water does not have to pay the entire bill, because the rest of the population also benefits from this new good policy. We need to share the financing of water systems and services between consumers and probably taxpayers. 

The second way is to base the financing and pricing of water management and services on performance-efficiency indicators of water usage. And a third way is to disconnect water withdrawal and consumption. For example, if we reuse water, there is consumption of water, of potable water, but no withdrawal, so probably we need to pay more when we withdraw water than when we just consume it. 

You talk about a switch to a de-hydrated or low-water economy. What role do you see in this for a private company like yours?

We propose technologies for the industrial and agricultural sectors to do their jobs by using less water. Recycling is the first good idea. When an industry uses a lot of water for 'poor' uses, like cleaning, then of course recycling waste water is the first way forward. 

But in special scarcity situations, we can also propose solutions to industries which allow them to recycle all the water they use. For example, this is the case of refineries and the oil industry which use a lot of water in countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in California or in Australia. These industries are forced by law to drastically reduce their water withdrawal so as to leave water to others. And they are forced to recycle all the water they use, until the last drop. 

As for farmers, the use of the drop irrigation method, for example, requires a variety of technologies. 

Should this kind of approach [forcing the reuse of water by law] be applied in the EU as well?

Of course. Many companies in the EU have already drastically reduced their water consumption, as well as their water withdrawal from nature. 

However, compared to Qatar, for example, the constraints and tension on water sources are not the same in Europe. Meanwhile, in some Mediterranean towns, for example, some golf clubs no longer have the right to irrigate their golf courses through withdrawal from nature and need to find alternative ways to do it. 

So I think that little by little, companies as well as farmers are being incited to reduce their withdrawals and to change their habits regarding water use. 

Finally, do you have a special message to pass on about water?

Two messages perhaps. The first is that in water management, governance is the key for all stakeholders – the public sector and private or public operators, as well as consumer organisations. 

The second is that inefficiency is immoral in water management. The fact that three million people die each year of poor access to water is not acceptable. Therefore, inefficiency is more immoral than anything else, because it is wrong to leave people without access to water when there are solutions. 

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