This article originally appeared in WWD June 2020 issue as "Smart Water Management"
COVID-19 is a wake-up call that reminds us that we are not well prepared for cross-boundary and cross-sectoral crises.
Water knows no borders, and it could be a potential source and multiplier of disasters for our economy, people and our environment. But water is also an asset so long as we manage water smartly to reboot and accelerate the recovery of our societies.
According to the World Health Organization, the economic benefits of investing in water and sanitation are considerable. They include an overall estimated gain of 1.5% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and approximately a 4€ return for every euro invested in water and sanitation services and a number of other sectors. Therefore, water is the key enabler to make Europe more attractive and more dynamic, stimulating local economic actors, particularly SMEs.
The response can only be in cooperation with local authorities and in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. Especially in Europe, the recovery plan should include both priorities: The Green Deal and the digitalisation. 79% of EU citizens agree that tackling climate change will lead to innovations that will make European companies more competitive, and 70% of citizens agree that water-based activities can have positive effects for citizens.
Globally, 80% of wastewater continues to be discharged untreated, adding to problematic levels of water pollution. It exposes us to water scarcity with a huge potential impact on our economy and wellbeing. Across 193 European businesses reporting to CDP on water last year, the total financial value at risk could reach up to €14 billion. A high number (61%) of reporting companies identified water-related risks in their direct operations and/or value chain.
Water Europe has developed a position paper in collaboration with water-related stakeholders on the post-COVID-19 recovery plan to make water the cornerstone of the EU recovery plan. The conclusions of this paper remain valid for the whole world as well. We believe we need a new paradigm from crisis management to risk management and prevention. We need a water-smart society through digitalisation, nature-based solutions, the exploitation of the value in water and the diversification of water sources.
Water footprint must become a key parameter for local authorities. There is a need for public disclosure of water leak reduction targets, water leak rates and energy performance to improve water efficiency. Estimates by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development highlight about €253 billion in investments are necessary by 2030 in the European water sector to comply with existing legislation meanwhile water affordability for households also must be protected.
Local authorities are the frontrunners to encourage nature-based solutions to integrate economic recovery with management of water risks, as well as with biodiversity goals, climate action, food security and many other ongoing challenges. Using nature-based solutions whenever feasible increases resilience, lowers carbon impact of water services and creates additional green jobs, such as sustainable tourism and jobs.
It is also a matter of developing wastewater and drinking water infrastructure to ensure proper hygiene while leaving no one behind. 23 million people or 4.5% of the total EU population are not connected to public water supply systems, a significant part of which is EU territories that will be affected by the economic crisis and less protected in such occasion. We need the right infrastructure with the right digital tools to monitor the emerging pollution from our economy and reinforce the exploitation of the value in water.
Circularity and water reuse, particularly in industrial processes, are key challenges for the next years. Besides reducing pressure on water resources, there is also an opportunity to foster our autonomy by extracting and valorizing substances as well as energy, embedded in used water streams.
Every region in the world has some innovative solutions that need to be scaled-up, but additional ones require investment. LivingLabs is a powerful tool to maximise the impact of these solutions bringing together local authorities, citizens and industry. We have identified more than 200 water-oriented living labs in Europe, which are doing a great job. This tool is also a guarantee of stability for the financial institutions to invest in our transition and prevent additional costs from unwilled crisis.