Towards a ‘water-smart’ society in Europe

By Carla Gomes

When discussing water scarcity and the dire scenarios for water access in the future, European populations are probably not the first that come to mind. Yet, climate change, a growing population and competing demands between sectors such as agriculture, industry and tourism are putting pressure over water resources across the continent, and will be driving a profound shift in how we manage the ‘blue gold’ over the next few decades. Water scarcity has in fact become a serious threat, in particular for Southern Europe. In addition, over 40% of the water needed to provide products consumed in Europe is used outside EU territory, which puts pressure over global freshwater resources.

In response to an increasingly challenging scenario, improving water use efficiency is crucial. For this reason the European Commission launched in 2017 the H2020 call ‘Building a water-smart economy and society’. This call resulted in the approval of B-WaterSmart: Accelerating Water Smartness in Coastal Europe, a 4-year project coordinated by the German institute IWW Water Centre, in which the ICS-ULisboa has been involved since September 2020, being responsible for the development of the Work Package ‘Society, Governance & Policy’.

B-WaterSmart aims at developing ‘water-smart’ systems, societies and economies that are more resilient to climate change impacts and supportive of a thriving European water-dependent business. To achieve this, the Project consortium brings together six coastal European cities and regions, constituted as Living Labs – Alicante (Spain), Bodø (Norway), Flanders (Belgium), Lisbon (Portugal), East Frisia (Germany), and Venice (Italy) –  in a large-scale systemic approach to select, connect and demonstrate tailored suites of innovative technology, management, and interoperable smart data solutions for multiple users and sectors. The consortium comprises of 36 partners, including 11 technology providers. In Portugal, partners of B-WaterSmart are, besides the ICS-ULisboa, the Municipality of Lisbon, LNEC (National Laboratory for Civil Engineering), Águas do Tejo Atlântico, ADENE (Agency for Energy) and Baseform.

A key goal of the project, and of the H2020 call, is to implement a circular economy paradigm in the water sector, along the lines of the first EU Circular Economy Action Plan. This concept is arriving at the water sector quite late, but it will undoubtedly change the water management landscape over the next few years. This will require significant shifts in our approach and behaviours towards water consumption and management. A crucial shift is the generalisation of wastewater reuse, with the creation of parallel supply networks and water of various quality levels adapted to different purposes.

A big shift over the coming years in Europe will be the generalisation of wastewater reuse. Creative Commons

Furthermore, the project will identify opportunities to create circularities between sectors, such as reuse of wastewater sludge in agriculture and recovery of nutrients, in accordance with the new EU Plan for Circular Economy (2020), which includes an Integrated Nutrient Management Plan to ensure the sustainable application and the development of markets for recovered nutrients.

Another concern to address at this point is the non-negligible energy consumption of the water sector, specifically wastewater treatment. The report ‘Towards a More Resilient Europe post-coronavirus’, launched in July 2020, stresses the need to “better understand and manage the climate-water-ecosystem-agriculture nexus and connection with energy needs”.

Society, governance and policy

In addition to climate change, population growth is driving a surge in water demand and making it challenging to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG6 aims at achieving, by 2030, universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as improving water quality by reducing pollution, increase water-use efficiency across all sectors, protect and restore water-related ecosystems. Yet, there are still more than 2 billion people without access to quality water.

The COVID-19 pandemics has brought new challenges, which require the adjustment of water safety protocols. Wastewater has been used as a means to monitor the disease, and has even allowed to identify traces of the coronavirus previous to its official onset in Europe. On the other hand, the pandemics revealed how inequalities in access to quality water increase the vulnerability of populations to infection by the coronavirus, across the world. This makes it all the more important to study the social perceptions and practices around water use, a key mission of the B-WaterSmart project, which results will be replicated in other regions and countries beyond Europe.

On the policy front, changes in legislation and regulation, including pricing, are required, as well as ambitious technological innovations. A key challenge currently is the development of new legislation and regulations that contribute to generalise water and sludge reuse across sectors. A new EU Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse for agricultural irrigation has recently entered into force. The new rules will apply from 26 June 2023 and are expected to stimulate and facilitate water reuse in the EU. In Europe, agriculture accounts for around 24% of water abstraction, although this figure can reach up to 80% in parts of Southern Europe. The new rules are to be situated in the context of the new Circular Economy Action Plan adopted in 2020, which includes as a topic priority to implement water reuse and efficiency across sectors, including in industrial processes, as well as ‘monitoring and supporting the implementation of the Drinking Water Directive to make drinkable tap water accessible in public places’, with the objective of reducing dependence on bottled water and preventing packaging waste.

Stone water tank in Portugal. “Water is worth more than gold” (author’s archive)

To make all this possible, new governance models have to be established, that allow for a socially inclusive approach to water management, ensure adequate consideration of social factors such as gender, housing conditions and the needs of minorities, as well as the effective engagement of key stakeholders across agriculture, industry, tourism and other sectors that require an increasing consumption of the ‘blue gold’. In order to make this a reality, the whole project is built around Communities of Practice (CoP) and Innovation Alliances, which will foster the co-development of innovative solutions and approaches, under the coordination of the Portuguese National Laboratory for Civil Engineering (LNEC).

In order to realise this move towards a ‘water-smart’ paradigm, it is crucial to take society was a whole on board. Social awareness of the water-related challenges, as well as acceptance of alternative solutions (such as wastewater reuse) will be determinant to address these challenges. A recent survey carried out in Lisbon brings encouraging results on the acceptance of water reuse in public spaces, but a lot more has to be done to understand the social reality of water in European cities and regions. The perceived availability of water resources and the low cost of drinking water, for instance, may hinder the necessary sense of urgency in saving water and coming up with alternative solutions, particularly costly ones. There is a crucial need to appropriately communicate future risks, particularly those related to climate change. Increasing heatwaves, the rise in mean temperatures and recurrent droughts are raising serious concerns over water availability over the next few decades, across the world.

Carla Gomes is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS-ULisboa) and a team member of B-WaterSmart, alongside ICS researchers Luísa Schmidt, Rosário Oliveira and Ana Delicado. She is currently leader of Work Package 5 – Society, Governance & Policy.

B-WaterSmart – Accelerating Water Smartness in Coastal Europe. H2020 funded EU project under Grant Agreement number 869171. Follow @B_WaterSmart on Twitter.


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