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INTERVIEW | Caroline Whalley, European Environment Agency

In our APE Interview Series 2019, we meet high-level water experts to discuss the future of water and share perspectives on the upcoming challenges and solutions for truly sustainable water services. This interview is part of a six-part series, all of the interviews are available in Aqua Publica Europea's publication 'The Public Water Services of the Future'

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Caroline Whalley


Caroline WhalleyExpert: Water Industries and Pollution at the European Environment Agency, exchanges with Aqua Publica Europea on environmental sustainability. 

1. The 2018 EEA report on The State of Water highlights that the status of water is improving but not sufficiently to meet targets, what are some of the explanations ?

For parts of the Water Framework Directive, such as ecological status of surface waters, it has taken time to put in place the monitoring and assessment of water bodies. The first reporting of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) in 2010 showed that there were a lot of unknowns in water body status. The understanding had improved by the second series of RBMPs, as set out in the EEA’s 2018 report on The State of Water but showed that there had been limited improvement between the two reports. Partly this owes to the limited time available to implement measures – measures would need to have been in place by about 2012 to be assessed for the second RBMPs, since most monitoring was done 2012-2014.

This doesn’t leave much time for the improvements to have taken effect. But Member States also had to prioritise actions, according to information and resource availability. This, coupled with the “one out all out” precautionary principle of the WFD, can make progress at the overall chemical or ecological status level seem rather slow. But looking at individual biological quality elements, or at individual chemical substances, shows that improvements have been made. We considered chemicals in the EEA report Chemicals in European Waters and could see that, excepting atmospheric diffuse pollution (of substances like mercury and PAHs), there appears to be good news on point sources of priority substances such as metals and industrial chemicals, for example.

2. More generally, what are the main factors of risk for water resources in the next decade?

The major risk factor has to be climate change, with changing rainfall patterns presenting big challenges to some communities. Demographic change is important in some areas, while the challenges faced by water-intensive industries (including agriculture) located in water-stressed areas are likely to increase significantly. Much effort still needs to be put in to reduce diffuse pollution of water resources, for example by nitrates, and from Combined Sewage Overflows.

Meanwhile, increased understanding of micropollutants and the risks presented by mixtures are likely to present ongoing and increasing concern about the sustainability of water resources. Reducing unnecessary water losses and improving energy efficiency in water treatment and supply will be needed. Sludge management, both from waste water treatment and process, needs improved focus to avoid sludge becoming a more significant burden to water managers.

3. Are we ready to address them? If not, what should change to get better prepared?

The sustainable development goals have brought a welcome, renewed focus on water and waste water. Coupled with a changing climate, there is heightened focus on ensuring security of supply and social equity. While access to safe water and sanitation can be assumed by many Europeans, not all citizens have these facilities and ensuring that they do so is challenging at all levels, from ensuring finance is available at national level to the availability of skills at a local level for project delivery.

The water and waste water management sector has traditionally managed its way out of significant challenges. But this comes at a cost, and whether that is to the environment or the consumer is a key point that ought to be discussed more widely, so that society takes more responsibility for the outcome of its actions. Longer term, we can see the circular economy offering a more sustainable way of living. For example, avoiding the use of persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic substances would reduce the contaminant load reaching waste water plants.

Clearly that will take a lot of effort by many actors to achieve such a change, though the recent appointments at European level suggest the opportunity:

  • Mission letter from Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen to Executive Vice-President-designate for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans:

You will be responsible for coordinating the Commission’s work on our zero-pollution ambition. This will require a wide-ranging approach looking at air, water, and noise pollution from transport, agriculture and food production, water quality, hazardous chemicals and other key areas.

  • Mission letter from Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen to Commissioner-designate for Environment and Oceans Virginijus Sinkevičius:

You will lead on delivering on our zero-pollution ambition. This will require a wide-ranging approach looking at air and water quality, hazardous chemicals, emissions, pesticides and endocrine disruptors. … I want you to lead the work on a new Circular Economy Action Plan to ensure sustainable resource use, notably in resource-intensive and high-impact sectors. This should support and feed into the new industrial strategy.

Across Europe, we can already see great examples where water utilities are adapting to the challenges of climate change etc.

4. What will the priorities at EEA in the coming years?

In terms of work planning, we are intending to address a range of particular issues in the next 2-3 years. For example, to consider water and agriculture in an assessment expected in 2020; the management of waste water sludge; management solutions to some significant water management issues. We also aim to work with existing data on pesticides in water and bring together data on groundwater resources. Right now we are trying to develop indicators on efficiency of large (>100,000 person-equivalent) waste water treatment works and on waste water re-use, as part of an effort to highlight sustainable practice in the industry that is being and could be achieved.

Assistance with access to data sources would be welcome!

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