The public water services of the future
On 17 October 2019, Aqua Publica Europea, the European Association of Public Water Operators, launched its new publication 'The Public Water Services of the Future'. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the association proposes to outline the role that public water operators across Europe are undertaking, as actors of their communities, fully embedded into their environmental, social, economic and knowledge ecosystems, and striving to contribute to a sustainable future. Based on the long-term strategies and concrete actions of the member operators, the document addresses how they are preparing to address the great challenges of tomorrow and to harness opportunities.
Climate change, demographic and economic transformation, technological and behavioural change, all these multifaceted processes and their interrelation will affect both the availability of water resources and the way we use and share them.
Public water utilities will continue to have a fundamental responsibility in finding effective solutions that ensure a sustainable and equitable access to water resources for all. This responsibility entails – amongst other things – an incessant reflection on how the organisation of the water services should evolve to address current and future challenges.
This document aims to outline the profile of the public water service of the future, building on a collection of the long-term strategies of European public utilities members of Aqua Publica Europea. As we know, water is a localised natural resource; at the same time, the public ownership involves a very strong connection with the territory where the utility operates. The combination of these two dimensions explains the significant diversity of approaches and focuses that characterise the strategies reported in this document; a diversity that reflects the wealth of European traditions and cultures.
However, despite this variety, a common trend can be identified in the intellectual and practical efforts water operators are making to get fit for the future. Each in its own way, public water and sanitation operators are evolving from ‘service providers’ to ‘ecosystemic enterprises for sustainability’. Becoming ecosystemic enterprises means that, in order to continue fulfilling their core mission – ensuring sustainable access to water for all – water operators are expanding their domain of activities and competences with a sustainability compass.
In other words, water and sanitation operators are getting prepared to engage with all the articulations of sustainability – environmental, social, economic, scientific – so as to guarantee that the decisions and solutions that underpin the management of water resources will continue to serve the general interest of current and future generations.
Innovation – at large – is then the proper form that this evolutionary process takes within an utility. However, differently than for private companies, innovation is not a means to gain competitive advantages for profits. On the contrary, innovation is the condition to co-evolve with the rest of economy and society, to ‘stay tuned’ with a world and a nature that are changing, and to continue providing the service efficiently.
As ecosystemic enterprises, public water operators are open to the outside: transparency and engagement with the society are two essential features that substantiate the public mission. Beyond, public operators contribute with other actors and public administration to define the path of local sustainable development by making available their resources and know-how. Partnership and cooperation are then the two concrete modalities through which public operators engage with other stakeholders and other economic sectors to respond to societal needs. Their legitimacy to partake in the evolution of society comes from their not-for-profit nature and from their accountability only to elected officials and citizens.
Finally, their strong embedment in local and national contexts does not mean at all an inward-looking approach to water management. They are fully engaged in the international arena to confront themselves and learn the best practices from private and public entities. They also strive to contribute to the international debate on water and environmental policies by participating in, amongst others, in Aqua Publica Europea.
Download the report below.