Sustainable EU cities require integrated urban water management

Urban water management should be an integral part of the emerging EU policy-making for sustainable cities, informed by an EU urban water policy framework that coordinates EU policies affecting urban water management, according to a new EU commissioned study.

The newly available EC-commissioned METRON study, Metropolitan areas and sustainable use of water, has investigated the current state of urban water management with the aim of establishing strategies for its sustainable management in the future.

With 80% of the population in the EU living in cities that have increasing demands on water resources encroaching well beyond the city boundaries, the research was initiated to take account of environmental issues and likely future needs. This coincides with a time of fundamental change in water management that includes increasing privatisation of the industry, the introduction of new technology and new environmental demand pressures for “wise-water” usage.

The need for a framework to coordinate EU urban water policy was highlighted by identification of current conflicts in policy, particularly in development funding for new water management projects. For instance, European Structural Funds, which supported the recent developments of the drinking water supply systems of cities such as Athens and Seville, were focused on bringing socio-economic benefits without taking into account potential disincentives for water resource conservation.

Closer policy coordination is particularly urgent following the introduction of the Water Framework Directive, which clearly requires compliance with ecological standards, but often involves co-financing by European Structural Funds. METRON also recommends a shift of emphasis to conservation/demand-side approaches, with new authorisation criteria requiring integration of environmental assessments.

Among technical developments, which are likely to be significant in the coming years, are dual piping systems to enable use of waters of different quality by households, such as Amsterdam’s Ijburg residential development.

Costing and Pricing of Water Services

Pricing incentives to encourage efficient use of water resources are already an element of the Water Framework Directive. The EC has been developing an initiative for the implementation of this provision, but there is still much to be done in this area, according to METRON. It warns against attempting to value a ‘full cost’ of water in its different uses, and suggests instead, the emphasis should be on socially acceptable, conservation-oriented tariff systems that incorporate affordability concerns early in their design.

Reference is made to US guidelines to utilities for designing and implementing a water conservation programme, drawn up by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA uses a practical step-by-step document as benchmark to evaluate whether utilities are really implementing water conservation programmes. The assessment is also used when approving public financing of water works or new abstraction licenses.

It is not yet clear to what extent the Council and Commission intend to develop a policy of liberalisation and mandatory introduction of competition for water services within the EU, say the METRON researchers. The METRON position is that a mandatory EU-wide liberalisation of water services is not advisable from a broader sustainability perspective. “Different organisational arrangements fit different local conditions and it should be at the discretion of national and urban authorities to select between these,” says the report.

The programme involved a multi-disciplinary consortium including four university research teams: the University of the Aegean, Free University of Amsterdam, University of Tel Aviv, and the University of Oxford; as well as the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies – an EC research centre; and one municipal water company, EMASESA, at Seville. Analysis focused on key urban water supply issues, case-study city research and cross-comparative analyses of a diverse sample of five metropolitan areas: Amsterdam, Athens, London, Seville and Tel Aviv. EC funding was under the Environment and Climate programme of DG XII, “Human dimension of environmental change”.

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