This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call stressing the importance of a strong water sector that provides the right quantity and quality of water for everyone. Water is an essential but limited resource for our environment, industry and citizens. The post-pandemic world needs a new paradigm towards a Water-Smart Society, from crisis management to risk management and prevention in Europe and beyond. It is the only sustainable way to implement a full green recovery and build a resilient Europe for its citizens.
More on the Forum Network: A Future in the Balance: Will the recovery be Green? by Philippe Lamberts, MEP, European Parliament
Water can be a powerful catalyst for a crisis, such as floods, water scarcity and pollution, but it also brings invaluable benefits to a society and the economy. According to the WHO, the economic benefits of investing in water and sanitation are considerable: they include an overall estimated gain of 1.5% of global GDP, and approximately a EUR 4 return for every euro invested in water and sanitation services and a number of other sectors. Be not mistaken, investment is still essential in Europe: today, 23 million Europeans are not connected to public water supply system.
Framing the post-COVID-19 recovery plan within the European Green Deal and the digitalisation of Europe, the European Union has understood this necessity and has the support of citizens. Seventy-nine percent of them agree that tackling climate change will lead to innovation that will make European companies more competitive, and 70% agree that water-based activity can have positive effects for them.
The value of water remains too often under the radar, and this situation locks the hidden potential of this sector such as the valorisation and reuse of waste water.
However, the recent OECD report Financing Water Supply, Sanitation and Flood Protection: Challenges in EU Member States and Policy Options highlights that we need important investment simply to align with water-related standards in Europe. The value of water remains too often under the radar, and this situation locks the hidden potential of this sector such as the valorisation and reuse of waste water.
The recently adopted reuse regulation in agriculture, which I was responsible for in the European Parliament, is a first step. Moreover, we need to go beyond this by implementing water reuse in industrial processes to contribute to a fully circular economy. Only 2.4% of the treated urban waste water effluents are reused annually in Europe. It is a huge untapped potential for our society, particularly for the regions that suffer from water scarcity. The EU already has several solutions that simply need to be up-scaled.
Read the OECD Policy Response: COVID-19 and global food systems
The potential of waste water also includes the exploitation of energy and substances such as nutrients, minerals and chemicals embedded in used water streams. It is an opportunity to turn waste into resource by exploiting the value of water.
In the coming months, we need to update the 1991 Urban Waste Water Directive and make sure that this directive is fit for purpose to foster the green recovery.
These opportunities to reach our sustainable targets do not mean that we can forsake the necessity to tackle pollution at source. Urban runoffs, micro-plastics, pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants affect our ecosystem and health.
More on the Forum Network: Turning Fear into Hope: Corona crisis measures to help build a better future, Jeremy Wates
Secretary General, European Environmental Bureau
“Monitor, prevent and remedy” should be the motto to eliminate pollution for a better quality of life (water, soil, air), and restore the natural functions of ground and surface water.
Eighty percent of waste water flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused in today’s world. We therefore need to digitalise the sector and develop green-grey infrastructure to address diffused and emerging pollution and blunt the negative effects of the next crisis.
The Just Transition Fund and the Horizon Europe programme are two essential tools to support the development and the dissemination of innovative solutions, supporting the sector and citizens more widely to achieve a Water-Smart Society.
The lessons we are learning with this pandemic reinforce my conviction that water is at the heart of society: we need to consistently consider water management in EU legislation.