The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted once more the importance of water and sanitation services for the public interest.
Historically, the significance of such services for public health and social well-being was acknowledged rather early, mostly as a result of action taken to tackle severe health crises (cholera epidemic, London 1854).
According to the WHO, water and sanitation services are defined as essential services for safeguarding human health. This entails that the continuity of their services must be guaranteed during periods of emergency and pandemic crises. It should be noted that all employees working in such services are considered essential workers and not only the frontline ones.
In contrast with widespread clichés on the efficiency of public enterprises and providers, the Covid-19 experience in the field of water services in Europe revealed important lessons and conclusions:
- The pandemic confirmed once again that water is a vital essential common good, which must not be managed through for profit-only criteria due to paramount reasons of public health and security.
- Public water providers have with great success delivered swiftly and efficiently against the various challenges caused by the crisis: the operation of infrastructures and networks was maintained and the employees’ health was protected, the water provision’s quality was safeguarded, specific attention was paid to social accessibility of services, effective support was provided to users through digital means.
- The employees in this sector are literally saving lives and quite rightly so are considered essential workers that should be encouraged to get involved in the decision making process regarding issues such as resource management for the continuing improvement of operations and services.
- The improvement of water services is the objective of innovative collaboration between public providers in Europe. These “public-public” partnerships demonstrate: a) a common objective in managing specific goods as European common goods, away from market rationale, common competition concepts and privatisation, b) the promotion of public providers as a source of best practices and an example of successful integration of the three pillars of sustainable development —economic, social and environmental— according to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Further development of such collaborations are of crucial importance if we are to face the challenges ahead:
- Prevention and management of future pandemics and crises
- Tackling the impacts of climate change (e.g. water shortage in Europe during the last three years)
- Protection of natural resources through water conservation and circular economy
- Effective application of digital technology in all aspects of operations (i.e., infrastructure, customer and user relations)
- Confronting the social aspects of the crisis and guaranteeing the quality and affordability of water services.
* Analysis (abstract) by Anita Papachristopoulou, Head of International Relations EYDAP (Athens Water Supply and Sewerage Company), Liaison officer of Aqua Publica Europea