On the occasion of the World Water Day on 22 March, the Institute for Alternative Policies ENA publishes an interview with the President of the European Association of Public Water Operators, Aqua Publica Europea (APE) and VIVAQUA (public water provider of Brussels), Bernard van Nuffel.

What are the lessons learned from the Covid–19 pandemic regarding the role of water services? What are the impacts of climate change on water resources and services and how these can be effectively addressed? Which are the benefits and comparative advantages of ongoing partnerships between public providers in contrast with privatisation and competition? In which areas public providers need to focus so as to further improve their economic as well as their social and environmental performance? Why the current attempted reforms in the Greek water sector are not in line with international best practices?

1. Public water operators have been established as pivotal actors of public health during the pandemic. What kind of challenges have they confronted and which are the lessons learned?

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out last spring, water utilities were among those actors that experienced and managed a high level of pressure to ensure the continuity of an essential service, while guaranteeing the safety of workers, in a context characterised by heightened uncertainty and heavy limitations to normal operability. In a matter of days (sometimes hours), water utilities had to completely rethink the way they operate to adapt to this exceptional situation.

I am happy to say that, thanks to relentless dedication of operators’ staff and by relying on existing risk management plans, operators succeeded in addressing these challenges and, at least among Aqua Publica’s members, we have recorded no case of interruption of the service due the difficulties related to the pandemic.

Of course, especially at the beginning, nobody was fully confident about the measures to be taken, as this emergency was completely unprecedented. It is for this reason that, immediately after the first lockdown measures were adopted in Italy and then France and Spain, we organized a series of webinars within Aqua Publica to allow operators to exchange experiences and solutions to common problems. I am sure that this work helped all operators to strengthen their contingency plan and acquire confidence, especially the smaller ones that, differently from big operators, cannot rely on the wealth of specialized skills that risk management involves.

All these experiences and lessons learnt have been collected in a publication that has been subsequently shared for free with other utilities outside Europe with the support of UN. In the conclusions of this publication, we remind that the Greek word ‘crisis’ contains the notions of both challenge and opportunity, and this is certainly the case for this pandemic. On the one hand, public water operators can proudly say that have successfully managed a difficult situation thanks to their internal capacity and skills.

In the future, like during the most acute moments of the pandemics, collaboration and solidarity among public utilities will remain the key to address the common challenges. As public operators, we have indeed no interest to hide or keep the individual success or improvement just for ourselves.

On the other side, the crisis has also pointed to some areas where we will have to work and improve in the future: from the impact of remote working to the role of workers’ participation in decision-making processes, from the increase digitalisation of services to the evolution of financing models, all these dimensions will continue to evolve and impact the industrial structure of water utilities (like of many other sectors).

2. How water operators have been tackling issues concerning water shortage resulting from the recent drought conditions in northern and central Europe?

The droughts that occurred in northern and central Europe in recent years were so severe and unusual that, in some contexts, drastic contingency measures had to be introduced, including the reduction of water supply for some not essential uses, including in agriculture.

Water operators and river basin’s authorities in southern European countries are probably more prepared to tackle this issue and, indeed, within Aqua Publica some operators from the “North” asked for advice to colleagues from the Mediterranean area (including Eydap) about which emergency measures work better.

However, we must be clear that these emergency responses cannot be a sustainable solution. The European Union has been encouraging – also through new legislation – water efficiency measures, including water reuse in agriculture.

This is certainly an important element of a strategy that has to address the impact of climate change on water resources in the long term, but it is not enough.

Extreme weather events – floods and droughts – will increasingly impact the quality of life in our societies: while industrial and technological solution can help a lot, they cannot solve all problems. The magnitude of these problems needs a collective political response to be addressed.

Water operators have obviously an important responsibility in this: the impact of climate change needs to be fully integrated in their strategies to then produce responses that ensure a sustainable use of water resources in the long term. In particular, public water operators – that are not conditioned by short-term profit-making objectives – have the possibility and the duty to propose real long-term solutions that are the most cost-effective for current and future generations.

But the efforts of water operators will not be sufficient if other policies and sectors do not play their part. Urban and territorial planning has to evolve quickly to reduce soil sealing and adopt water retention measures based on natural solutions (‘urban greening’) that mitigate the impact of both floods and heat waves. Some economic sectors, in particular agriculture, have to do more to reduce their water consumption: solutions exist already.

Last but not least, all major policy areas need to carefully integrate their potential impact on water resources, including those policies that are specifically designed to fight global warming. An example: the UE and many governments are focusing and investing on green hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels: well, green hydrogen requires a lot of water.

3. Many international organisations and institutions have been systematically praising for more than 30 years privatisation and market liberalisation as key-structural reforms for enhancing economic efficiency and consumer welfare. Public operators have been stigmatised as an outdated and inherently inefficient business model belonging to the past. How the operation of public operators contradicts this view?

First, let me say that this view is constantly contradicted by thousands of citizens and politicians around the world who have decided in last twenty years to bring water management back in public hands. From the remunicipalisation of water services in Paris and Berlin, to the referendum in Italy that abolished by a large majority a law privatizing water services, there is a worldwide wave of reaction to these policies (a large literature exists taking stock of the countless cases of republicisation).

We believe that this wave is triggered by quite a simple reason: these liberalization policies for the water sector essentially failed to deliver what promised in terms of efficiency, and they failed because grounded on wrong, ideological assumptions.

The ‘efficiency through competition argument’ obviously does not work for the water sector, as it is a natural monopoly: the water I get from my tap is exactly the same my neighbour leaving in the flat above me gets; and it cannot be otherwise.

Entrusting a natural monopoly of a resource that is essential for life to a private operator with a profit-maximisation objective is hardly a good way to ensure equitable access to the resource.

What is more, if we consider that the number of ‘competing’ private water operators is extremely small and that contracts for water resources management are necessarily long term (20 years and more), all the competition argument is very difficult to justify.

This is not to say, of course, that all public operators are by definition better and efficient. Based on my experience as President of Aqua Publica, I can say that all operators have something to learn from others, an area where they can improve.

Aqua Publica was created exactly for this: to help operators to learn from each other’s, to improve via cooperation, which is the most effective way in a sector where, once again, the competition dynamic cannot work.

What I can say is that one thing is sure: public administration, as compared to the staff of big private multinational, has less chance to be exposed to international best practices, to learn from what others do in other countries. This asymmetry needs to be corrected for the quality of services public administration must provide, as exposure to international best practices is certainly a condition to improve productivity and efficiency.

4. What are the main elements and drivers of a progressive and efficient public water management based on the best practices of APE’s members (regarding e.g. accessibility of water services, innovation, transparency, accountability, participation of users and staff)? 

This question would deserve a long answer. Within Aqua Publica, members are actively cooperating – through our Working Groups – on issues such as innovation, performance, affordability, customer care, capacity development for employees, gender equality, participatory approaches, and many others.

All these are important aspects that contribute to address a more general challenge that we described in a publication for the 10 years of our association and that can be summarized in these terms: reconciling the three imperatives that guide our action, namely financial sustainability, environmental sustainability and universal access to water and sanitation. It is a real challenge as these imperatives sometimes pull in different directions.

However, if I have to single out the real driver that push public operators to a constant improvement of their work is the awareness of the crucial public mission they bear, and which once again emerged strongly during the pandemic. As my predecessor – Célia Blauel, President of Eau de Paris – used to say: the shareholders of public water operators are all the citizens.

The staff of public operators – from the top management to the youngest employee – is aware that they perform an activity that is crucial for collective wellbeing and health and they do so for the benefit of all without distinction. This is a great responsibility and a wonderful source of motivation. It is also a condition that requires innovative forms of accountability of participation: public operators first respond to the elected officials that are politically responsible of ensuring a proper management of water resources.

But it is responsibility of water operators – as public industry – to keep the door open to the dialogue directly with civil society as, let’s say, and additional source not only of control but also of inspiration for our work.

5. “Bringing the voice of public water operators into EU and international policy-making” is one of the three main fields of APE’s activity. What is the feedback of APE at the EU level and more specifically from the European Commission and other European institutions?

Our objective is to develop a dialogue with European institutions starting from the concrete, on-the-ground, experience of our members.

We try to provide a feedback to legal proposals or questions coming the EU based on what we experience every day in our activity: so, our responses have the ambition to be very ‘factual’ and free from ‘hidden agendas’ or economic interest.

I think our contribute is appreciated by the Institutions, and nowadays we are part of the main ‘technical groups’ that advise the European Commission, and we have a regular dialogue with many other institutions and stakeholders.

Then, of course, in Brussels many other stakeholders are present, each with its perspective and interests and with some of them from time to time we engage in nice and – let’s say – passionate discussions. We think all interests are legitimate, as long as the contexts in which they are discussed are open, transparent, and the political orientation or objective that determines a certain choice by the Institutions is clearly stated.

6. Recently, the government announced that the management of the dams and aqueducts of EYDAP Assets will be granted to a public-private partnership. Up to now this has been the task of EYDAP SA who also overview and designed these works. Is this attempted reform in line with the best practices in Europe? What are the risks if this regime is implemented on the management of the natural resource?

I have not enough knowledge of the planned reforms in Greece to express an evaluation.

What I can say is that nowhere in Europe (and, to knowledge, almost nowhere in the world) essential water-related assets (such us networks or dams) are in private hands or, in any case, expected to generate profits.

Even when private entities are involved in the financing, construction or management of water infrastructures, their property always remains fully in public hands.

The reasons for this widely dominant regime are, to me, quite simple: these infrastructures serve the general interest as every one needs an equitable access to water resources and, primary, these infrastructures need to ensure the fulfillment of the human right to water and sanitation, as recognized by the United Nation.

Only a democratically elected political power can decide about the use and the exploitation of these infrastructures in the interest of its citizens. If these infrastructures were subject to profit-making logics, we would run the risk that their exploitation is oriented towards those uses or those categories of users who can pay more. The right to water but even the protection of the environment could be seriously threatened.

Again, I don’t know the contents of the proposed reforms but let me just remind the fact that Water Framework Directive establishes for the EU that “Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such”.

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