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Why is EU water-related research needed? This is an important question, one that will be answered on these pages of the website.

Overall policy objective

Sustainable development requires water. Water is an essential resource for human life, for the economy and for ecosystems. However, more than 1.2 billion people still do not have access to safe drinking water and over 2.4 billion lack basic sanitation. The need to focus on this issue has been strongly affirmed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (2002) that fixed clear targets for halving this dramatic situation by 2015. As a consequence, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development has also put water supply and sanitation as two of its three priorities for 2004-2005.

However, the problem is not limited to the developing world. Pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, damage to the aquatic ecosystems, climate and global change, and security aspects are challenging the sustainability of European water systems, prompting the need for huge investment. Advanced water technologies, powerful management tools, monitoring, automation and control systems, as well as improved source control instruments are essential to cope with a demanding integrated water management framework.

Climate change and the growing habitation of vulnerable areas are dramatically increasing the risk of flood damage, especially in urban areas, worldwide. The Commission document, entitled the ‘Environmental Technology Action Plan’, has identified water supply and sanitation technologies as a potential topic to be supported through a European Technology Platform. This Platform should develop – among the key stakeholders – a strategic vision for the development of sustainable water supply and sanitation technologies, with a medium-to-long time frame in order to define a common research agenda and implementation plan. The Platform should also address other barriers to innovation that slow down the deployment and take-up of new technologies.

In this specific context, the term ‘water technologies’ has to be taken in its broadest meaning. Water saving techniques, prevention and reuse approaches, clean processes, end-of-pipe treatments, system design, IT-tools for management, monitoring and control systems, flood forecasting techniques, ecological engineering, appropriate technologies, desalination, etc. should all be embraced. And they should also carry with them the framework conditions – institutional settings and governance – to be effectively deployed.

The overall objective of a shared vision on water research will be to face the global challenge of ensuring safe and secure water supply for different uses and sanitation services through the development of sustainable technologies within the appropriate framework conditions.

Europe’s position in a global context

European water enterprises are world leaders in delivering water services. However, European technology providers and engineering companies have to face very strong competition. European research on water technologies is of very high quality, but the sector’s expenditure on research still remains low in comparison with the full scope of the water market. 

The world faces huge economic and social challenges in supplying water and sanitation to billions of people. To address this economic challenge, and the need to develop the world water market, long-term ‘visionary’ research activities are essential, research which is capable of producing a step-change in the water system towards sustainable solutions. Climate change is further threatening the availability of clean freshwater resources in many parts of the world. These challenges can only be tackled through a wide and concerted public-private effort.

Research activities – at European, national and local levels – in the water field have been supported for many years, both publicly and privately, particularly in more industrialised countries. More convergence and efficiency is definitely necessary, mobilising critical resources to deliver competitively priced tools and solutions to the European water industry and to consumers.

Research and development activities in FP5 poured about €100 million into water technology areas. Water technology related topics in FP6 were spread across a few priorities and were, initially, allocated a smaller budget than in FP5. After the approval of the Environmental Technology Action Plan, more substantial actions on water technologies were introduced in the FP6 work programme for the ‘Global change and ecosystems’ priority (6.3).

The problem of fragmentation – and likely unavoidable duplication – of research activities being undertaken simultaneously via national, regional and local initiatives, and backed by public- and private-sector funding, needs to be addressed. This could be done through a common vision and the setting up and adoption of a strategic research agenda and action plan which give due attention to addressing the existing barriers to the effective diffusion of new technologies.

Many international and European water associations and networks currently exist, but their specific driving forces are diverse, varying from research to industrial interests. A shared platform, bringing together all the key actors, will be an excellent opportunity to overcome such obstacles.

Primary justification for action

Today’s water system, infrastructure-intensive and capital-demanding as it is, was conceived centuries ago and grew slowly because of limited capacity to adapt technologically. Growing populations worldwide, economic development and increasing degradation of clean freshwater resources make this system unsustainable for the world of tomorrow. Competition between water users and sectors is a growing potential source of conflicts which will bear powerful political and socio-economic consequences. The impact of climate change is exacerbating this scenario, either because of water scarcity in many parts of the world – particularly in large metropolitan areas – or because of increasing flood risks. There is a growing need for new security means requiring new technologies and new management systems.

In 2002, the worldwide market for water and wastewater totalled more than €250 billion, and analysts foresee an overall growth rate of 18% by 2005, and up to 60% by 2010. The World Bank has ongoing commitments of about €17 billion in water projects. And the more than 300 European Investment Bank (EIB) loans for water and sanitation projects totalled about €8.3 billion over the past five years.

The European water sector is a major economic player (1% of the EU-15 GDP) that has many positive impacts, both socio-economic and environmental. In recent years, the turnover of this sector (about €80 billion in the EU) grew by an average of 5% per year compared with an average of 2.5% economic growth. In addition, employment in this sector grew faster than turnover, at a rate of between 6 and 7% per year.

Worldwide market for water

Water policy is a large part of European environmental legislation. Today, regulation is a major driver of investment. In particular, the requirements of the Drinking Water Directive, the Urban Wastewater Directive – particularly for the new Member States – and the implementation of the Water Framework Directive will necessitate massive investment in the water sectors of the EU-25, requiring a considerable portion of the Regional Funds to upgrade and extend water supply and sanitation systems, and to bring water ecosystems up to the appropriate ecological and chemical standards.

Demand for water services on the international markets has been covered successfully by some of the major European water service providers, a position that should be strengthened and consolidated. It is expected that, if the trend of concentration and globalisation in this sector will continue, by 2015 less than 20 large operators may control 50% of private participation in the world water market.

The European water industry is working in a competitive worldwide market, where the major drivers of success are finance, technology, internationalisation and attention to user needs. However, to face future challenges, additional effort and investment in research are required to foster international competitiveness. Development of new and cost-effective technologies is vital in the water market, which is increasingly considering and integrating environmental externalities and energy aspects.

At the global level, the objectives set in Johannesburg – to halve by 2015 the number of people without access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation – have to be achieved. There is a growing awareness that Johannesburg’s water-related objectives are of fundamental importance for the success of poverty reduction strategies. For this, the EU has launched the EU Water Initiative, and it has created a €1 billion EU Water Facility for Africa and ACP countries.

The simple transfer of existing consolidated ‘Western’ technologies would be too costly with respect to the possibility of mobilising public and private financial resources, and would lead to unsustainable consumption of water resources. Setting up partnerships should not only help broaden the financial support base, but should lead – through better access to knowledge – to wider access to appropriate technologies and technological services. The promotion of technological innovation and public awareness worldwide will help remove barriers limiting the potential diffusion of new sustainable technologies.

EU research activities should aim to address both problems at home and problems faced by other regions of the world, knowing that any research findings in the broad field of water can help reduce the cost and improve the quality, safety and long-term sustainability of water resources. It could also cut the time needed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, thus freeing up financial resources for other objectives.

Only through a broad and co-operative public-private partnership can stakeholders assemble the critical mass of willingness and resources to face one of the most critical challenges of the new Millennium.

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