Key challenges for the water Sector

20 April 2015, European Parliament

Carlos Moedas - Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation

Check Against Delivery

Esther, Honourable Members, dear colleagues, Thank you very much for inviting me to join you this evening.

I have a deep and long-standing interest in the issues we are discussing. As you may know, in the early stages of my career, I worked on drinking water and wastewater quality control. I think that this give me a good insight into what is needed to safeguard the central role that water plays in our daily life, in the environment and in the economy.

The experience also taught me two important lessons:

First, water is connected to many different policy areas. All those who use it, depend on it, and influence its quality, should be involved in its management. This is why I strongly support this European Parliament Water Group. It provides a platform for all those with an interest in water, and it provides a forum for discussing the systemic solutions that are needed to the systemic challenges around water. I am committed to ensuring that research and innovation are part of the discussions and part of the solutions.

The second lesson I learned is the importance of looking ahead. Water challenges cannot be solved in just a few years. The floods and droughts that we have seen in recent years are not one-off events. The causes are numerous and complex, including years decades of economic development based on the unsustainable use of natural resources and mismanagement, exacerbated by population growth and the impact of climate change.

Water quality is still not close to where it should be. New substances end up in our waters, posing risks to public health and the environment, with pollutants and litter ending up in our oceans. By 2030, demand for water is forecast to outstrip supply by 40%. And before we even consider that, billions of people are still without access to safe drinking water or sanitation. It is hardly surprising that the World Economic Forum made water the number one risk in terms of impact, in its global risks report of 2015.

I see a number of other developments on the horizon. I see citizens becoming more vocal, demanding greater involvement in water management, and with the tools to do so. Technologies will help gather data on their water use and water quality. I see our cities becoming smarter. Urban management is being transformed, connecting services, infrastructures, industries and people. Water will remain the 'nervous system' of the city, transporting waste, and pathogens sometimes, but cities will also benefit from nature-based solutions that mitigate extreme weather and offer recreation.

I see industry transformed, moving towards a circular economy and bringing manufacturing back to Europe. This spurs a need for more efficient use of water in industry, the recovery of resources and energy, and lower levels of water pollution.

I see a Europe that is becoming highly digitalized - digitalization provides huge amounts of data to improve water management. But we need to ensure that we can properly analyse this data and put it to good use. An excellent example is the work of MIT's SENSEable City Lab to develop the technologies for a smart sewage system that would analyse the biological data on human health and behaviour that runs through the waste water beneath our feet.

But most importantly, I see opportunities - opportunities to capitalize on these developments. How do we do all this?

We need to seize on these societal and economic trends and integrate them into our solutions. And the ability to do this rests partly on maintaining Europe's position as a global leader in water research and innovation. We boast an impressive track record at European level when it comes to water: the 7th Framework Programme invested on average more than 130 million euros per year in water research, across more than 700 projects. In Horizon 2020's current work programme for 2014 and 2015, 163 million euros are earmarked for investment in water research and innovation. The total investment in water will of course be greater across the whole programme.

Funding research and innovation remains a priority, but it must keep pace with changes in demand and prepare better for the future. We will continue to support various water platforms, such as the Joint Programming Initiative and work closely with fora such as the European Innovation Partnership and the Water Supply and Sanitation Platform.  I am eager to see synergies better articulated to increase impact. And working with large scale demonstration projects should allow for integrated projects, to test systemic approaches and solutions across various disciplines and various economic sectors

Late last year we launched a call for ideas for large scale demonstration projects in the areas of water, the circular economy, nature based solutions and climate services. We are now analysing the submissions and will use them as the basis for the further development of calls under the 2016/2017 work programme. This work programme will see a different approach. Water will be addressed more widely across the entire Horizon 2020 structure, and better integrated in the different research and innovation priorities. The water sector can also benefit from new Horizon 2020 financial instruments, such as the SME instrument, the Fast Track to Innovation or the risk-finance instruments.

At the same time, we need to work to improve the framework conditions for innovation. Therefore, we are investigating how to combine the large scale demonstration projects with regulatory innovation. For example, building on experiences in some Member States, we could envisage allocating a space within large-scale demonstration projects to stress-test regulatory frameworks in a practical manner.

The 'regulatory innovation space' would only apply to the demonstration or testing phase, not to the further roll-out of solutions, but it would clarify where the regulatory framework may require evolution in order to promote workable solutions. Investing in work programmes, removing barriers − these are essential steps, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. The Commission is doing a lot more and I'm glad to have you with us on this journey.

As I mentioned in the European Parliament's plenary session last December, I have committed myself to the PRIMA joint programme - the Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area - addressing food security in the areas most vulnerable to water scarcity. As announced at the March Competitiveness Council, I have asked my services to initiate an Article 185 procedure based on the PRIMA proposal.

And before I finish, I want to mention the European Fund for Strategic Investment. It's vitally important to unlock more private and public investments in the field of water innovation. EFSI is a very promising vehicle in this respect, coupled with the improvement of framework conditions for investment. So, I call on the water sector to exploit this new opportunity to the greatest extent.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention. I look forward to continuing to the rest of our discussion tonight, and to working closely with the European Parliament, and with the many other stakeholders involved, to ensure that we solve our water challenges through research and innovation.

Thank you.