Urban water services

Fernando Morcillo Bernaldo de Quirós. President of the Spanish Association of Water Supply and Sanitation (AEAS)

I would like to begin by attempting to explain, very succinctly, the scope of the activities of urban water utilities. It may seem obvious but our experience is that citizens commonly lack information in this regard, including citizens with some knowledge of environmental affairs.

The majority of the population of developed, western societies is made up of urban dwellers, who are accustomed to executing an action that is very simple but one that is supported by a very complex activity; the action of opening a tap and instantly receiving a guaranteed flow of clean water, in perfect condition for consumption. And what seems even more magical, certainly less obvious and perhaps, to a certain extent, invisible for users, is the instantaneous disappearance of used dirty water, without our being aware of the great technical and economic efforts required to collect this water, transport it, treat it and return it to the aquatic environment in an eco-friendly condition.

We now know that urban water management is the sum and interaction of a number of partial services; the collection of natural water from available sources: surface water, ground water and seawater (desalination plants). In semi-arid regions, as is the case of the majority of Spanish territory, such collection requires huge storage facilities and these must be complemented by large intake and transportation networks in order to carry the water to large population centres and protect us from seasonal and weather-related variations.

Because raw water obtained from natural sources does not always comply with health standards, techniques, generally of a physicochemical nature, are applied to convert this vital liquid into a safe product fit for human consumption.

The techniques and procedures applied to the residential supply service make it possible to deliver water to our taps and points of consumption, while metering devices facilitate the assignation of costs and responsibilities to users of the service.

Once the water has been used, most of it is contaminated as a result of domestic cleaning, the carrying of our organic waste, and other commercial and industrial uses. Therefore, it needs to be collected and taken from our homes and centres of social interaction.  For this purpose, we have sewerage networks, which have formed the basic sanitation system in the most recent centuries of human history, as well as performing the complementary task of ensuring the drainage of impermeable urban surfaces.

Without wastewater treatment plants, we would not have adequate sanitation and we would subject our aquatic environment to unsustainable stress. Equipped as they are with physical, chemical and predominantly biological processes, these facilities facilitate the cleaning and recovery of contaminated effluents to convert them into discharges of appropriate quality to be returned to the aquatic environment.

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