Urban Water Sector Challenges

Retos del Sector Agua Urbana

Midway through 2022 is an appropriate time to take a brief look at the challenges facing the urban water sector, a very singular sector of vital importance in the daily lives of citizens and one that often goes unnoticed. 

AGA Asociación Española de Empresas de Agua Urbana

Months ago, at the beginning of the year, in this very journal, AGA published a brief assessment of pending issues to be addressed in 2022, some of the most important of which were:

  • The arrival of European funds
  • The creation of a specific Observatory for water at national level
  • Repercussions of labour law reforms on the urban water sector.
  • Evolution of the different Water Laws, at different stages of development, being proposed at regional level, and the coordination of these laws with both state legislation and local authority competence for drinking water and wastewater
  • Progress in the implementation of technical rather than political criteria for the adoption of appropriate water charges that enable full recovery of the costs associated with the services provided. 
  • Further professionalisation of the sector at an appropriate pace.
  • Improved communication between the different public authorities and the sector. 
  • Establishment on the part of the Spanish Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge of a coherent and uniform framework for the urban water sector that includes a public budget in line with the needs and challenges to be overcome in order to meet the 2030 Agenda.
  • Increased allocation of material and human resources to the Directorate General for Water and the different River Basin Organisations. 
  • Search for new financing solutions and permitting and facilitating all types of public-public, public-private or private-private partnerships.

Months have passed and this extensive list of pending issues has undergone little change. However, progress is being made and a small example of this is the last meeting of the Environmental Advisory Council (CAMA) held in April, which dealt with a large number of water-related issues, including:

  • Draft Royal Decree establishing the technical-health criteria for the supply and quality control of drinking water.
  • Draft Royal Decree approving the review of flood risk management plans.
  • Draft Royal Decree approving the review of river basin management plans
  • Draft Royal Decree setting out regulations for the installation of floating photovoltaic plants in the public water domain
  • Agreement declaring new water reserves in inter-regional river basin districts.
  • Strategic Project for Economic Recovery and Transformation (PERTE) on Digitalisation of the Urban Water Cycle

Three of the above-mentioned points are deserving of special emphasis.

A nationwide agreement that sets a serious, long-term roadmap to cover the shortfall in investment in the urban water sector, currently estimated at 50% of what would be needed annually. In this respect, a long-term approach is needed, and one that is, therefore, independent of the political party heading the institutions at a given time. It is, of course, necessary to adopt a logical approach to optimising the use of European funds, so that a significant percentage is allocated to essential public services, the urban water sector being amongst the best examples. 

Immediate start-up of the strategic project (PERTE) for the Digitalisation of the Urban Water Cycle, which has already been ratified but has yet to begin. Although it covers only one of the investment needs outlined, this project will unquestionably provide a very significant boost to the sector. Another important aspect to be addressed in this project is the creation of a new entity, the “Observatory”, which has yet to be defined in terms of operation, composition, functions, etc. 

Final approval of the Draft Royal Decree establishing the technical and health criteria for the supply and quality control of drinking water. Once approved, this Royal Decree will be of great significance. Not only will it address purely technical aspects, but also many others areas associated with the professionalisation of the sector. It will, therefore, have implications for the studies, accreditations, qualifications, etc. required for those wishing to work in this sector.

As can be seen, there are many challenges ahead. If properly addressed, these challenges can represent great opportunities for progress in the sector in terms of comprehensive professionalisation and attracting investment. But all this must be done at an adequate pace, which allows us to respond to the existing challenges in a manner that we all expect from this sector.

Let us hope that the coming months, prior to the year end, will see a major drive in all these areas and result in a direct positive effect on a sector that offers what is, to a very large degree, stable and permanent employment to over 30,000 people in Spain.