What should be the focus of R&D&i in the Spanish water sector?

I now have over thirty years of university experience as a teacher and researcher in the field of hydrological engineering, and a few months ago I became the new President of the Spanish Water Technology Platform (PTEA). Having held a number of different R&D&i management positions, the question posed in the title of this article has become one of my leitmotifs, and it is also a PTEA leitmotif.

Félix Francés, President of the Spanish Water Technology Platform (PTEA)

R&D&i in the water sector in Spain has two contrasting faces. On the one hand, we have excellent research and innovation teams, largely due to the long history of water problems that have had to be overcome in this country. Problems related to both quantity and quality, and on all scales: from the management of a river basin or the treatment of urban wastewater, to the design of a drip system for localised irrigation. Proof of this is that, in our sector, Spain has received more investment in R&D&i and has led more European projects than any other country over the last decade. On the other hand, this is only a small portion of the investment in research in a country (10% in the case of Spain). If we add domestic public investment and that of companies themselves to what is received from Europe, our situation is very poor. Investment in R&D&i in Spain accounts for just 1.3% of GDP, compared to the European average of 2.1% and an average of 2.6% for the world’s most developed countries.

We are currently at a time of change and need for adaptation, and the water sector has a role to play in many aspects of this process. On a planetary scale we are facing the challenges of climate change and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, ten of which are directly or indirectly related to water. At European level, we are conditioned by the deployment of the Horizon Europe program, the European Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan and, more recently, the Recovery Plan associated with the socio-economic impact of Covid-19. This context must be (and indeed is) reflected in national R&D&i policy, but of course there is a wide margin for deciding what is best for our country.

A technology platform such as the PTEA should be the meeting point for all stakeholders with an interest in promoting R&D&i as a key element of technological modernisation and innovation in the water sector. The actors involved are companies, universities, technology centres and the public administration, the latter in that it is the main financing agent and holds the main responsibility for defining R&D&i investment policies at national level. The public administration is represented on the PTEA Board of Directors by the Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge (MITECO), the Spanish Agency for international Development Cooperation (AECI) and the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI). PTEA contributes to the definition of these national and European policies and promotes increased investment in R&D&i in the water sector.

Published in: Nº77 FuturENVIRO February – March 2021